stepping up

Dynamic, fast-paced, and widely-scattered — these terms aptly describe the workforce we function in today. The changing nature of work relentlessly tasks leaders to steer through uncertainties, such as redefining how they connect with their people, balancing the integration of AI, and prioritising the development of their workplace culture.

In the wake of the pandemic, leaders were given ample information outlining key tactics and strategies for managing remote/hybrid teams. “Many organisations did a good job of video conferencing and working virtually with employees. But not a lot of them leveraged technology correctly to socialise with their employees”, notes Steven Booker, Business Psychologist, iHR Australia.

In accordance with the article, ‘Remote and Hybrid Workers Lack Meaningful Work, Sense of Belonging’,1  published in February this year, the author asserts that remote work isn’t a one-size-fits-all remedy for the employee experience. This is why Stephen Bell, Managing Director, iHR Australia underlines the importance of being “attuned to the quality of interrelationships occurring between staff who are in a hybrid working model”.

This article addresses three pressing workplace uncertainties for leaders: remote team management, AI integration, and fostering belonging. We’ve tapped into the insights of experts Stephen Bell and Steven Booker for further guidance to leaders.

 

Handling dispersed (or remote) teams

While conflicting leadership perspectives on remote work are not new, some organisations are eager to reclaim watercooler chats and face-to-face collaboration. Given the lack of an apparent resolution soon, how can leaders navigate this expectation and continue to uphold the values of the organisation whilst prioritising their employees’ wellbeing?

Remote working came into picture due to ongoing lockdowns, specifically as a health and safety measure. “It was an extraordinary pattern for an extraordinary situation”, suggests Bell.

The work-from-home mantra has turned into a lifestyle choice for some Australian workers who rejected the return to hustle culture. “We shouldn’t just believe that remote work is right for everybody. And certainly we shouldn’t believe it’s always right for the organisation,” says Bell.

Managing dispersed employees and learning how to organise such teams has become a priority for office-based leaders today. “Many employers are feeling obligated to implement hybrid models when it may not always suit their business needs, but remember, if it’s a better model for productivity and mental well-being, then by all means have it,” he adds.

The Work Trend Index Special Report 2 released by Microsoft found that 85% of leaders believed that the shift to hybrid work has made it challenging for them to ‘check’ if their employees are being productive. The report reiterates the importance of being clear about an employee’s work priorities and objectives.

Bell shares a similar viewpoint and makes an astute observation that a “lot of organisations are using it [hybrid work] as a retention strategy rather than seeing it as a means to engage their people to better understand and fulfill their work objectives.”

Furthermore, “observation, innovation and collaboration often become the victim of work from home models, simply because of the missed opportunity to walk past somebody and share an idea,” adds Bell.

Therefore, Bell emphasises the notion of professional development of a worker to be able to achieve their objectives while working from home.

 

What are some ways managers can strike a balance to reduce the ambiguity around remote work and align it with their organisation’s goals?

  • Have clear patterns of communication with your team. As a leader, you need to be disciplined about conducting meetings and regular chats with your employees as incidental communication is less likely to happen.
  • Make different support options accessible to your people. Ensure there are accessible services such as an employee assistance program (free counselling) service, regular team meetings, and processes to make complaints in case conflicts arise. It is crucial to replicate in practice, the in-person processes for people working remotely as well.
  • Offer flexibility in the interest of both parties. It is crucial that leaders are approachable, while also adhering to the recent updates implemented by FairWork, on providing flexible working arrangements to employees who must clearly articulate the reasons for seeking modifications in their work structure. The employer must abide to the requirements of FairWork Act and/or the agreements in relation to work. That being said, “providing flexibility that works in the interest of both employer and employee can be the key to great engagement and productivity,” notes Bell.

 

The lack of belonging and connection at work

Humans are social creatures, and while the need for belonging to a group varies amongst individuals, it is to a greater or lesser degree a fundamental human drive. At work, this need translates to a desire to connect with the people around us, and to feel we are a part of something bigger than ourselves (i.e. an organisation whose missions and goals align with ours).

For example, a DEI research study 3 published by Culture Amp identified that a sense of belonging was the single metric consistently linked to employees voluntarily committing to work, taking pride and motivating themselves and others in the workplace. Despite this, many organisations and leaders are still navigating through the process of establishing a work environment that communicates the message ‘you belong here’.

Booker pinpoints 3 issues that may contribute to employees feeling a ‘lack of belonging’.

  1. Lack of informal socialising due to increased remote work. Booker says that many people working remotely or in a hybrid model are finding themselves without the traditional office banter, coffee chats, and informal interactions that are central to feeling a sense of belonging, and creating an atmosphere of collaboration and trust. Making sure that opportunities for socialising are provided for virtual and hybrid model workers is critical.
  2. Lack of communication from management to help employees feel they belong. Booker notes that: “some organisations don’t do a great job of fostering a sense of belonging and a shared vision about what we are all working for together. For example, if an organisation is not regularly communicating to employees how their work is helping the organisation achieve its mission and goals, this can make it harder for employees to feel they belong or understand how their hard work contributes to the organisation’s success. In turn, this could lead some employees to feel disconnected.”
  3. How mental ill-health conditions affect ‘lack of belonging’. People often wonder whether mental ill-health conditions such as depression cause employees to feel a lack of belonging or lead to more disruptive workplaces. Booker emphasises that this is a complex question with no definitive answer. It’s important as leaders to not discriminate against an employee experiencing a mental ill-health condition, and to avoid assumptions that this may make them disruptive in the workplace. For some employees, there may be a link between mental ill-health and exhibiting a lack of belonging. This link can go both ways (i.e. mental ill-health could be a cause, effect, or both).

As a cause, consider that depression (one of the most common mental ill-health conditions in the workplace) may result in some employees having an overly negative evaluation of themselves, their contribution to the team, and how much others value their input. In such cases, it’s not hard to understand how depression could contribute to the employee feeling a lack of connection or belonging at work.On the other hand, as an effect, workplace cultures that cause employees to feel a lack of belonging or value may be a psychosocial risk factor increasing the likelihood of some employees developing or exacerbating mental ill-health conditions.

So, what should leaders do to better support employees’ mental health?

  • Understand your level of lack of belonging and other psychosocial risks at work. Adopt correct processes, depending on the size and nature of your organisation to regularly measure the extent to which employees are experiencing a lack of belonging (and other psychosocial risks). Otherwise: “it’s like trying to treat a broken leg without an X-ray.” Whether it is employee surveys, focus groups, employee consultation committees or one-on-one check-ins, it is crucial to have some process for keeping in touch with employees and the level of psychosocial risks they are exposed to.
  • Regularly communicate the organisation’s mission and vision, and show employees how their hard work contributes to achieving that mission. Booker encourages leaders to regularly update and remind their teams about the values and mission of the organisation, and discuss how their hard work is helping the organisation achieve that mission. For example, organisations can choose to share high level operational or financial metrics, and then show each team or division how their own work and metrics have contributed to achieve those results.
  • Be an authentic leader, don’t hide your true self. “Culture flows from the top. If your goal as a leader is to have a team or workforce that’s non-discriminatory, inclusive, tolerant, and values diversity, then you have to model these behaviours. Rather than trying to be the perfect manager who’s never stressed or worried, model to your team that it’s OK to experience stress, low resilience or mental health challenges. For example, if you’ve experienced mental health challenges, consider being open about these with the team. Or, if there have been times when you have not managed stress well or lacked resilience, be open about this and how you dealt with it”.

Influence of AI in the workforce

The age of AI is here, and so are fears surrounding its influence on an already volatile work environment. With a high-stakes battle for AI supremacy among many organisations, numerous studies have said it to be one of the leading causes of disruption and job displacement.

The Future of Jobs Report released in 2023 4  found that 25% of jobs will be negatively impacted over the next five years due to the presence of AI. “But we have said that about technology, in general, over and over again”, says Bell.

“I think it’s important to be careful about the dialogue on artificial intelligence, because it may well be that it’s not just about job losses or loss of control, but rather just another aid to be effective as an organisation.”

“I suspect that over time the integration of AI will balance itself out and make way for new opportunities, just as when computers were first introduced and integrated into workplaces,” adds Bell.

Instead of looking at AI as a replacement of human talent, one needs to focus on maximising its potential to enhance and complement job capabilities. However, there is no doubt that organisations will soon be required to review their structures and rebalance their resources accordingly.

For example, HR professionals can utilise generative AI like Elicit AI and ChatGPT to conduct research on current HR policies and get a feel for how to draft well-written policies. However, “someone still needs to read those policies, needs to shape them, must ensure that the policies make sense in the context of the organisation,” says Bell.

Partially concerned with the extent of AI’s interference, Bell asks leaders to think about, “While the requirement to write policies from scratch may become lesser than it is today, the question then becomes what elements of HR will be taken over by AI?”

Since leaders and employees alike are still grappling with the concept of adopting AI into their everyday functions, and worse believe AI to be coming for their jobs 5, how can managers respond to the staff’s anxiety around incorporating AI in the workplace?

“When you have a significant unknown, like AI, it’s very hard for leaders to provide rational advice on how this is going to impact an employee’s job. However, having an open conversation about it, where people feel they can contribute to the conversation can, in many ways, help people rationalise how technology fits into their roles,” notes Bell.

Bell goes on to say that the most important thing for leaders is to feel comfortable with the idea that there is going to be a level of anxiety about AI among employees who see it as a threat to their livelihood.

“This feeling [of anxiety] is a natural part of change and so is having open discussions about the potential opportunities that AI brings to the people and the organisation.”

 

Where to from here?

Our Stepping up for Frontline managers training and Responding to Mental Health program are key to leadership development to ensure managers respond to lower levels of productivity and efficiency, and to the poor mental health state of employees respectively.

 

Resources*

  1. Remote and Hybrid Workers Lack Meaningful Work, Sense of Belonging, Great Place to Work, 2023
  2. Work Trend Index Special Report, Microsoft, 2022
  3. How to create a sense of belonging across remote teams, Culture Amp
  4. Future of Jobs Report, World Economic Forum, 2023
  5. Is AI coming for your job? ChatGPT renews fears, ABC, 2023

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