What impact does it have on people and social interactions?

There is no doubt that the pandemic accelerated change in working practices and although many companies, particularly those with an international workforce, were already functioning successfully in the hybrid dimension, there were many, many more where the topic of flexible or hybrid working had not yet even made the agenda.

Those individuals already working in a hybrid way pre-pandemic saw little change and had more than likely chosen a role that encompassed working from somewhere other than an office. This was presumably because it suited their approach to work, their personality, or their lifestyle choices.  Additionally, many employees new to home working, even though it was enforced, felt they have a better work life balance.

From a business perspective, overall productivity was high, sickness was low and recruitment teams could draw from a much wider talent pool as location was no longer a problem.

However, many other employees who have been forced into home working have suffered. Possibly they had no suitable work set up. Approximately 36% of men and 26% of women aged between 18 and 34 still live at home this could mean that 3 or 4 adults were working from under the same roof. A home which was designed as a home and not an office space. This might be one explanation behind 18% of people have said they have not been able to switch off and unplug maybe because they are literally ‘living at work’ whilst others (as high as 1 in 5) have said that loneliness is their biggest struggle.

Eighteen months and many polls and surveys later there are differing business and individual views but one thing that everyone is seemingly sure of is that flexible or hybrid working is here to stay in some capacity but what about the people and social element of the workplace? What did the office environment give us and why is it that remote working has created so much loneliness when technological connectivity is so much easier than it ever has been?

The office space obviously offered the human or social interaction both the positive and the negatives which led to our thoughts on the 5 main challenges of workplace social interactions that businesses need to overcome in the hybrid environment.

The invisibility of mental wellbeing and physical health

For us, these interconnected factors came top of the list as they encompass so much that is socially driven. 

  1. Loneliness and isolation particularly for those who always enjoyed the office conversations and get energy from others. You currently have a single small laptop sized window into someone’s life. So much can be hidden from others at a distance; frustration, anxiety and over thinking, to name a few, as you do not have your colleagues’ eyes and ears, and much more can be hidden through a camera lens than would have been possible sitting next to your colleagues all day.
  2. High productivity masking exhaustion and feeling obligated to sit at a desk longer as people cannot physically see what you have done. In turn this leads to poor posture and inappropriate habits that a colleague or manager might remind you is not good practice but now goes unseen.
  3. Digital exhaustion with not even a watercooler moment to break up the day. As a manager or leader, what do you see, know and understand? How do you really know what is going on?

Lack of innovation and collaboration.

If you have had a long office-based career you will understand that sometimes the best ideas, come from a passing comment or building on each other’s ideas in a brainstorm session which becomes so much more difficult when technology limits us to linear or formulaic communication. Do we have shrinking networks as replicating networking in a digital format is more difficult? It is much easier to be ignored through a direct message than literally bumping into someone in the corridor. And expanding networks is so much harder as building new relationships with other teams, which many people thrive on, must come in a digital message request, DM or calendar invite for example, that can be ignored or easily missed.

Fear of missing out.

People, being generally social beings, have always had a fear or missing out. Even in the workplace environment the observant would wonder what is happening over there and why am I not involved? This might be a common fear but is it being exacerbated by not knowing what is going on in the wider organisation or even in your own team because you cannot see or hear what is happening, only in glimpses through the laptop sized window. There is a fear of whether everyone will be treated equally when it comes to future opportunities.  With no one to compare yourself to, are you working as hard and delivering as much as the person you used to sit next to? The little things matter, how do you do those ‘little things’ equally for everyone with a hybrid team of office based and home office or field based employees?

Developing the next generation.

This has become a double edge sword. How do we connect with them as they join our businesses, how do we coach them, get them to shadow others, and how do we impart office etiquette? How do we explain and demonstrate our business culture when you are probably having to re-write it?

But for them, our next generation, how do they build networks and find out about the wider business, as a part of many employee’s inductions was to spend time an hour or two in departments, other than their own, learning the wider business and how it all ‘fits together’. How do they build their confidence, knowledge, and internal contacts?

Employee lifecycle.

As an employer how much more difficult is it to connect particularly if you have never met the employee in person. All those social cues such as body language, the general ‘feeling’ that someone emanates are missing, so are performance conversations as effective carried out remotely? How do you recognise talent, monitor “unconscious overtime” and is empathy as easy and genuine on a laptop sized window?

To read more about Hybrid Working, read our blog about Taming the beast: Are hybrid teams really such a cause for concern?

From experience, we can say that what needs to happen is a business needs to create a plan to generate that social network and interaction that is important to so many. Empower people whatever the new working location and establish a new clearly defined culture but one that focuses on communication including frequency, being genuine, being available and maybe using different and methods and types of interaction, one that allows for flexibility and clearly identifies what is in it for the employee. So is it possible to recreate that social interaction in a hybrid way? OnTrack has over 20 years of experience of the hybrid working model with some of the most knowledgeable in the L&D business we have an understanding exactly what managers and leaders need to do, how it needs to be done and we can help you find the solutions.