5 Rules for Managing Employees in the Post-Covid Hybrid Workplace
For most organizations, communication is like water in the fishbowl: fish don’t think about the water unless it becomes tainted or suddenly disappears which is exactly what happened, figuratively, to many organizations during the Covid-19 pandemic (and will surely happen again after it). The single most important factor for managing a post-Covid, hybrid workplace will be communication, so as organizations reopen it will be vital for them to undergo a deep examination of their communication processes.
Here, therefore, are five rules for managing the post-pandemic workplace. Consider these broad guidelines that organizations can use to think through the specific needs of their own workplace. This is not just an opportunity to search for best practices; it’s also a golden moment for organizations to examine their communication culture, not just to “right the ship,” but to set it sailing on a new and more positive course where greater trust is built between management and co-workers.
Rule #1: Communication is a Process
Generally, management tends to not consciously think about communication unless the lack of it is creating noticeable problems (the fishbowl analogy). Indeed, communication became a frequent media topic during the pandemic precisely because of problems that resulted from a failure to understand how it works as a process rather than just a function. Especially in light of those who desire a hybrid schedule and are now beginning to question its impact on their career trajectories.
For the post-Covid workplace, it will be important for managers to think of communication as the pervasive process by which everything at work happens, not just a function of relaying specific information to employees. This includes informal communication, which also received more attention during the pandemic due to its sudden absence. Communication as a process therefore needs to be approached strategically, in terms of long-term objectives and the goals of that process, not just tactically in terms of specific tools such as email and Zoom.
Rule #2: Listening is the Key to Motivating
A key part of communication as a process is understanding what motivates your employees. Research widely shows that employees perform better when they are motivated and engaged, yet only two out of 10 employees in pre-pandemic times felt they were managed in a way that motivated them to do good work. This will only get worse as we come out of the pandemic because many people’s relationship with work, as well as their needs and expectations, have changed.
Understanding how employees’ expectations, wants, and needs may have changed, and the things that will motivate them now, requires constant and careful listening. The problem is that for many managers the default mode for workplace communication tends to be about conveying information, rules, and procedures (see Rule #3). It will therefore be critical for organizations to place a higher priority on listening and providing safe spaces for the airing of grievances.
Rule #3: Trust Your Employees to Do the Right Thing
Organizations tend to manage in a way akin to driving forward while looking in the rearview mirror. What we mean by this is that when an employee does something that creates an issue or a cost, companies will often strive to fix it by way of new rules, procedures, and protocols, taking away degrees of employee freedom and autonomy. For example, during the pandemic there was an overall shift to more casual attire, but let’s say an employee showed up to a Zoom meeting wearing pajamas. Management doesn’t want this to become a trend so they put into place new rules explicitly detailing a Zoom meeting. Now they’ve developed restrictions to prevent an unlikely event from happening again, restrictions that are likely to just irritate the majority of employees with better sartorial sense, when it would have been better to just communicate with that one employee who wore pajamas.
Without a doubt, the desire for autonomy will be one of the most defining features of the post-Covid workforce. Exactly what that autonomy looks like for each employee will differ, however, and there lies the need to listen (Rule #2). Instead of stripping autonomy away from employees with rules designed to prevent incidents that happened once, communicate your general expectations and then trust your people to do the right thing.
Rule #4: Invest in Educating Managers
Organizations need to start, as discussed in the rules above, with a communication strategy that prioritizes listening and trust. Once that strategy is created, managers need to be educated so they know how to enact that strategy at the work unit level. Unfortunately, managers often don’t welcome new guidance. Since they were promoted based on their past success in previous roles, they tend to assume that indicates future success in their new role. Sadly, this is often not the case.
Before the pandemic, organizations may have been able to function, more-or-less, even if their managers’ lacked effective leadership ability. But now the demands on management have changed. It will be important to make sure managers understand this so that they welcome educational opportunities to become more effective leaders.
Rule #5: Invest in Educating Employees
Managing and communication are two-way streets, and with hybrid workplaces and distributed workforces, it will be important for employees to have better communication skills as well. More than ever, different employees will be in different situations. Which employees will go back to working in-person all the time? Which ones will continue to work entirely remote? Which ones will follow a hybrid format? The best way to educate employees will depend on answers to questions such as these.
Organizational leaders who, as of yet, have not given thought to these rules need not feel bad about it. During the pandemic, very few had the luxury to do any kind of deep analysis of their management and communication processes since most were too busy putting out one fire after another. Now, finally, is the chance to step back and adopt a strategic approach for the post-pandemic world. Indeed, if organizations wish to thrive, not just survive, over the long haul, they will need to do nothing less.