A Research Paper By Diana Osak, Executive Coach, POLAND
Hybrid Work Environment Definition
The definition of a hybrid work environment differs from research to research. Some of them talk about allowing employees to experience a variety of sites, schedules, or even jobs; others talk about the combination of remote work with in-person job experience in a physical location. One thing is evident: the hybrid work concept is still in the shaping stage and many companies today are not able to state clearly what it will look like in the future. What it means for employees, is more flexibility and a wider spectrum of options to choose from. If designed right, the hybrid work environment could be aligned to employees’ lifestyles, personal preferences, or even future life plans.
Many of us experienced work-on-site (pre-COVID) and remote work (during COVID). Hybrid work seems to be a safe mix of both options. The answer to some questions, still seems to be unclear: Where is the line between remote and hybrid work environment? How will the companies ensure equal rights between different levels of the hybrid workforce? Who will decide on the employee’s hybrid schedule (HR department or the manager)? What changes need to be introduced to current employees’ contracts?
At the beginning of 2021 McKinsey & Company surveyed over 5 thousand of its employees asking about the desired model of work. These results were later compared with the pre-COVID working preferences. Only 37% of employees declared they want to work fully in on-site location compared to 62% in the pre-COVID era. 11% of surveyed wanted to stay fully remote and the biggest amount of the respondents 52% chose a more flexible hybrid working model. In summary, the respondents changed their working preferences shifting mainly towards a hybrid work environment.
This and much other research are the confirmation that the employees, who experienced home-based work are more eager than before the pandemic to shift to a hybrid working model and leave behind fully onsite work.
Positive and Negative Aspects of Remote Work
During COVID many companies were suddenly pushed to switch to the remote work environment. After some time, these organizations started to identify the benefits of a home office. Recruiters could select new candidates from a wider pool of applicants, who were not necessarily tight to the department location. Remote work also brought the benefit for the job seekers, who were no longer asked to relocate. Companies, which switched to remote work also saved on operating costs. Some of them decided to shrink their rental space or entirely close the offices, reducing this way the ongoing payments, such as electricity, water, cleaning services, etc. Some employees claimed that work from home helped them in work-life balance. It reduced their travel time to the physical location and brought the comfort of working from home or even other locations.
On the negative side of remote work, companies listed few challenges. One of them was higher cybersecurity risks. In the Open VPN study,90% of IT professionals believe remote workers are not secure and 54% of respondents believe that remote employees bring higher security risks than on-site workers. Since the start of COVID and the shift towards the home office, many companies implemented additional security training and updated security policies.
The second challenge in the remote workplace is leadership deficiency. It is especially visible among leaders, who have experience managing on-site (not remote) teams. In the era of hybrid work, there is a need to change their communication style and adapt to a new virtual way of interaction. In Harvard Business Review, Kalle Heikkinen, William Kerr, Mika Malin, and PanuRoutila list four key “imperatives” that leaders need to be able to overcome while managing hybrid teams: inequality of roles and tasks, the importance of nuances in people management, creating solid central guidance and having crisis-proof processes in place. According to the authors,
the best leaders listen and show empathy, allocate more leadership time to team management and coaching, enable versus control, and invest more in building a culture that reaches out of the traditional office and into people’s homes.
The third challenge, which seems to be experienced by more and more employees in the hybrid work model is isolation and disconnection from the company. This can be experienced by new employees, who just joined during the pandemic or the workforce that has been with the company for a while. The feeling of not belonging can influence people to work performance and overall well-being. Some employees might avoid coming to the office simply because they do no longer have their desks to return to J. P. Gownder, vice president at Forrester Research claims that
there’d be a lot less concern about isolation when you are seeing people a couple of days a week.
How Coaching Can Support Hybrid Working Environment?
This research aims to investigate which of the negative consequences of remote work could be addressed by coaching itself and how coaching could support the companies shifting towards long-term hybrid transition. My hypothesis is that coaching if designed adequately could support companies on two levels: leadership deficiency and workforce isolation and disconnection.
instead of directing a rah-rah return to the office, leaders would be wise to focus on deeper listening and meeting their workforces where they are today.
They state that companies should acknowledge that they still do not have clarity and perfect scenario for hybrid working models.
They will still be trying to discover what the right longer-term working model (the one that works for most employees) will be. It will also be important for leaders to signal that they hope to make their employees partners in designing the future of how their companies work.
How Coaching Can Improve Leadership Deficiency
According to Steve Chandler and Duane Black, the authors of the Hands-Off Manager, during the uncertain times of returning to work, coaching can help to maximize performance by emphasizing the people element inside the company. Emphasizing empathy helps remote teams and leaders to reach peak performance during times of change.
In the Gartner article Making Hybrid Work More Permanent? Set Some Ground Rules, Matt Cainlists ways to improve life for hybrid and remote teams. The first of them is team unity and health.
Encourage your teams’ interpersonal unity — which can be especially difficult to maintain in a remote environment but is critical to collective team engagement and inclusion.
Similarly, to the authors of Hands-Off Manager, Cain stresses that
managers need to be empathetic and approachable; it can make the difference between a great employee experience and a not-so-great one.
The author lists guidelines for remote and hybrid teams. One of them is prioritizing empathetic communication and listening by team managers and executive leaders.
As underlined by Black, Cain, Chandler, and other authors, empathy plays a significant role in addressing leadership deficiency in hybrid or remote workplaces. Stanford University psychologist Jamil Zaki is an interview with futurity says that
empathy is something like a muscle: left unused, it atrophies; put to work, it grows.
The question remains: How coaching can play the role in growing empathy?
Julia Atkinson, PCC, Senior Executive Coach, Facilitator, and Consultant, published the article: Is empathy a skill that can be learned? The author is a certified accredited member International Coach Federation, and she has been working with the Meyers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). Atkinson concluded that empathy to some extend depends on personality type. Some people are just naturally more empathetic while others use more logical thinking. Empathy is not a skill that can be easily learned but via some actions, it can be developed. The author lists four strategies to develop empathy: focus on appreciation as well as critique, observe reactions and adjust communication style, develop your curiosity and be a more personable and logical deduction of impact on relationships.
To successfully improve your empathy and will probably use a combination of the above strategies. Collect feedback and keep tweaking your communication style, remember it’s a process that will take time
she writes. According to Atkinson the traits mentioned above can be developed working with a professional coach.
Although there is no direct correlation between leadership deficiency and coaching practice, developing empathy is a link between both. If hybrid or remote leaders want to work on empathetic communication, they can use the professional coach as a tool to improve their hybrid leadership skills.
How Can Coaching Improve Isolation and Disconnection
Harward Business Review authors Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic and Katarina Berg talk about fostering the culture of belonging in the hybrid workplace. Sense of belonging is the opposite of disconnection and isolation, which were listed in the previous parts of this research paper as the negative sides of remote work. The authors state that
when employees feel that they belong to a team or organization — in the sense that it aligns with their values, and enables them to express important aspects of their identity — they will not only tend to perform better but also experience higher levels of engagement and well-being.
On the other side, when the sense of belonging is low, this can lead to harmful results such as isolation, burnout, or depression. In the era of hybrid work, some companies understand the link between a sense of belonging and retention and therefore they try to focus their activities as much as possible on the meaning and purpose. The authors talk about the onsite experience in the hybrid model based on social interaction:
Perhaps offices will play more of a collaborative, creative, and innovative role, catalyzing stimulating in-person encounters, and checking in with colleagues to get our minimum dose of physical contact.
This onsite social experience will be playing part in shaping hybrid model belonging.
In 2020 Jeremy D. O’Hara researched at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota, USA. This study’s purpose was to find the correlation between the impact of one type of coaching known as Peer Wellness Coaching and students’ sense of belonging. It was evident that a sense of belonging influenced the university retention rates. Although the study was not focused on a hybrid working model, it investigated the feeling of belonging.
The results of the study confirmed the author’s hypothesis: over two-thirds who participated in Peer Wellness Coaching noticed an increase in their sense of belonging to campus. The study indicated three variables, related to an increased sense of belonging, such as: feeling comfortable discussing wellness goals, wanting to recommend coaching to other students, and feeling that the location was appropriate for their appointment. Due to the limited timeline of the research, it is still not confirmed if Peer Wellness Coaching increased retention rates.
Shaping Hybrid Work Environment
Today the “look and feel” of future hybrid work is still blurry. Nevertheless, many companies already fear the consequences of not getting it right.
Nearly 40% of workers would consider quitting if their bosses made them return to the office full time
says the title of the article in Business Insider. Companies come up with more ideas on how to make this transition smoother for both leaders and employees.
The research presented in this paper confirms that coaching can play a significant role in increasing people’s feeling of belonging. It also shows that according to some studies, coaching can support developing empathy and thus improve leadership skills in hybrid or remote work environments. It needs to be highlighted though, that coaching is a very personal experience, and it is hard to guarantee that through the coaching sessions, employees will shift from disconnection or isolation into the state of belonging or their leadership deficiency will improve significantly. Coaching is the process between the coach and the client and results can vary depending on many factors, e.g.client’s engagement and willingness for change. If designed right, it can be used as a powerful tool towards better hybrid work experience for both: hybrid employees and hybrid leaders.
Julia Atkinson, Is empathy a skill that can be learned? The HR Director
Matt Cain, Making Hybrid Work More Permanent? Set Some Ground Rules, Gartner.com
Chamorro-Premuzic Tomas and Berg Katarina, Fostering a Culture of Belonging in the Hybrid Workplace, Harward Business Review
Steve Chandler and Duane Black, The Hands-Off Manager. How to Mentor People and Allow Them to Be Successful. Amazon.com
Aaron De Smet, Bonnie Dowling, Mihir Mysore, and Angelika Reich; It’s time for leaders to get real about hybrid, Mc Kinsey & Company
Duffy Kate; Nearly 40% of workers would consider quitting if their bosses made them return to the office full time, Business Insider
Kalle Heikkinen, William Kerr, Mika Malin, and Panu Routila; 4 Imperatives for Managing in a Hybrid World, Harvard Business Review
O'Hara, Jeremy D., Post-Secondary Belongingness Scores: How Peer Wellness Coaching Impacts the Results. Culminating Projects in Social Work. 6.
Open VPN; Remote Work Is the Future — But Is Your Organization Ready for It?
Melissa De Witte-Stanford; Empathy is a skill. Here is how to cultivate it, Futurity.org