Human Potential

Enabling Change in a Blended Workplace

The ongoing pandemic has profoundly disrupted the operating rhythm of organizations — challenging employee, manager, organizational, and client-partner relationships. Human beings are social creatures, and the core of organizations are built upon relationships and face-to-face interactions. This is how we build trust.

In the current environment, those multidimensional connections have turned into a series of linear, formal interactions. The organic, ad hoc connections have been lost as we socially distance physically from one another. There are few — if any — coffee conversations, chance interactions in a corridor that solve problems, or impromptu whiteboard or brainstorming sessions. Physical interactions are replaced by video conferences, phone calls, and emails.

While some organizations pivoted without a beat, many were simply not prepared for this transformation. A recent survey by SHRM Research showed that 34% of U.S. employers did not have an emergency preparedness plan before COVID-19. Seven out of 10 said they struggled to adapt to remote work.

Now, relaxed restrictions across the world have allowed a staggered return to the office, only with fundamentally different ways of working. There is no direct replacement for face-to-face contact and in-person engagement. However, balancing productivity in a working environment with remote and on-site activities is critical to organizational success.

The shifting workplace, again

As the world continuously readjusts, organizations are under increasing pressure. Many continue to implement large scale transition or transformation programs, delivered to very tight timelines. Meanwhile, they must also manage routine business operations and changes associated with creating a blended work environment. The complexity requires organizations to perform at the highest level in all areas. When enabling change, they need to take into consideration not just the tangible elements but also the intangibles, such as creating connections and trust.

A blended work environment

To better manage change, employees need to feel in control of their immediate environment and have access to tools and platforms that allow them to focus on effective job performance. This includes having the right mix of onsite and remote working connections, multiple communication channels, and access to help desk and human resources (HR) contacts. By minimizing external disruptions, the workforce is better able to move along various stages of their transformation or transition programs.

Upskilling the workforce

Training and upskilling in collaboration platforms were already important, since clients and vendors often introduce new platforms. However, the shift to remote working has changed how these issues are managed. This extends to delivering workshops, focus sessions, and presentations online, which require different delivery and planning for feedback and engagement.

Shifting collaboration from a traditional to digital approach, however, has multiple benefits. They include a reduction in rework and a potential for increased collaboration as employees and organizations reach for new tools and strategies. These can include co-editing documents or PowerPoint slides, or simultaneous, real time editing of documents on a digital whiteboard during a video conference.

Managers should also focus on the nontechnical aspects of supporting their employees and overseeing outcomes. Those supervisors will concentrate on providing soft skills courses; conflict management and resolution; and other efforts that lead to a more engaged and motivated workforce. If well executed, the results are increased output and improved results for the business.

Staying connected

The impact of a blended environment will differ based on the previous working structures, proximity, environment, and reporting hierarchies. For example, a team co-located in the same workspace would experience a different impact than a distributed team with multiple delivery locations worldwide and a matrixed reporting line. To most in the workforce, however, staying connected in a remote working environment has common challenges, now that serendipitous meetings and conversations are mostly out of reach.

Managing fast-paced changes will also require a strong network of connections in a remote setting. This is where clear roles and responsibilities, as well as connecting the right change agent with the right stakeholder group, will get more traction and engagement.

Having regular formal and informal meetings, such as scheduling a regular watercooler discussion — in addition to daily stand up meetings — will help bridge some of the social gaps felt across the screens.

Creating and maintaining trust

Trust is composed of tangible elements, such as setting the right expectations or meeting objectives and timelines. There are also intangible elements that result from encountering someone in person, including the gut feel of whether an individual is trustworthy or gathering knowledge from informal conversations.

Creating a foundation of trust is important for effective working relationships, particularly when there is limited face-to-face interaction. While there are limitations in getting a read on an individual over phone or Skype, the focus can shift more to tangible items such as setting the right expectations and meeting agreed deadlines and outcomes.

Employees, managers, clients, and vendors will need to establish what works best in their environment — shorter term goals and check-points at more regular intervals and setting expectations around response times and availabilities. An outcome-based working model can create a functional and supportive environment through shared and up-to-date calendars, blocked out availability, and agreements on outcomes and timelines.

Meaningful engagement and communication

Two-way communication is crucial in maintaining engagement in both formal and informal forums. Keeping the conversation going is an important medium for engaging employees and creating an environment of inclusion and supportiveness.

Leaders see a positive response from employees when they actively direct conversations about their organizations’ response to the pandemic. Consistent messaging is needed through multiple forums, such as town hall meetings, email updates, FAQs, and responses and directions based on local events. An engaged HR department is also a critical component.

As organizations and countries navigate the shifting local restrictions and COVID-safe return to work plans, they will increasingly need to focus outside the office. The economic pressure of revenue loss and operating scope will steer leaders’ attention back to core business objectives and require them to seek competitive advantages.

Leading change was never an easy feat, but greater disruption and change fatigue will only increase the degree of difficulty. There is no blanket solution, but a strong workforce will be needed to anchor those efforts. Executives must create an environment to effectively manage change since this blended setting is here for the foreseeable future.