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Melbourne Business School News A manager's guide to hybrid working and the new normal

A manager's guide to hybrid working and the new normal

After two years of change, the next challenge for managers is finding a new version of normal, writes Carol Gill.

Employees in an office with some working from home, visible on screen, and some in the office physically

Remote work has been a big change for some organisations and business as usual for others over the past two years – but most will be looking to strike some sort of balance between flexibility and time spent in the office as the world learns to live with COVID-19.

In Australia, the Victorian Government relaxed its advice on working from home this week and began encouraging employees to return to the office.

For managers who are attempting to create a 'new normal' with their teams, here are the steps we recommend.

Trust your employees

Managers can no longer fall back on old approaches where they do not trust employees – that horse has bolted. Employees are trustworthy and our economy tells the tale.

With that in mind, the most important piece of advice is to continue trusting your people to deliver. After all, office workers have been successfully working from home for much of the past two years.

If you have concerns about performance, set up regular meetings, give specific feedback, and set tangible goals and KPIs based on benchmarking work and getting feedback from customers. Hybrid working or a return to the office should not be viewed as a solution to underperformance.

The next step is to have a conversation with each of your employees about their preferred working patterns and surface any problems that are occurring. For example, if you feel an employee may have insufficient childcare in place, talk to them about it. You may learn they work effectively in the evenings after their children are in bed and if it doesn't affect their productivity, it is of no concern.

You may also be able to use this conversation to coach your employees on how to effectively manage their work/life balance if required.

Purpose over presenteeism

An organisation is a group of people with a common purpose. How that purpose is achieved can vary for different teams, or even people within a team, so a 'one size fits all' approach may not be the best solution.

For example, back-office employees may not need to be in the office as frequently as customer-facing staff. And even roles that are closer to the customer may not need to be performed in the office – a coffee shop near the client's home might turn out to be a better venue for a meeting.

As a general rule, you should prioritise thinking about the purpose of each person's role and helping them to deliver on it, rather than focusing on 'presenteeism'.

Get everyone on the same page

Once you've explored each person's preference and purpose, you should set up a team meeting to align expectations. Establishing 'terms of engagement' or norms is a great place to start.

Think about the norms you want to establish – whether they are about time spent in the office or the way that hybrid meetings will work – and then be clear about it. Be explicit and don't make assumptions.

Getting everyone on the same page will help to prevent a return to online meetings by default, or the frustrating experience of being the only person to show up in the office.

You can also use this period to set up experiments for the team and execute and evaluate them quickly. There may be an opportunity to share ideas between teams and organisations about the best hybrid working formats.

Should you mandate days in the office?

Even if you're thinking in terms of purpose rather than presenteeism, there still may be a case for making certain days when a team, a cluster of teams, or the whole organisation comes into one central location.

These days could let employees stack their meetings within and across teams. Slogans like 'Together Tuesdays', 'Welcome Wednesdays' and 'Team Thursdays' come to mind.

One of the benefits of having everyone together in one place is that it encourages chance meetings and discussions, which can in turn boost innovation. Corridor chats break new ground in a way that formal meetings cannot, and physically gathering employees together can provide this opportunity.

However, we recommend a 'pull' rather than 'push' approach here. Organisations should consider putting on a morning tea or lunch on these days to facilitate informal networking opportunities between teams, rather than mandating attendance in the first instance.

Keep what has worked

There are some things that worked well during COVID-19 and we want to build this into our work lives going forward. For example, prior to lockdown, many employees did not have much connection with their CEO, who was far-removed from the front line in large organisations.

During COVID-19, many CEOs started to use Zoom to update employees, aligning their people to the organisation's mission and values without the noise and distortion that can be created when messages travel through a hierarchy of management.

There have also been gains for employees in terms of working from home, including reduced commute time, more flexibility on where they can live, the ability to own pets, and autonomy on when, where, and how to work.

Organisations will want to retain some of these benefits, otherwise they risk falling behind others and struggling to attract and retain talent by enhancing the employee experience.

Carol Gill is an Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour at Melbourne Business School who teaches People Management and Leadership on our MBA programs.

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