The virus has turned our everyday working lives upside down. In the new world of hybrid work, managers need more empathy and mindfulness, argues Marianne Janik, new chair of the board of management at Microsoft Germany, in this guest article.
In November 2020, I started my new job as chair of the board of management at Microsoft Germany under corona restrictions. That means I started without welcome parties, a canteen, or the usual corridor small talk. In other words, without everything that usually makes changing jobs easier. Nevertheless, the transition worked well, just as the transition to remote working has worked surprisingly well in most German companies. We’ve all settled into our new virtual reality quite well. And it’s often only when we leave the virtual world that we realize we’ve been missing something. At least that’s how I felt last summer during my first week working in Microsoft’s Munich office. The many physical encounters were both unusual and enriching. I felt more exhausted and at the same time more awake than after a week in the home office. Why is that?
When it comes to facilitating spontaneity, even the best virtual tools reach their limits
A study by Microsoft Research provides an answer. According to the study, the company-wide switch to remote working has led to individual teams moving closer together. But at the same time, the connection with other colleagues in other teams was lost and the company’s own internal network shrank. This is problematic because it is precisely the exchange with people with whom we do not work closely on a daily basis that broadens our horizons. Ultimately, we miss the spontaneous encounters that provide us with information that we don’t even know we need, which is precisely the very inspiration that steers our thoughts in new directions, triggering our creativity.
As much as digital tools and technologies helped us during the pandemic, they have at times reached their limits, particularly when it comes to facilitating spontaneous encounters. I can well imagine that we will come up with solutions for this as well, but at the moment, it’s human ingenuity that’s most called for. For example, our “virtual espresso bar” is very popular with Microsoft employees as a meeting place for informal exchanges. And after meetings with all employees, we sometimes send the participants to break-out rooms at random. This is also an attempt to bring surprises and spontaneity into everyday virtual life.
A return to the pre-corona work world is as unlikely as it is desirable
The virus has permanently turned the world of work upside down. A return to pre-corona times is as unlikely as it is desirable at this point. The pandemic was a long overdue reality check for the New Work concept. And it passed with flying colors. According to a Hays survey, three-quarters of respondents were pleasantly surprised by how well working from home actually works; 64 percent said they were more productive in the home office, and 70 percent felt comfortable with the merging of work and personal life. Even after the pandemic, most employees do not want to give up the increase in flexibility and personal responsibility, the more results-oriented work, and the improved work-life balance. According to a recent study, 40 percent of German employees would even be willing to change jobs if they had to go back to the office five days a week. Companies need to respond to this — and they already are.
- More than half of German companies have already introduced new home office arrangements.
- The majority are aiming for a “hybrid” solution, with a preferred mix of three days at the company office and two days in the home office. This is also largely in line with what employees want.
- And 84 percent want to drive forward the digital transformation in order to be even better equipped for the future of work.
I currently see a growing need in all organizations for digital solutions that put people at the center in which, for example, corporate culture is made more tangible, access to knowledge is simplified, and where employee well-being is promoted. In recent months, we’ve already seen a huge push in the proliferation and development of collaboration tools.
New features such as integrated language translation as well as solutions for greater accessibility, such as automatic transcription of video calls, are already making everyday work much easier. And I’m sure we’ll see a whole host of other ways to collaborate more effectively in a hybrid mode, making meetings more immersive. Perhaps we really will soon be meeting for lunch as holographs or arranging to meet as avatars for virtual brainstorming.
While technology will make it easier for us to shape the new hybrid working world, it won’t take it away. In many places, there are still more unanswered questions than real answers: How do we design offices and workplaces? How do we support employee training? How do we prevent overwork and “self-exploitation”? How do we ensure team spirit, affiliation, and identification? And perhaps most importantly, from my perspective, how do we promote trust?
Hybrid working means more than just a few days of home office
In reality, trust appears to be decreasing both among team colleagues and between employees and managers, and admittedly more so in hybrid settings than in purely remote ones. This suggests “that many managers still have problems finding the right forms of communication and interaction in a hybrid working environment,” write the authors of a home office study at the University of Konstanz. They are certainly right about this. But I think we first need to take a step back and realize that “hybrid work” means much more than a few days of home office for everyone. We have to accept that “hybrid work” is something entirely new, and it needs to be shaped, negotiated, and tested. It requires new rules, processes, and structures, and at the same time a new understanding of (personal) responsibility, collaboration, and leadership. Ultimately, a new culture shaped by trust and flexibility is needed.
The development of such a culture places enormous demands on managers, especially in terms of empathy and mindfulness, ensuring that everyone is always heard, and no one gets lost along the way. But it starts by asking some seemingly banal questions: How do have meetings when some of the workforce is in the office and the others are at home, possibly with a poor Internet connection?
When it comes to hybrid working models, there is no “one size fits all” solution
For me personally, it’s essential that different personalities are considered when it comes to communication, and this starts with the meeting culture. Here, it’s important to remain flexible, finding the right communication channels depending on the situation and the preferences of one’s conversation partners. This can sometimes mean limiting the conversation to audio and focusing entirely on the content. Soft skills are also now more in demand than ever. For example, I’ve started to pay more attention to body language, both my own and that of my colleagues. That way, I can better assess whether I'm really taking everyone with me.
When it comes to hybrid working models, there is no “one size fits all” solution, and this naturally increases complexity. To make collaboration work in an increasingly hybrid and diverse workforce, we need to consider a wide range of expectations and needs. We need to empower all employees to be productive, creative, and to feel connected to the business wherever they are. This is a big challenge and an even greater opportunity given that we can now integrate our work into our lives, rather than letting work rule our lives. Hybrid work is a real success when each individual can be the architect of their own way of working, which simultaneously creates real added value for everyone.
This article was originally written in German (translated by Kristy Henderson).