We’ve come out of the pandemic changed in many ways – we’ve quarantined, shopped local, and learned all about proper masking. But one way we may be forever changed is with hybrid working arrangements.
So much so, remote work is actually more common now than ever before. As of 2022, 26% of U.S. employees now work remotely, which is four times the amount of people who worked remotely prior. Furthermore, it’s estimated that by 2025, there could be as many as 36.2 million Americans working remotely.
But with any abrupt change, there comes growing pains. Dr. Paul White, from Appreciation at Work, has conducted research on this very topic. He and his team have identified key issues with hybrid work, why they arise, and how to handle them.
In case you missed our webinar with Dr. White, catch the replay here. Or read the interview summary below.
Interview with Dr. Paul White
How many companies were remote/hybrid pre-pandemic? How many are now?
The proportion of workers who were remote had been steadily increasing prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. About 30% were working at least one day/week from home (which we would now call “hybrid”). Less than 10% were working fully remotely.
Researchers state that currently over 40% of employees work some of their week remotely, while about 25% are working full-time as remote employees.
What are the biggest challenges associated with the surge of remote/hybrid workers?
The rapid influx of large numbers of remote and hybrid employees has created significant challenges in communication patterns among team members, the process of onboarding and training, and tensions across different types of workers – some of whom (for example, doctors and nurses) are usually not able to work remotely while others in their organization (accounting, administration) are.
What is site bias and how can managers and employees fight it?
Site bias refers to the preference managers tend to develop for onsite employees. While this bias may be naturally occurring and unconscious in professional relationships, it’s important to address.
Especially because managers sometimes will make decisions in favor of employees who work onsite (vs. remotely). These decisions might include promoting, giving raises, or assigning special tasks to those who they see in-person daily, in contrast to those they interact with remotely.
Because of the significant impact site bias can have, managers need to be aware of this tendency and take conscious steps to avoid it – like having regular check-ins with remote employees, including them in teambuilding, and asking for their input. Remote employees as well need to battle this by putting forth extra effort to participate, communicate, and “be seen” frequently by their supervisors. "Out of sight, out of mind” isn’t only a saying; it is a true principle.
Are remote workers at a higher risk for layoffs?
Employees who work remotely are actually at a much higher risk for quitting than their onsite colleagues. That is the challenge that leaders and managers should be worried about. If you don’t develop ways to stay connected with your team members, their tenure is likely to be short.
Employee engagement is possibly more important now more than ever, yet engaging in a remote or hybrid environment can be particularly difficult. What should leaders do to ignite engagement?
The practical definition of disengagement is for the employee to be there physically but not mentally or emotionally engaged in what they’re doing. And unfortunately, the percentage of employees who are engaged continues to drop (now, at 32%).
People differ in what draws them in to be emotionally engaged in their work – understanding why what they’re doing is important, having input in decisions that directly affect them, and feeling valued by others (and not just for what they get done).
I think some leaders resist addressing these issues because “we didn’t have to do this to motivate people in the past.” But the fact is, the realities of the workplace have changed, and either we adjust to them, or we suffer the consequences (poor quality work and high levels of staff turnover).
It can be difficult to feel connected to company culture while remote. How can leaders foster a strong company culture in a remote/hybrid world?
This is a major challenge for organizations. “Culture” is essentially the amalgamation of hundreds and thousands of individual actions and perceptions; it develops over time as a result of all of the interactions between team members.
When the number of interactions are reduced (as occurs with remote employees), it is more difficult for the employees to discern what the culture really is. It is sort of like looking at a faint image of picture – you think you know what it is, but you are not sure.
A way to fight against an ambiguous culture is to actively prioritize building a culture. This can include virtual teambuilding events, pulse surveys to gauge sentiment, and making recognition an integral part of your values.
Are younger workers, who entered the workforce during the pandemic and have never worked in an office full-time, at a disadvantage of any kind?
Great question! Yes, definitely. It is like any experience – if you have never “been there and done that,” you are not sure what the expectations are, which can oftentimes raise people’s anxiety.
This is helpful to remember for those hiring younger employees – that they really don’t have a context for what is expected and need to be taught both the formal and informal rules of work.
What role does onboarding play in our hybrid world?
Onboarding remote and hybrid workers is a major challenge facing HR professionals and organizational leaders. There needs to be more intentional instruction and less reliance on “they’ll catch on” – because they may not have anyone to observe!
This is not only true for tasks but also relates to company culture and values – new hires will need to be taught these overtly because there is not a lot of opportunity for them to be “caught.”
Can companies still do corporate wellness programs in a remote or hybrid environment? How?
This is not my area of expertise. However, I can say that one of the key factors differentiating remote employees who struggled during Covid with mental health issues (primarily depression and loneliness) from those who managed the stress more successfully was staying relationally connected with their colleagues at a personal level.
We have largely solved the challenges of communicating with one another about work-related tasks while being in different locations. Remote employees do better in the areas of emotional and relational health when they stay connected personally with their friends from work (not just communicating about work-related tasks).
With talks of a recession looming, is employee appreciation/recognition still relevant today?
Three of the most important issues to employers are retention, recruitment, and remote employees. All three of these issues are directly impacted by whether or not team members feel valued and appreciated.
In fact, many leaders are now saying that having effective appreciation and recognition programs are no longer “nice to have” but having a strategic appreciation/recognition plan that is implemented across the organization will differentiate those companies that succeed and those that cease to exist.
How has employee recognition changed since the pandemic?
It is my impression from talking to and working with HR professionals across a wide range of organizations that they are struggling in knowing how to adjust their recognition activities to the new remote/hybrid work environments.
And with the recent data showing that employee disengagement is at a nine-year high and employee engagement at a similar lowest level, it is evident that “doing more of the same” isn’t going to get the results needed.
Recognition today needs to be easy and fun to give, accessible to deskless and remote employees, and embedded into the company culture – meaning, it’s given frequently, publicly, and genuinely.
Are there any trends in recognition leaders should know about?
We recently completed a series of studies published in Strategic HR Review, both during and since the primary pandemic hit. We found that the appreciation language of Quality Time is desired more by remote employees than their onsite colleagues.
Also, the younger the employee, the more important Quality Time is to them – with an important caveat. They don’t necessarily desire time with their supervisor or manager, but instead want more time with their colleagues and peers (like going out to lunch or after work together).
How have employees’ needs/issues changed since the pandemic? (i.e., increased burnout, low engagement, etc.)
Parallel to what has been found in the population at large, employees currently have significant struggles with loneliness and social anxiety – which is a difficult combination. People feel alone yet are anxious about how to interact and build relationships with others.
Employers and organizational leaders can help in this area by providing structured ways for employees to begin to interact with one another (face-to-face, as much as possible) – both with individuals and small group meetings.