In the media

Why your hybrid working policy isn't working

Debbie Whitaker

By Debbie Whitaker

People Management

09 February 2023


This article was first published in People Management 

The pros and cons of home versus office working are well documented, but many organisations are missing the point in this debate. Where and how employees do their best work is down to their unique pattern of strengths and motivators. This has been largely absent from employers’ thinking, not least when some big organisations hit the headlines earlier this year after taking heavy-handed measures to ‘encourage’ their employees back to full-time office working.

Organisations have an opportunity to have a more sophisticated debate about how to personalise their workers’ experiences and, in turn, reap performance benefits by helping them figure out their innate strengths (what they love doing, what they are good at and what energises them). This allows them to understand where people perform best – in the office, at home or a hybrid of the two.

An overwhelming body of evidence suggests that consciously using our strengths more of the time at work means we’ll perform better: we’re three times more likely to be successful and six times less likely to be stressed. Development approaches that help employees dial up their strengths, rather than fix their weaknesses, also result in step changes in performance. This is hardly rocket science, but many employers still haven’t latched on to that fact – even fewer have worked out that strengths are an important part of the hybrid working jigsaw.

Which strengths point to the work environment that may work best for an individual?

There are people who’d never want to work from home. This is nothing to do with whether they have the right home office set up, but everything to do with what energises them. Take the NHS recruiter who chose to go into the office during the pandemic: “I love noise. My team knows they need to pop into my office for a chat, otherwise I’ll go mad.” She’s someone who gets a buzz from being around people. Working from home literally drains her so she’s less productive.

Similarly, a strength shared by great sales and customer service people is loving to connect with others and build rapport, which is much harder to do through a laptop screen and far less energising for them than face-to-face interactions.

On the other hand, employees who love to work on their own in peace and quiet, or like to reflect, are likely to find the hubbub of office life immensely distracting. People who have the strength of resilience are likely to do well at home. They can ‘bounce back’ quickly if they’re having a bad day and are less reliant on a support system of colleagues around them.

Some strengths set people up for success no matter where they work, but managers need to watch out for signs of overusing them. For example, for people with a strong drive to achieve goals, stretching and measurable performance outcomes will stimulate them to achieve even more. If they don’t have an ‘off switch’, however, they’ll need great managers to help them avoid burnout. We’ve all seen cases of this during lockdown. Any environment will suit disciplined people who are methodical, love to follow a plan and consistently deliver to a deadline. Adapting quickly to changing conditions could derail them when working from home without the right management support.

Organisations planning to bring everyone back into the office full time should think beyond bricks and mortar and realise that what matters is not really about who is sitting where. A ‘one size fits all’ policy may be easy to manage, but won’t deliver a real uplift in engagement and performance. Factoring in strengths to allow an element of choice will help both employees and organisations. This more inclusive approach to managing people presents one challenge: it requires careful thought on the part of leaders to shape implementation.

What practical measures can organisations adopt?

First, implement a strengths-based approach to help employees and their managers to gain deep insights into how they do their best work. Use a strengths reflection tool so that individuals know what strengths they bring and are valued for. Equally, ensure awareness of any material weaknesses they have and how to manage them. Provide development experiences to help them come up with concrete plans to use their strengths more effectively at work.

Second, educate managers in the power of strengths. Equip them to have conversations with their people about their strengths to personalise a model of work that helps them be their best, whether working from home, the office or a hybrid. The critical challenge for managers in the world of hybrid working is how to align their teams to produce outstanding performance.

Employers have a choice: either treat employees as a homogenous group to the detriment of high performance, or create an environment that encourages staff to play to their strengths.

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