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Returning to the office in 2021 will introduce a tricky new power dynamic

A man wearing a protective mask juggles a devil stick after a new outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Beijing, China, June 26, 2020.
Reuters/Thomas Peter
It'll be a bit of a juggling act for managers.
  • Jackie Bischof
By Jackie Bischof

Talent Lab editor


Let’s be honest. One of the reasons employees went into the office before the coronavirus pandemic was because working from home was so crap. It had its benefits, to be sure, but it came with significant downsides.

Working remotely prior to Covid-19 often meant dealing with the internally or externally imposed pressures of proving that you were actually being productive. It meant over-communicating with colleagues about your schedule and, if it was a particularly switched-off place digitally, reminding your company of your existence and value.

This was a manifestation of proximity bias—a phenomenon that favors office workers who have regular, face-to-face contact with their colleagues.

“We know that just more face time, more exposure, tends to breed liking” and a more “positive assessment” of an employee’s work ethic, says Mark Mortensen, a professor of organizational behavior at INSEAD. “More face time with the boss means I’m going to come up top of mind for new projects. That means when it comes time for performance evaluations, the boss has more time with me.”

Even when companies were supportive of remote setups, managers weren’t necessarily trained in how to best manage a remote team. There are optimal conditions for distributed teams. But if they aren’t clearly articulated and prescribed, they can leave remote workers on the back foot.

The pandemic temporarily wiped a lot of these problems away, and not only because it leveled the playing field for those who already were working from home. It forced many managers to emphatically and thoughtfully take into account the interplay between a person’s personal life and their work. Leaders had to learn how to trust their employees, and help them be productive, without micromanaging them. And managers found an array of resources on managing an at-home workforce.

But as vaccines become more widely available, and companies begin calling employees back to the office, the threat of an uneven playing field is rearing its head once more. Few managers will be able to justify demanding everyone’s presence back in the office, even when it’s safe to do so. The result will probably be the proliferation of distributed teams: some in the office, some remote. How will we handle those differences?

“It’s about proximity to sources of power, whether those are resources, individuals, decision makers,” Mortensen says. “This is where hybridity is a really significant challenge that’s different from working just remotely or face-to-face.”

Being able to lead hybrid teams effectively is something Aliza Knox, the head of Asia for website security firm Cloudflare, believes will be the leadership skill of the future.

“Home-based workers aren’t second-class citizens, but consistently being away from the office can make them feel that way,” Knox writes. “One risk with a hybrid workplace is that dispersed workers will feel—or genuinely be—overlooked and/or under-recognized.”

How managers can prepare for a return to the office

Cal Henderson, co-founder and CTO of the instant messaging platform Slack, advises managers to prepare now. “In my experience, the toughest scenario is when everyone on a team is in the same location—except for one or two people,” writes Henderson. “This often leads to a sense of isolation for the remote folks and a higher potential for miscommunication, making it harder to accomplish things as a team.”

Twitter will revise its entire performance review system to try to mitigate this dynamic, the company’s human resources chief, Jennifer Christie, told the Washington Post. “We want to create that parity with people who work from home,” Christie said.

But how can managers take advantage of everything they’ve learned in the past year, and make sure the return to the office doesn’t create inequalities?

Mortensen encourages leaders to have a frank discussion with employees about what a hybrid approach could entail, and not assume people’s desires.“We need to have more conversations to understand what the actual needs, demands, and preferences are of our people, so that we can then start to think: How do we operationalize that effectively?” he says.

This can help build an inclusive environment, which Knox says is key to making sure that team members feel emotionally connected to their work, regardless of their location. “The real challenge in keeping a hybrid workforce energized is not technological or logistical, but emotional,” she says.

Online team events, public praise, and modeling boundaries are all tools that a manager can take with them into the next few months, Knox advises.

During the pandemic, Slack leaned heavily on its employee resource groups—space for different communities within the company that provide support regardless of location. To avoid work creep, it created remote work guidelines, and set norms and signifiers to indicate when a person was available.

Managers also sharpened their ability to provide clear communication around roles and responsibilities, which is something Slack’s Henderson hopes they can retain in the shift to a hybrid, distributed environment.

“We will never again have a one-size-fits-all all approach to work life,” he writes. “Let’s embrace that.”

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