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A leap of trust will avoid a two-tier hybrid work culture

As Britain moves towards the unknown of long-term hybrid working, it will need new levels of trust to avert a harmful two-tier workplace culture.

The challenge has been obscured as Britain’s workforce adapted ably to remote working, and HR leaders held team culture together alongside their day-job. But as we plan hybrid workplaces, can we set and communicate realistic expectations for employees to rebuild a productive and engaged workplace culture for the future?

Most importantly, can we even define a hybrid work model and hybrid working culture?

Getting hybrid right:

Creativity or development? Hybrid work plans depend on aims

Coronavirus has highlighted missing piece in flexible working jigsaw

How to make hybrid working ‘work’

Fundamentals, such as the technology for meetings to function with people in a room and those joining from home, are essential. But more focus is needed on cultural norms to make these new work dynamics succeed.

Without building common work experiences, we will leave people with a greater sense of uncertainty than our pandemic-driven one. Hybrid models are the hardest when it comes to trust. Meetings get split into ‘zoomies’ and ‘roomies.’ I know from teaching at Oxford University in a hybrid model the care it takes to not avert your attention and energy to the people in the room.

CEOs have praised people’s adaptability but many fewer have recorded what teams do better — in person or online — in terms of work, culture & employee experience. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings wants people back in the office because nobody argues their corner in virtual sessions; for him, face to face means resolving disagreements to make something better. 

Work teams’ anxieties spring from uncertainty — over family, health, their job and the future. But as cobbled-together home-and-office teams become companies’ default, how many employees believe they have a say in improving them?

How will culture be rebuilt if we can’t describe and deliver equal experiences for everyone?

Organisations’ hybrid working responses range from enforcement to apathy. Managers puzzle over colleagues’ reluctance to come in when homelife offers greater certainty. Employees in post-lockdown territories forget that colleagues elsewhere can barely leave the house.

Focused on risks and failing to engage people consistently, companies have left employees in widely differing states of trust.

Returning to the workplace is a ‘trust leap’ for many people. When we are asked to venture into the unknown, it brings fear, stress and anxiety. Our human response is to seek the safe and familiar. For many people, that place is a desk at the kitchen table or home office.

Some fundamental steps will enable leaders to help their employees to take a trust leap around the next era of hybrid work culture. 

First, this is a time for clarity and consistency in communications. People need clear expectations from CEOs to understand their workplace choices and grasp the possibilities opening up for them.

Second, C-level executives need to be trained to create a level playing field for everyone and keep it level. Even running a hybrid meeting well is a skill we need to learn.

Third, CEOs and HRs need to lead with confident humility and create a culture where it’s okay to say, “I don’t know.” Managers will need a higher tolerance for uncertainty in the world of work.

And HRs must finally cast off their multi-faceted crisis role of planner, support, fixer and motivator and help CEOs design a clear and effective hybrid working model and culture.

I’ve seen what’s possible. A leading UK hospitality company never let anyone go, even in 2020’s darkest hours: its teams home-schooled colleagues’ kids, gaining new skills and strengthening frayed bonds. Teams were raring to go, even before the sector’s restrictions were lifted.

Trust is at the heart of employees’ confidence when facing the unknown. If we give hybrid working the care it demands, this year’s unfamiliar could involve employees re-connecting with their company purpose and achieving things they and their CEO never thought possible.


Rachel Botsman is an author of and a trust fellow at Oxford University, Saïd Business School.