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3 Tensions Leaders Need to Manage in the Hybrid Workplace

Here is a brief excerpt from an article written by Bobbi Thomason and Jennifer Franczak for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.

Credit:  Illustration by Jamiel Law

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As hybrid work transitions from a temporary pandemic-era band-aid to the normal way of working, many leaders are wondering how they build an inclusive hybrid culture. The pandemic laid bare existing inequalities at work — around caregivingrace and even age — and while there is an opportunity to “build back better,” the path to “better” is unclear, even for leaders committed to inclusive organizations. This is in large part because not all working arrangements work the same for all employees. A policy or “perk” that benefits some people and makes them feel included, can make others feel like they do not belong or cannot thrive.

When it comes to designing an inclusive hybrid work culture, there are three main tensions that organizations and teams need to manage:

  • First, the tension between allowing employees to work when they want and expecting them to be available all the time;
  • Second, the tension between employees feeling isolated when not working from an office and feeling invaded by communication technologies;
  • Finally, the tension between what practices are possible in a hybrid workplace and what is preferred and rewarded.

The right balance for each organization will vary based on organizational priorities, and on its employees and their interests. But identifying — and naming — these tensions will offer leaders a place from which they can start strategizing.

[Here’s the first.]

Tension #1: Working Anytime vs. Working All the Time

The first tension leaders and organizations need to manage is between giving individuals the chance to work when they choose and imposing — intentionally or not — an expectation that they be available all the time. Research has documented the “ideal worker” is expected to be available at any hour of the day, any day of the year, throughout all the years of their careers. During the pandemic, the burden of ideal worker expectations fell especially hard on the shoulders of women, who often not only did their day jobs but were also primarily caregivers for family members.

One way to counter the expectation of constant availability is to offer your team the flexibility to choose when they work, while also making clear that there should be times when they’re offline. There is robust evidence that control over one’s schedule helps employees maintain engagement at work and protect their well-being. However, organizations need to ensure that in offering flexibility, they’re not sending the message that employees should always be on or available. Indeed, during the pandemic, average working hours increased, and people were more likely to send emails after traditional work hours. Even beyond the pandemic, when people do not have boundaries between work and home and are not able to “shut off” work, they are more likely to experience burnout.

One practice that some organizations have used to manage this tension is limiting communication during typical after-hours. Leaders can model this by scheduling calls and emails to send the next business day rather than at 10:00 pm, for example. Also, for anyone who doesn’t work standard hours, they can set an email signature acknowledging “My working hours may not be your working hours. Please do not feel the need to respond outside of your working hours,” which will reinforce the norm.

Another approach is to have company-wide no work times. For example, when the Boston Consulting Group implemented a formal mechanism that required employees to take pre-planned days and nights off, employees reported higher job satisfaction, greater likelihood that they could imagine a long-term career at the firm, and higher satisfaction with their work-life balance.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Bobbi Thomason is an assistant professor of applied behavioral science at Pepperdine Graziadio Business School. You can follow her on Twitter @bobbithomason.
Jennifer Franczak is an assistant professor of organizational theory and management at Pepperdine Graziadio Business School. You can follow her on Twitter @jennif333.

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