With some workers at home and others at the office, there will be power imbalances, and it needs to be addressed.
the hybrid workplace – a blend of in-office and remote workers – allows people the flexibility to choose where they want to work. However, for leaders this means new power dynamics in the workplace.
It is almost inevitable that there will be power imbalances, and it will not take care of itself, says William Elliot, founding director of ActionCo, executive coach and registered psychologist.
“It is not about whether you are a fair leader or whether there is a good company culture, it is important to deal with the new power dynamics in split teams since it can very quickly develop into real or perceived unfairness or bias if not dealt with.”
People who prefer working from home because of fear or specific circumstances may quickly feel “judged”. There is also the potential perception that those who do go into the office are more committed to the organisation.
People who must travel to the office may see it as a burden and it could even create resentment towards those who are working from home. At the same token it could be a relief for others who need some “me time”.
People who are working in the office can resent those working from home if they feel their workload has increased because they are more visible to the boss. Others may consider it a privilege.
People working from home may feel they have less of an opportunity to contribute and add value. They may even feel their jobs are at risk because they are not feeling as integral to the organisation.
New dynamics can shift very quickly. Sometimes those working at the office may be seen as the privileged, having access to the best technology and information. At other times it may be those working from home, having more time and flexibility to organise their day.
Virtual meetings have quickly become the norm but continue to pose some real challenges. A recent survey by Cisco, a multinational technology company, shows that 98% of participants experienced frustration with video conferencing while working from home (see sidebar).
Elliot says virtual meetings are like having a conversation over a walkie-talkie: Good morning, John. How are you? Over. Hi Sam, well thank you. And you? Over …
“There is no real free flow of conversation. In a virtual meeting it is mute, unmute, camera on, camera off. Micro-expressions such as reassuring noises, a nod of approval or thumbs-up at someone specific, or hearing people laugh at your joke, are absent,” he says.
People may feel shut out because they do not want to simply jump in. There are no natural pauses because of the “walkietalkie effect”.
In other instances, video calls make it
easier for the quiet ones to speak up. They feel safer in their home environment and they are not intimidated by loud or overly dominant people.
“It is more difficult to dominate a Zoom or Teams meeting. We are all the same frame size and people have the ability to turn the volume down if someone is too loud,” says Elliot.
People need access to the right tools, such as noise-cancelling software, to encourage them to switch on their microphone. If there is a racket going on at home – such as barking dogs or loud teenagers – it has a silencing effect on those working from home.
Jodene Steyn, account manager at MakwaIT, says many companies have increased their investment in remote working tools to enable employees to work “seamlessly” from home.
Companies need specific “collaboration technology” that is more than a mere virtual platform where employees can host or attend meetings virtually.
The workforce of the future requires “feature-rich” applications. This will allow team members – whether they are in the office or at home – to use messaging, calling, virtual meetings, white-boarding, and content sharing effortlessly.
Steyn says many employees who are returning to the office have a legitimate fear of contracting the coronavirus. Technology gives them the assurance that changes are made to make the workplace safe.
According to the Cisco survey, the top concern for people returning to the office is touching shared devices (64%), while 62% of employees are concerned about elevator congestion, 61% is concerned about sharing a desk, 52% worries about room sanitation and 41% is concerned about exceeding room capacity for social distancing.
The new office will see people walking in without having to touch anything. They can pair their own devices with a collaboration technology board within the room which will automatically connect their calls or start scheduled meetings through voice-controlled demands.
Data analytics can give employees a “people count” that verifies the maximum capacity within a room. Once the capacity has been reached, people can access the meeting virtually from another space in the office, explains Steyn.
Information technology and facility managers can use advanced analytics to avoid overcrowding in meeting rooms, indicate chat room usage to prevent people from touching door handles to check availability and sanitation requirements of shared spaces.
“It is quite easy for an organisation to provide its employees with the necessary tools and technology they require to either work remotely or from the office. The most important aspect is the ability of the employees to use the tools to its full extent.”
According to Steyn, companies are profiling its employee base to determine the different user personas and where they fit within the hybrid workforce.
This process will determine which employees can only work from the office, and how the fear of returning can be mitigated by using technology to create a safe workplace.
Elliot says being aware of the new power dynamics created by the hybrid workplace is not enough. Leaders need a specific plan, a specific person who will execute the plan, and an “equalising budget”. Some consider mandatory rotation a potential option to correct real or perceived power imbalances and to ensure cohesive teams. However, one cannot be too rigid about this. “Open up the conversation to find out who feels unfairly disadvantaged. Raise the topic and know that bias is built into the situation. You have to actively correct it,” advises Elliot.
When leaders call a meeting for the entire team it is simply “deadly” to have the in-office team in the conference room and the out-of-office team on a virtual meeting. Everyone should join the meeting virtually.
Leaders need to manually track the amount of time they spend with people. “You are naturally going to spend more time with people who are geographically in the same location as you.”
It is a good idea to put up pictures of team members working from home in your office. The natural consequence if you do not, is to connect more with people in your proximity, warns Elliot.
He also suggests having an “equalising slot” in one’s calendar where the leader can remind him or herself who is at home, who is in the office and what tasks or projects have been assigned to everyone. Use the equalising budget to ensure people are equal in terms of technology and equipment.
If there is no mandatory rotation, organisations are advised to set up a chat or a canteen channel where people can meet up informally.
Create a communication buddy system where people in the office can give one-on-one feedback about what is happening at the office to a buddy working from home.
It will require effort to neutralise inherent inequalities in the hybrid workplace, remarks Elliot.
Information technology and its jargon can be quite intimidating to companies, especially small and medium-sized enterprises (SME). There is an increased focus on understanding the needs of these businesses. Steyn says SMEs are becoming easy targets because they do not invest in the right solutions. People who have lost their jobs due to the pandemic are getting smarter at accessing information for financial gain.
There are simple solutions to protect data and to grant SMEs access to analytics that will allow them to grow the business and increase productivity.
They should not think they don’t have a lot to lose. They have.