Although it is hard to predict what the post-COVID world of work will look like, it’s safe to assume that, at least in the short term, most organizations will increase the flexibility of their working arrangements and become more hybrid or fluid than they were before.
In principle, this sounds like a better proposition for employees. When we asked 8,000 workers about their top concerns for this new next, “going back to the way things were” came in third place, preceded only by health and keeping their job.
History tells us that many people will see the crisis as a catalyst for change; they will be more likely to opt for work that suits their needs, family priorities, and lifestyle. Yet of course, things are rarely as good or simple as they seem, and the devil is always in the details.
In fact, whenever you try to personalize anything—working arrangements are no exception—you introduce more nuances, complexities, and unforeseen problems. Change is always taxing and more demanding than business as usual, and as such is always met with resistance.
That’s why there’s never been a more important time for managers to act with emotional intelligence (EQ) if they want to make hybrid work…work.
Remote and hybrid work come with diverse circumstances
In the past year, we have all been invited into each other’s homes. We’ve met pets, children, partners; we’ve been serenaded by piano lessons and choir practice; we’ve learned about newfound bread-making skills and sourdough starters. Hours shifted to teach kids from home, take kids to various stages of part-time school reopenings, and do more work, often with fewer hours, than ever before.
However, in the midst of the chaos, many people discovered (or in some cases rediscovered) different facets of their lives. Parents have enjoyed the opportunity to eat lunch every day with their kids or take a walk around the block with the family dog each evening. As we head back to work now, more than work will be hybrid: our lives will be, dissipating the historical divide between our professional and our personal selves. We are caught between the normalcy we knew prior to the crisis and the normalcy we’ve built in the past 14 months. We will continue to operate between these two worlds until we set new patterns for what’s next.
During this transition, empathy will be paramount. Demonstrating the ability to put yourself in someone else’s situation and understand their views, and then using that knowledge to guide your own reaction, will support successful change. We need to understand that normal will be redefined as we all determine how to keep the best of what we’ve embraced in the past year and balance a return to a world that didn’t previously integrate work and home. Empathy will be required to continually bridge the two. We must actively demonstrate a willingness to understand how other people are redefining their professional space, and how far into their personal lives we are invited.
Uncertainty and stress will continue
Transition is stressful. Life as we knew it literally stopped more than a year ago and is slowly restarting now. Our tendency will be to move in full force at a speed that attempts to catch up on what is perceived as lost time. However, leaders need to set the pace. A pace that is purposeful and sustainable. An environment that acknowledges the pendulum swung dramatically from Go to Stop and cannot instantly swing back to Go again.
We are emerging as a different workforce as we reopen. Leaders will want to initiate a thoughtful plan to reengage, to care for individuals in new ways for both safety and health, and to create a path forward that brings the workforce along for success.
While remaining authentic, as their teams have come to expect, leaders will also want to be beacons of calm and stability. You can’t be an effective leader if you can’t even manage yourself. Higher EQ helps leaders stay strong and serene under the hardest of circumstances. If leaders displayed more EQ, we would not need to ask employees to develop as much resilience, because they would experience far less stress and adversity at work.
Loneliness is real and inclusivity is important
Kindness and consideration are essential to mitigate loneliness and enable inclusivity and belonging. One silver lining of the pandemic is that it has focused businesses on employee wellness, with most top employers implementing explicit policies to boost not just morale and engagement but also psychological and physical well-being. The pandemic led to a rapid evolution of HR, with growing urgency for a reset.
Through 2021 and beyond, HR leaders will need to prioritize employee well-being, followed by offering new work models and a greater focus on upskilling, learning, and development. Welcome to the caring economy, where employees are looking to their workplaces as a source of genuine concern about their health, wellness, and safety.
In this new economy, the nature of leaders will be in the spotlight. Those who care only about profits, or fixate on turning their people into productivity machines, will repel top talent and compromise long-term success. Those who truly care for their workforce will find a more motivated, inspired, committed, and mentally healthy team.
The definition of a leader has expanded. Leaders now hold a greater responsibility to ensure that those they serve are well—not just well paid or well regarded. We cannot unknow what we’ve learned about our teams: Who they are outside of the office is a critical part of who they are, period. We now have a unique opportunity to invite that whole person back into the workplace and make sure they feel not only that they belong but also that they are cherished for the whole person they represent.
As a society, we may be removing our physical masks at the same time we have unmasked our lives. Employees need to know they are valued even more today because we know them in a deeper way, we’ve seen more of their lives, and now we know they have more to offer than we ever realized before.
Change requires checking assumptions
One of the paradoxes of experience is that it tends to make us more narrow-minded. The more experienced we are, the more stuck in our ways we become and the less open we are to change, especially when it applies to our own habits. For example, most senior leaders are used to working in a certain way, which has typically included spending as much time in an office as possible. Understandably, when they are forced to switch to a totally different style of work—going fully virtual—they end up itching to return to business as usual, not least because they could have implemented working from home or working from anywhere before, but they decided against it.
Yet the emotionally intelligent approach to this and any other required adaptation is to question your own assumptions and consider other people’s preferences and perspectives, as well as the actual evidence of what works and why. We know from research that Boomers and Gen Xers are the most interested in a return to the office. They were raised in the age when bosses made the rounds at 7:30 a.m. to see who was already at their desk and getting a jump on their day.
However, in the world of fluid working, simply being seen cannot be the currency of success. Managers must prioritize performance over presenteeism and in doing so manage the stories we tell ourselves. If someone isn’t in the office for part of the week, it does not mean they aren’t engaged; if someone dials in to a meeting versus physically showing up, it doesn’t mean they are not passionate about the topic.
We have to rewrite our own stories of engagement and performance. This new reality will be challenged: The temptation will be to return to what we’ve known for most of our working lives. But there is no going back. We have learned that we and our teams can be productive working from anywhere. Our teams have learned that, in some cases, they can better balance with such fluidity. So, as we reenter the buildings that were once the central home of work, we have to challenge ourselves that work will never truly be completely back in the building.
Tomas Chamorro-Premuzik, PhD, is the chief talent scientist at ManpowerGroup and a professor of Business Psychology at Columbia University and University College London. He is the author of Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders? And How to Fix It.
Becky Frankiewicz is the president of ManpowerGroup North America and a labor market expert. Prior to that, she led one of PepsiCo’s largest subsidiaries, Quaker Foods North America, and was named one of Fast Company’s Most Creative People. Find her on Twitter @beckyfrankly.