Over the past year, remote work has been the de facto policy at most organizations. Driven by lockdowns policies and concern for worker safety, the transition from in-person work to working from home has become familiar to a lot of us. But vaccines are here, positivity rates are dropping, and herd immunity is taking hold—it’s soon time for companies to start thinking about a return to normalcy.

Knowing this, the road back isn’t going to be as fast as the one that happened over a weekend in 2020. A move to a traditional office will still require social distancing and strict cleaning, some employees have put remote work as a top priority, and others still may not be willing to come back after moving.

The New Workplace Will Blend Remote and In-Person

For many, remote work will be the only way of work. But for others, a return to the office could be welcome. For some, flexibility might be the top priority—working a few days in the office and a few from home. Whichever way that you approach this, you’re going to want to limit your exposure and provide a comfortable experience for everyone, no matter how they intend to work.

For those in charge, now is the time to start thinking about this. 2020 exposed companies to a lot of risk—the decision to go remote was made in the name of safety; companies who weren’t built for it weren’t thinking about the policy questions this created. Now, with some returning to the office, it’s important to develop a few policies to handle the new landscape.

Challenges in the Partial Return to Work

Though we touched on some of the issues of a return to work and hybrid workspace in a blog on the potential for a work from home dress code, we would today like to explore some of the key considerations for building policies in the new era.

According to HBR, hybridity promises organizations the benefits of remote working alongside the critical strengths of traditional, co-located work. But it also creates challenges. Collaboration is fine when teams are remote. It’s even easier when both are working together. But when half of the workplace is in person and others are off site, getting things to flow could be a problem.

Here are just some of the challenges this creates:

  • Power Access: Face time with management is different than Facetiming with management and could create power imbalances. In-office employees will be more visible and can demonstrate competence, be the first to see projects, and have more access to support. Remote workers will have more trouble demonstrating this.
  • Resource Access: It’s reasonable to guess that office technology is stronger than home technology. Slow connections, lack of access, and more can all harm a remote employee’s ability to demonstrate competence.
  • Information Access: Remote workers may also get left out of the loop in normal communications. It’s easy for communication to flow between certain parties and never reach the disconnected employee. No one wants to be the last to know, and without the social support of a traditional space, this isolation can derail the relationship.

Leading in the Hybrid Era

In the transition to a hybrid model, managers need to understand what it means to lead when this imbalance is present. Managers who are co-located with their employees have more information about what and how those employees are doing. Managers who are remote from their employees may feel like they’re operating in the dark.

HBR recommends that leaders focus on the following areas to minimize the power differential between in-person and remote work.

  • Identify Challenges: After planning the path back, you’re going to need to look for any blind spots in the hybridity configuration—who is working, where they’re working, and when. From here, you’re going to need to discuss the potential challenges that both sides face and identify ways to overcome this.
  • Track and Codify Schedules: Remote work promised to be flexible, but flexibility only goes so far. Hybridity will be a moving target, depending on schedules. Success will require ongoing systematic tracking, codifying, and visualizing to help both managers and employees stay aware of the configuration of hybridity in a given work group and manage the resulting power dynamics.
  • Design around Imbalances: While some level of power imbalance is structurally inevitable in a hybrid team or work group, when necessary and possible, managers should intervene to redistribute power through shifting access to resources and/or visibility levels.
  • Create Awareness and Empathy: Many workers who have high levels of visibility with management may not be aware of the imbalance this creates. HBR adds, “Particularly important is establishing a culture of psychological safety and (individual/collective) trust. This will increase the likelihood of employees speaking up and asking for resources when they need them, as well as their confidence that their efforts will be recognized.”
  • Plan for Interventions: From onboarding to performance reviews, managers “must remain acutely aware of how hybridity creates an imbalance in their teams with respect to employees’ access to resources and visibility levels, as well as the information that they hold about their employees.”

Corporate Finance Leadership in the New Normal

There are many benefits to the hybrid model of work, but to make the most of this, leaders need to be aware of the power imbalances and create a landscape that benefits both high visibility employees and ones with less connection.

No matter how long it takes, the return to work has to happen at some point. If you’re looking to plan for a safe and consistent plan for getting back to normal, stay up with all the latest from the Controllers Council, and sign up for updates, as we expect to announce a return to normal webcast in the coming weeks.

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