Erin Eatough, Behavioral Science Manager, BetterUp, explores why hybrid working has elevated the importance of employee wellbeing
Covid-19 meant that public sector workers had to adapt – and fast.
Mass homeworking became a reality overnight in March 2020. 80% of council staff worked from home last year, according to a SOCITM survey.
This has brought some benefits, including increased productivity and more time spent with loved ones, but it has also had a negative impact on mental health. Many people have found themselves working longer hours, with less social contact, which has led to burnout, frustration and loneliness.
Now, with lockdown restrictions lifted, many public sector organisations are taking on hybrid working models, where employees work from different locations, including the office.
But the return of the commute, meeting colleagues face-to-face and being pressured to be seen in the office could present risks to psychological safety. So public sector organisations must continue prioritising mental health.
Here are the practical steps employers can take to help ensure staff are motivated, energised and focused, despite working across different locations.
This is a time of great uncertainty for employees.
After showing great tenacity and adaptability during successive lockdowns, they are now facing a new world of work yet again – whether that’s returning to the company premises themselves or speaking to colleagues located in the office on Microsoft Teams and Zoom.
This hybrid model presents new challenges for public sector organisations. For example, people have developed new working styles over the last 18 months, forming opinions on the desirability and effectiveness of different work practices.
And this could lead to division in the workplace, with siloes forming between office-based workers and people operating remotely.
What can public sector leaders do to help with this? Establishing clear lines of communication with employees and demonstrating they’re listening is key.
A more nuanced, personalised approach, based on ongoing conversations with individuals – rather than all-company decrees that could demoralise employees with complex views and preferences on working practices – is the right route.
This means more than a survey of concerns or a one-off town hall. It means an ongoing dialogue, such as surveys or feedback reports, for employees to express the range of what is working and not working for them, and for leaders to do the same.
This needs to be part of a broader approach to leadership that champions inclusivity.
In an era of hybrid working, creating a culture of inclusivity has become even more complex.
The Royal Society for Public Health found that two-thirds of workers who shifted from the office to home during the pandemic felt less connected to their colleagues.
If this is allowed to continue, it could lead to people feeling excluded from their teams and organisations – something which could particularly be felt by employees from disadvantaged socio-economic groups or with disabilities, as well as new joiners and young people. Disabled workers are 80% more likely to feel excluded at work, for example. Employers must be careful that a hybrid working model doesn’t exacerbate the situation.
This has important implications for the work environment, affecting the productivity and wellbeing of employees. Perhaps more urgently, data from BetterUp shows that belonging is already at an all-time low since the pandemic started. We know that connection — both employees’ connection to others and employees’ connection to the work itself — is the primary driver of intent to stay. Exclusion drives turnover and will hasten employee leaving in a tight talent market.
So, it’s vital that leaders take time to foster connection on their teams and among their employees and be deliberate about encouraging participation regardless of where an employee is sitting. Leaders must show the way by taking a genuine interest in others, showing care and concern for challenges they’re facing. This can be achieved through leadership teams becoming more visible, engaging with workers at all levels on a regular basis and acknowledging personal challenges they may be facing.
Physical distance is no longer an excuse for emotional distance. Putting thought and effort into building and maintaining relationships is more important than ever.
By supporting individuals in building the skills to better relate to others, their teams, and themselves, organisations can help every individual carve a personal pathway to belonging.
And in a ‘post-COVID’ new normal, this will feel reassuring and energising.
Recognising everyone’s contribution
Hybrid working also requires managers to change how they view and act upon employees’ work.
As the model becomes commonplace, increasing numbers of employees could have concerns around voice, visibility, or perceptions of contribution. A survey by Blind found that 53% of workers feel remote working has negatively impacted their career and progression for this reason.
These concerns are understandable. With remote working, managers don’t have in-person cues like seeing someone at their desk or seeing them working late at the office. While those cues were never reliable proxies for productivity or hard work, organisational cultures that value “face-time” will have to be more deliberate to challenge the bias that the people physically in-office are more committed, harder-working, or more deserving of attention, feedback, and opportunities.
In a hybrid world, organisations cannot afford a bias towards a particular form of working. The talent that isn’t in-person doesn’t expect to be treated as secondary or slow-tracked, and organisations need that talent.
Public sector organisations must develop a culture where those operating remotely are valued, recognised, and developed equally to those working on location.
The future of hybrid working will hinge on managers who encourage employees to work where they perform best, and who can create the best environment for their people to come together into teams to collaborate, innovate, and grow together, no matter where they work, to continue to deliver exceptional business outcomes.
Looking to the future
This past year has taught us that change is continual, and teams and organisations must constantly adapt.
Public sector leaders have a responsibility to ensure the new era of hybrid working is built on strong communication, inclusivity and trust, with everyone’s experiences carefully considered. Leaders will do well to be open to adopting new ways of working based on these learnings rather than defaulting back to old work practices as the “right” or preferred way.
It is important we remember that the situation is fluid. Plans will change, models must adapt, and organisations, like people, will sometimes misstep.
But investing in employee wellbeing is paramount and will shape every individual’s future for the better.