The Hybrid Work Transformation — PART III: Tips for Employees

Image Credit: Pexels Anete Lusina

NOTE: This is PART III of a three-part series where I explore the implications of hybrid work on three key stakeholder groups — Human Resources practitioners, leaders, and employees.

According to Microsoft’s 2021 Work Trends Index which is based on insights gleaned from 30,000 people in 31 countries, 73 percent of workers surveyed want flexible remote work options to continue, while at the same time, 67 percent are craving more in-person time with their teams.

Hybrid is the name of the game for the foreseeable work future. This new way of working will provide people with the flexibility to choose when, how, and where they work. While this may be liberating for some, navigating this change will not come easy for many of us. Read on if you want to learn how to make this new way of working work for you.

What is the opportunity of this moment for you as an employee?

Harvard Business School professor Arthur C. Brooks recently wrote an article for The Atlantic titled A Once-in-a-Lifetime Chance to Start Over, positing that the pandemic will cause many of us to reflect on what a different, better future might look like. It’s an opportunity to examine daily interactions that are toxic, relationships that are unproductive, and life patterns that make you unhappy. It is also a chance to make an inventory of the new habits developed during the pandemic that we want to keep.

This analysis should extend to your work life. The employer/employee dynamic has been fundamentally altered by the pandemic. It’s your once in a lifetime chance to position yourself as a hybrid work co-creator.

How to get started?

I partner with organizations currently navigating their hybrid transformations and have frequent conversations with employees. The following are three pain points I hear most, along with a few design thinking inspired thought starters for how to tackle them.

Pain Point #1: Our return to office plan keeps changing. Not knowing what to expect makes me anxious.

In design thinking, we usually start by immersing ourselves in empathy with the ones we are trying to solve for. In this case, you are solving a problem for yourself.

Shifting to an internal locus of control — that is, taking charge of our own lives — can restore our sense of agency and self-determination.

Dr. Christine Runyan, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, shares these science-based steps you can take to calm your fight or flight response to anxiety. Now, you can reframe the return to office uncertainty: First, pause and take time to clear your thoughts. Then, apply the breathing exercises that Dr. Runyan suggests. Once you create that space, observe. What did you just go through? What happened emotionally, physically, and mentally? What did you learn from that experience? Write those things down while they’re still fresh and share them with a loved one to help those lessons really stick with you. Then, give yourself grace. Acknowledge your feelings, but then let them go. You’ve done the best you could up to this moment. We all have. Finally, decide what should change. As you look ahead, what do you want to do differently?

Take a step back and answer the following four questions:

1. What do I want my days to look like?

2. What stresses me out?

3. What gets me excited?

4. What do I value most?

Once you’ve dug deep on these issues, you’ll be in a better position to understand what you need.

Next, educate yourself to gain additional insights and ideas. Research what flexible work policies and guidelines have been laid out by Human Resources. Even if return to office plans seem to change by the minute, your HR team is likely hard at work creating policies and guidelines for flexible work. The HR team is burned out as much as you are by taking care of all employees in the company during these traumatic times, but if you have an urgent topic to discuss (e.g., because you must make childcare plans) they likely are more than happy to field your questions or point you to relevant resources to help put your mind at ease.

Finally, design, prototype, and test your hybrid work plan. Once you’ve identified what matters to you, it’s time to align it to a business case that you can share with your boss. Robert C. Pozen and Alexandra Samuel, authors of Remote, Inc., outline how you can create a hybrid work plan and pitch it to your boss. They recommend these steps:

For a limited period — roughly a month or two — track your daily productivity along each of the metrics you’ve defined for your work. You can start this process even before you return to the office: Track your productivity metrics while working remotely, and when you get back to your office, you’ll have a baseline that will make it easy to quickly compare your productivity in each space. Once you know which kinds of tasks you do best at home and at the office, you’ll be in a better position to judge how to spend each day. And you can get a sense of the big picture too. Review your current responsibilities and determine how much of your workload is best handled in each location to get a sense of how much time you’ll want to spend at home versus in the office.

Summarize your findings in a concise note that shows the major responsibilities, identifying those best handled at the office, and those your data say are best handled at home. Support your conclusions with data that shows you write more words, reply to more emails, or create presentations more efficiently on the days that you are at home. Depending on your manager, you may also find it helpful to estimate the specific amount of time each part of your work is likely to require.

If your boss is still skeptical about the value of virtual work, suggest a trial period for a month or so when you will follow your proposed combination of days at home and days at the office.

Pain Point #2: What are the new norms for interacting with co-workers in the hybrid workplace?

As you are preparing for some time back at the office, these questions might be top of mind:

How can I get comfortable socializing with others in the office?

When you start to panic, e.g., when you are among many people for the first time again, organizational psychologist Tasha Eurich recommends distracting yourself. Then, practice self-compassion by reflecting on the following questions: What emotions was I feeling in that moment? What was most stressful about that situation? What would I do differently next time?

What should I do if I am in a conference room with co-workers but am the only one wearing a mask?

Here are a few tips for how to prepare to have uncomfortable conversations at work, especially as it relates to differing levels of comfort around COVID safety measures:

  • Draft some key phrases to use in tricky situations as you return to the office. If you know what you are going to say in advance — instead of having to come up with something on the spot — it’s a lot easier to follow through.
  • Address your concerns in a way that allows the other person to save face. That is, you want to affirm that you don’t think the other person is a bad person, and that you aren’t rejecting them inter-personally.
  • Be direct. A direct request is much more effective for securing someone’s compliance.

How can I build trust on a hybrid team?

Harvard Business School professor Tsedal Neeley has been studying trust on distributed teams for years. Her research indicates that swift trust, the willingness of hybrid team members to temporarily trust one another based on some evidence of competence, is sufficient to complete shared tasks.

Keys to developing trust on hybrid teams include transparency, sharing information freely, effective communication, clearly identified tasks, reliability, standardized internal processes, self-disclosure, getting to know team members’ personal characteristics and behavioral norms, as well as an awareness of how cultural differences might impact trust.

Bottom line: When it comes to redefining interactions with co-workers, take a page from design thinking and approach them with curiosity, empathy, and a growth mindset.

Pain Point #3: How can I set healthy boundaries between work and life in a hybrid work environment?

Psychological studies demonstrate that our ability to perform and thrive at work is dependent on the interplay between the environment and our unique personalities. This means that most of us will need to learn new ways to manage ourselves and re-negotiate interpersonal boundaries in a hybrid work environment. Humans are adaptable. When our surroundings and circumstances change, so do we.

Start with self-reflection to uncover how your own habits may need to be tweaked.

About 70% of people said in a 2020 Coravin/OnePoll survey that they’d learned something about themselves during the pandemic and more than half felt embarrassed by what they valued pre-2020.

Reflect: If you were the superhero in your own story, what would really matter in your life? Which daily habits would make it into your story? What would be your hybrid work superpowers?

Having a great workday? Journal about it. Having a bad workday? Do the same. Patterns will emerge where you can assess how to adjust your habits.

Reassessing and simplifying our home life, work, and relationships can be a good place to start. With limited space in our schedules and brains, we must populate our calendars with intention. Setting realistic expectations for ourselves, erecting boundaries, and asking for support are some of the ways to find calm amid chaos and to prevent burnout.

This is how I minimize distractions and build good habits: If it’s not on my calendar, it doesn’t get done. I pretty much add anything to my calendar from meetings, to thinking, and exercise. This way, I achieve an average 90% of task completion. I am good with that. I want to keep some flexibility and room for serendipity.

How do you prioritize what goes on your calendar? Many of us will add work tasks first and leave other areas of our lives up to default scheduling. In this interview, Stanford professor and “good habits” researcher Nir Eyal explains why we should add times for self-care first, then time to foster meaningful relationships, and work tasks last.

The four essentials of self-care are 1) Sleep 2) Movement 3) Nutrition 4) Mindfulness. Putting self-care into action might include blocking time for exercise, cultivating positive emotions and joy, de-stressing through the healing power of gardens or by listening to nature. Set personal boundaries at work by adding breaks and OOO on your calendar for personal time like taking care of kids, exercising, or lunch. Build good new habits into your calendar and find someone who holds you accountable.

“To avoid burnout, Dr. Albert Einstein sat in a tub and watched the bubbles. No one could talk to him. He was thinking and watching the bubbles. To reduce your risk of burnout, take a few minutes every day to have quiet. Even three minutes a day will make a difference.” — Dr. Mary Donohue, Founder of The Digital Wellness Center (Source: Microsoft’s 2021 Work Trends Index)

You also want to be intentional about re-negotiating interactions with your boss and co-workers in the hybrid workplace. That might include communicating your off-hours, limiting excessive collaboration, and saying no to more work.

Looking for more ideas to help you cultivate healthy habits? I reached out to my network and crowdsourced a list of top ten resources and tools:

1. NPR Podcast featuring stories of how we cope with chaos

2. Brene Brown podcast on burnout

3. Habit forming books

4. Thrive Global microsteps

5. Book “The Practice of Groundedness”

6. NPR Joy Generator

7. Book “Make Time”

8. Combatting remote fatigue hacks

9. ReclaimAI (tool that helps block your calendar for you)

10. Should it Be a Meeting Tool (helps assess whether you really need to schedule a meeting)

We’ve all been given a chance for a fresh start. How will you seize this once-in a lifetime moment to take control and re-design your work life?

[Author’s Note: Since I published this article, I’ve received additional comments and questions which I themed into additional pain points and addressed each in a separate LinkedIn post]:

Will I limit my career development and promotional opportunities if I decide to work virtually?

I just accepted a new job and will be joining a hybrid team. What now?

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Nicole Dessain is the Founder and Chief Talent Experience Designer at talent.imperative inc, an employee experience design consultancy.

Nicole’s creative superpower is “connecting the dots” which she applies to her passion of bringing design thinking to the world of Human Resources through the HR.Hackathon Alliance.

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I am leading a movement that aims to make organizations more people-centric through the power of design thinking via hrhackathonalliance.com

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Nicole Dessain

Nicole Dessain

I am leading a movement that aims to make organizations more people-centric through the power of design thinking via hrhackathonalliance.com

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