Most of us have seen big changes in the way we work since early 2020. It began through necessity, as we’ve learned more about the hybrid working world, but it is clear these changes developed momentum and are now part of the new normal. Working from home for some is a flexible and comfortable experience in which team members can fulfil their work obligations and find extra time, and possibly money, by avoiding the commute, reducing dress costs, and finding efficiency in home tasks. The benefits within work-life balance that the hybrid environment brings can be great, often bringing a greater sense of engagement or productivity, a positive for both the employee and the organization. But what about those of us that do not share such a rewarding experience in a hybrid structure?
My own journey into hybrid working began with our office temporarily closing, as many others had, and immediately I began to see some of the unique challenges of this new world. The first of those challenges being space, my living space seeming that much smaller when making room for the trappings of the office. Other unexpected obstacles started to make themselves apparent as the face-to-face meetings were replaced by virtual meetings. I didn’t realise how many coping mechanisms I had developed to navigate the more social aspects of work until they had all been stripped away. Another thing I came to realise was how important the ritual of getting ready and walking to the office was. It prepared me to both start the day with the right mindset and helped me steel myself for those more demanding aspects. This started me down a path of examining why some of these rituals and coping mechanisms were so important and ultimately led me to exploring neurodiversity as a way of understanding this.
While on this ongoing journey, one of the most eye-opening aspects has been connecting with a great many others who have similar challenges and needs. For many who sit on the neurodiversity spectrum, the traditional workplace created a much-needed structure that helps deal with the additional challenges that come from working in, and navigating, a very social and community orientated part of life. Working from home also provides some very practical challenges for those who might struggle with social interaction and reading facial expressions. The difference between a video call where we might or might not be able to see faces and an in-person meeting where there are additional cues to pick up on in terms of body language can be great for some. For instance, if a colleague brings an angry or frustrated face into a meeting, where no one has the context of a wider working environment, then it could easily be misunderstood. There is a lot of unheard and unseen context that is missed by everyone when not working side by side with your colleagues.
The hybrid environment, for those with mental health challenges, disabilities, neurodiversity, or that feel the need to mask who they are in the workplace, if not treated carefully, can represent an erosion of the work-life balance. Another way of looking at this is that the home, which would have been a safe space they kept separate to allow themselves time to process their unique challenges, or be fully authentic, is now the place they work. This means that the lines blur, making the workspace a distracting and confusing one in which they may not feel their best. At worst their home has gone from a necessary refuge in which they can rejuvenate to bring the best version of themselves into the office, into a kind of limbo, where they are never quite relaxed or fully engaged.
If these are just some of the challenges of the hybrid working structure, what are our roles as leaders in fostering the equity and psychological safety necessary to make the new hybrid normal a success for everyone?
Let’s begin with understanding the term “psychological safety” and why it is important. In a psychologically safe work community, we have a mutual trust and respect for our teammates. We want them to feel comfortable to express themselves authentically and we want to enjoy the same freedom to be ourselves in turn. In this environment, team members feel safe to provide their own unique inputs which can drive innovation. In the same way, individuals do not fear making honest mistakes and instead everyone on the team can learn from them being treated as a growth opportunity. It is also a space in which team members can feel safe to share their challenges, and in that innovative space, find new better ways of working together to overcome those challenges.
Equity we can define most simply as fair treatment. As leaders in a work environment our responsibility to equity is to ensure everyone has access to the same opportunities. We do this by identifying and negating the barriers that can prevent participation. In an equitable work environment, all team members should feel like they have an equal and fair playing field in which to advance and no one team member or group has been given unfair advantage. It is easy to see how this equitable environment contributes and is linked to psychological safety and is an important factor in improving engagement.
The first step in our journey towards equity and psychological safety must be communication. We should not be assuming the important environmental context our teams work within; doing so would not demonstrate our commitment to equity. Inclusive conversations require their own approach and GP Strategies offers a useful model to support them in CARE.
Setting aside or challenging our assumptions to instead treat our colleagues with curiosity. The more we learn about those we work with, the more we build trust and a greater sense of connection. It is also an important behaviour to model in helping our teams to understand each other. When we are curious, we are quick to listen and slow to speak. Asking a value-based question such as, “What is important to you in the workplace?” can help to provide a broader context to who they are. We can utilise causative questions to understand why they might make a certain response. This exploration will show that we are truly interested in expanding our understanding of them and want them to feel both valued and heard.
This is about using our listening skills to expand our understanding and then, as we learn about our colleagues, keeping that knowledge in the forefront of our minds as we interact with them. Awareness is also about keeping the broader picture in our mind and how the individual’s story meshes with the wider background story.
By being curious and keeping that awareness of what we have learned we demonstrate a desire to grow our relationship with our colleagues. We should strive to strengthen our connections and cultivate relationships. This will hopefully come naturally when you are curious and aware in the right ways, however, another key ingredient to building relationships is trust and the cornerstone of trust is authenticity. The easiest way to demonstrate authenticity is by expressing your own vulnerability and your human differences. An example of this might be sharing in a meeting how tired you are from having been on camera all day, or admitting something is outside of your expertise and seeking advice.
The skills of being curious, aware, and relational all feed in to showing and achieving empathy. We ask questions to understand about our colleagues, we use awareness of what we have learned to build stronger relationships. Those stronger relationships help us to connect. Empathy means taking the perspective of others, understanding where they are and letting them know that you see that in a non-judgmental way. In practical terms, we cannot improve our teams view or experience of the hybrid environment without first understanding how they feel about it. It is important to understand that empathy is not about offering solutions or advice and certainly not about drawing comparisons to your own experience. Empathy is about giving someone your full attention, acknowledging their feelings, creating safety, and then asking them how you can help.
Clarity is an important tool in building a hybrid environment where our teams feel safe but also feel a strong sense of fairness. As leaders, we should set clear expectations on issues involving the hybrid workplace. Clarity on these sorts of issues avoid any team members from feeling the environment is unfair because they don’t feel they can be flexible while others have fully embraced the flexibility.
- Dress code: What is acceptable to wear while working at home? Are you happy for your team to enjoy the comfort of being casual in the hybrid environment? Do you have different expectations for being on and off camera? Clear guidelines ensure that no one misses out or gets it wrong because they didn’t understand.
- Usage of cameras in meetings: Commonly this is encouraged but not mandated, there are often many reasons people might shy away from using their camera, such as having family or pets in the background. This might not be a problem for the wider team and you as their leader, however they won’t know unless there is conversation and clear communication.
- Flexible work time: Many at-home employees are working more flexible hours to take care of their families. This is of course a wonderful benefit, however, when others who aren’t doing the same see their colleagues offline or starting late, they could feel there is an inequity in effort. Setting and communicating clear expectations is crucial in managing perceptions and ensuring that there isn’t a real imbalance caused by some team members unable to take advantage of this benefit when the greater team must still meet operating requirements.
I mentioned the loss of the important ritual of getting ready and going to work. It is possible to replace this ritual with a new delineator to start the workday—the “check-in”. Beginning the day or even just a meeting with a check-in with your team can help bring everyone together. It is a chance to share mood, workload or even anything they are bringing with them that might prevent them from being at their best. This could help bridge a lot of the context gap that we miss by not working side by side and helps build a greater sense of connection amongst your whole team. This candour is also a great way to build authenticity and trust within a team; trust being an important ingredient in psychological safety.
Above all else, the hybrid environment has been a reminder for us that everyone has a different story, that includes a much broader context than is immediately apparent. As we build a new way of working with our teams, we have a wonderful opportunity as leaders to ensure it has a foundation of empathy, curiosity, and trust which will grow a team and a culture that is healthy, happy, and high performing.