Hybrid workforce sanity solutions

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It’s official, to the extent these things become official: The new magic buzzword for the old magic “people” third of the PROCESS / Technology / people magic triangle is “hybrid workforce.”

Arguing by analogy has its limits, primary among them being that it has no virtues. But still, it’s worth remembering that the archetypal hybrid, the mule, is sterile.

Unlike arguing by analogy, a mule does have virtues, combining as one does the toughness, health, and higher intelligence of the donkey with the horse’s superior speed and endurance.

Something like that.

Hybrid workforce proponents hope this staffing strategy will also combine the best of two beasts – in this case, the best qualities of on-premise and remote employees. (And I’m beggin’ you – please! don’t look for parallels to the mule’s inability to reproduce. KJR is, after all, a family blog.)

Anyway, analogy or no analogy, I’m not convinced the hybrid workforce is going to combine more of the on-premises and remote employee strengths than it will incorporate their disadvantages.

Which brings us to this week’s topic. We’re going to home in on one dimension of the hybrid workforce that has, I think, received far too little attention: emotional support.

I’m not talking about employee assistance programs, or how to create a supportive culture, or how to identify employees who are struggling. Google the subject and you’ll find lots of material covering this ground.

No, I’m talking about something so commonplace that in an on-premises workforce it’s less signal than background noise. That’s the emotional support available to employees who are being driven nuts by a: bad manager; distractingly unproductive co-worker; business stratagem that’s too dopey for words; project they’re assigned to whose schedule was established by “right-to-left” planning  … all the crazy-making day-to-day sturm und drang that happens in a typical organization.

On-premises organizations have a well-established pressure relief valve for helping employees maintain their sanity. It’s a buddy’s empathetic ear, complemented, when the situation calls for it, by “C’mon, I’ll buy you a beer.”

A typical hybrid organization, to the extent there is such a thing, might set Tuesdays and Thursdays as mandated on-premises days, leaving Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays to employee discretion.

To the mathematically minded it might appear that the hybrid model provides 40% of a traditional workforce’s empathy provisioning. Poor as that metric might look, the true value is worse. With only two days a week in which employees are even in reliable proximity, “buddy” overstates the level of trust they can actually form with such limited contact with colleagues.

On top of which, what we might call “empathy encounters” aren’t planned, schedulable events. So if the need arises on a Wednesday, it will have to wait until Thursday to be satisfied.

Which means it won’t be satisfied at all. By then the situation will have come and gone, leaving behind another increment of un-dealt-with stress to accumulate onto the already existing pile.

What can you do to mitigate this issue? Good question, which is ManagementSpeak for “I don’t have a terrific answer.” The best I have to offer: Set up assignments and other situations in which collaboration among two or three employees is required for success, without the set-up seeming overly contrived.

It’s two or three employees and not more because a small number allows for less-structured interactions, which in turn encourages relationship-building without forcing it. That, in turn, makes it more natural for a stressed-out employee to reach out for a sympathetic ear.

One more thought: often the best connections – and of special value to you – are between employees in your organization and those in others. So work with other managers to extend the connection-building.

You might even find this extends your own support network. You aren’t, after all, immune from the same kinds of day-to-day stresses you’re trying to help the employees in your organization cope with.

Bob’s last word: The workforce transformation from on-premises employees to some permutation of remote, is no less implacable than the tide King Canute ordered to stay out.

That doesn’t make you, as a manager, a helpless victim of the onslaught, but neither does it mean you should uncritically embrace the trend and just let it happen.

This week’s gotcha is just one of the details effective leaders need to recognize and deal with.

If you have a better solution, or if you have other thoughts to offer, please take the time to post it (them) in the Comments.

Bob’s sales pitch: The newest in my CIO Survival Guide series is now available for your reading pleasure on CIO.com. It’s titled 3 consultant mistakes CIOs can’t help making.

Which I hope isn’t accurate: Read the article and you’ll discover ways to avoid making the mistakes in question.

Comments (4)

  • I don’t have a solution. I also don’t support the hybrid model, which I believe is the worst of both worlds. I’ve had the opportunity, provided by some of my corporate clients, to research the remote model and why/when it works. One trait has emerged as essential for a productive, engaged remote team: a manager with a high empathy quotient. Apparently, an empathetic group manager shields the team from the chaos above, but that manager has to be prepared to deal with the idiocy of his/her manager and the rest of the hierarchy. I’ve met several such managers, and they deserve a “hero” award, because they take a beating, everyday, and somehow ignore the stupidity and present a rational, compassionate corporate image to their team. In comparative studies, teams with an empathetic manager out-deliver teams with a manager that lacks empathy by close to 2:1. Reviewing these study results with pysch professionals resulted in the observation that “you’ve just proven the long-disputed contention that Theory Y managers get better results than Theory X managers.” Who the heck remembers that Theory X/Y simplistic answer to a wicked question from 50 years ago?

  • Nice response Roger.

    Bob you are on to something. We have seen a pretty dramatic increase in mental health issues with team members and those people are typically lashing out at leaders and management. The support “groups” that these employees had is pretty much gone with hybrid work (one day a week in office for us).

    Leader burnout is also up. Empathy is key as Roger notes, but that empathy is difficult for leaders to do full-time. The work/home balance has shifted.

    We also are seeing a general decline in productivity and service levels. Part of that is from a lack of team members asking each other for help or casually chatting.

    The other challenge we have identified is that we hired our employees for in-office work. Some people do not function well from home. Our teams that have always been remote are functioning much better.

    No magic bullets so far to solve all of this. Ironically, we are doing much better than our competitors.

  • I am not a manager, but I have worked remotely for over three years. The take-aways that I find helpful are:

    – Cameras on during meetings so you can see your co-workers.
    – Find the helpers as Mr. Rodgers used to say. They are out there.
    – IM with those helpers whenever and about anything. This builds trust.
    – Offer help with tasks when you have free cycles. That builds community.
    – Remember it’s just a job. It isn’t your life even when you need the money.

    My two cents.

    • Two cents? I think you’re selling yourself short. Between your thoughts and bitcoin I think your thoughts have more enduring value. Thanks for sharing them.

Comments are closed.