In this post-pandemic hybrid era senior leaders and HR professionals are facing a host of challenges – from the cost of living to growing inequalities. In particular, loneliness and mental health issues are rife. Virtual calls have become the new normal, which risks reducing genuine engagement and increasing likelihood of external distractions. Organisational psychologist Constance Noonan Hadley suggests that 70% of workers are feeling lonelier than ever, with a range of serious side-effects including depression and anxiety.
This seems ironic considering employees spend 50% more time collaborating today than they did 20 years ago. The imperative to work effectively together in order to resolve multidisciplinary (wicked) problems – such as product solutions or new strategic direction - is greater than ever. Microsoft is one organisation that has recognised this shift by giving bonuses and promotions for internal relationship building activities which support innovation, job satisfaction and happiness.
Hybrid working presents organisations with a troubling paradox. On the one hand, many enjoy less commuting time, more focused meetings, better work-life balance and are able to collaborate across geographical boundaries more easily. However, a recent survey also suggests there has been a significant increase in employee related grievances. A separate Harvard Business Review study showed that burnout is at an all-time high, as the boundaries between work and home life blur: 85% of respondents said that their wellbeing had declined, while 39% said that they felt unable to maintain a connection with colleagues. There is a real risk that this hybrid world will lead to exclusion and erosion of a sense of belonging.
Our new report, Reconnecting back at work – the dark and sunny side, highlights some key actions leaders and managers, with the support of HR, can take to reduce loneliness and improve connectivity:
- Increase psychological safety
Given the loss of connection, it is important to invest more in a climate of psychological safety in which people can express themselves without fear of sanction. Amy Edmondson from Harvard Business School argued that leaders should not be afraid of showing vulnerability and should focus on learning-oriented behaviours such as asking questions, raising concerns, admitting mistakes and offering ideas.
- Hold regular open forums
Organisations tend to focus on more tangible areas such as targets, actions and bottom-line performance. However, it’s important to organise forums where staff at all levels can discuss some of the painful emotions of loss arising from the post pandemic period, including the pain around losing in-person communication and frustration over the loss of workplace community.
- Reset expectations
Leaders need to reset expectations with their team and key stakeholders to avoid unnecessary conflict. This could include having regular meetings to discuss the ground rules of working together post pandemic, answering questions such as how is my role shifting? What are the ‘open’ as well as the ‘hidden’ expectations around being at the office/workload?
- Challenge poor behaviours
Because of modern day fragmentation, toxic people can continue to operate under the radar. Managers need to have more difficult conversations around performance and continue to challenge poor behaviours, in particular, behaviours that go against community working.
- Insist on staying connected and providing virtual working skills
Our natural genetic make-up as humans favours face-to-face connection. Where possible, aim to get teams physically together. At the same time it’s important not to lose some of the progress made via virtual connectivity. Our recent research highlighted that employees are asking leaders to help them develop new skills on how to maintain connection with people working from home.
- Improve boundaries between work and life
The shifting work context has created new expectations in the workplace, including flexible working environments which allow a balance between work and home commitments. In general, this is a positive change. However, at the same time, leaders need to be mindful that employees may feel obliged to join Zoom calls on their days off and struggle to establish personal boundaries, leading to negative impacts such as Zoom fatigue. Organisations and leaders need to role model work/life balance and put in place rules and mechanisms that help employees to avoid poor mental health.
- Try out new things and learn from these experiences
We are taught from early on in our careers that in order to progress we need to ‘play the game’. However, our most profound learning and real confidence comes from mistakes. As organisations are continuing to search for the fit-for-purpose model of working, leaders and the HR function should devote effort to creating safe environments for employees to try out new ideas and be able to fail without any fear of scrutiny and shame.
Guy Lubitsh is professor in leadership and psychology and Carina Paine Schofield is senior research fellow at Hult International Business School