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Blended work arrangements require new leadership priorities

With blended office and home-based work on the rise, leaders must adapt to support employee wellbeing and engagement, say DBS's Victor Mathews and Dr Jane Menzies.

Although working from home (WFH) is not new phenomena, the recent COVID-19 pandemic and the government mandated lockdowns has forced organisations to pivot and make most of their employees adopt this working style.  As Australia, in all states, has successfully being able to limit the spread of COVID-19 virus through lockdowns, border closures, quarantining, contract tracing and social distancing, government mandates have now allowed workers to return to the office at 100% capacity. As a result, there has been a recent push by employers to get their staff members back into the office full-time.  

A preference for blended work

Despite that, an in-depth open-ended survey study conducted by the authors of 29 employees from various industries in February 2021, reveals that employees do not want to return at a full-time capacity, instead preferring a blended approach of WFH and in the office.  The research was conducted by Victor Mathews and Dr Jane Menzies, from Deakin Business School, in the Faculty of Business and Law at Deakin University.

Interestingly, there has not being a lot of research examining how leaders respond to managing employees WFH.  Some interesting questions include; how does a leader lead and manage his or her followers at the other end of the computer?  What actions can they put in place to ensure their followers get the personal and professional development that they may need whilst being isolated and WFH?

To respond to these questions, the study sought to identify the possible adjustments that leaders need to make to provide professional and personal development to their remote/online teams. The study also aimed to understand the leadership actions that should be used to motivate and engage employees and ensure team effectiveness when employees are working remotely.

Experiences of WFH vary by occupation

When employees were asked how working from home during COVID-19 had affected their engagement, responses varied in nature. For those who had office and computer-based jobs, there was minimal impact on employee engagement, as the following quote specifies: “Not a major impact, still kept in touch with my team on a regular basis”. 

On the other hand, those that had roles which were significantly operationally affected had felt isolated and alone, while struggling to keep engaged and work healthy hours.  For example, one respondent indicated: “It has negatively affected my work. As I work in a classroom it is very difficult to teach children online and educate them in isolation,” whilst another suggested: “I am working longer hours from home as there is less balance and discrepancy between work and social life” and “it has limited my contact with people capable of helping and guiding me”. 

Formerly trivial interactions gain significance

The lack of daily conversation and limited social interaction had a direct impact on individuals feeling more engaged with their work.  WFH meant that many felt that their conversations with their colleagues harnessed more meaning, and were more significant, with individuals saying we now “make more of an effort for legitimate communication, rather than token "water cooler" conversations that happen in offices.

While some employees felt that their leader had been supportive during the pandemic and kept their development as a priority, others experienced neglect and felt that their leader had focused on a more transactional and results orientated relationship. One participant started “my leader is a micro manger and only focuses on the work I put out”. In contrast, one respondent said their leader was “always approachable, consultative and engaging”.

Impact on morale cuts both ways

The study revealed that those WFH experienced morale issues in the beginning, due to the uncertainty of the global pandemic, lockdown restrictions and the impact on the economy, however morale picked up as people became more used to WFH, and once redundancies had been completed.  For example, a few participants attributed an initial drop in morale to the forced government lockdown and job uncertainty due to the fluctuating economy, with one participant explaining “at the start of the process, I believe the morale was lower than normal due to the uncertainty of retaining our positions” while another stated “there have been some negatives to morale, including a 300 people redundancy, and dealing with the constant lockdown changes”.

Other morale issues stem from “not being able to speak to people in an informal way, where decisions might be made”. In contrast, some participants felt that their morale had actually increased with the WFH mandate, with a respondent expressing that “it has helped my morale as I was able to work more flexibly”.

Improved connection with leaders

Over 60% of respondents highlighted increased team meetings and individual catch ups with their leader as a method of increasing engagement. The usage of technology applications, such as Microsoft Teams, Slack, Trello, Zoom and Skype had allowed participants to remain digitally connected with their leader and the wider team. The introduction of a daily ‘stand up’ call for a team to discuss their day and any pain points was a theme amongst a number of  responders, with a participant talking about “Standup sessions, team catch up calls both professional and Friday drinks, and more regular 1 on 1 sessions” and another addressing the “Daily check-ins and team virtual lunches.

When asked to reflect on the impact their leader had on their development, both personal and professional, results were mixed. For some, feedback loops remained consistently open, with leaders “believing in my skills, encouraging and fostering personal development.”  The frequency of meetings with leaders came up again, as respondents attributed a link between the number of catch ups and the leader contributing to their development.  One leader focused on the person’s mental health, “encouraging them to take breaks and engage in wellness activities such as company yoga and meditation sessions”, while others focused on long term goals, “regularly talking about their career aspirations and what they would like to achieve and how it is all currently tracking”.  

But what was most interesting was that almost a third of respondents felt that no effort had been made whatsoever to focus on their development and all conversations felt results orientated. The individuals who felt positive about their leader praised their efforts, citing their ability to go above and beyond to volunteer their time to help them develop new skills that will make them a stronger candidate in the future, for example one person stated they had been given “many opportunities to work with others and cross-functional teams”.

Recommendations for leaders

There are several recommendations from this study that could be implemented to improve the relationship between leaders and their followers in the blended approach of working in the office and WFH:

  1. The mental and physical health of employees should be treated as the number one priority, with results and performance secondary to this. 
  2. Leaders should allow flexibility in the workplace by encouraging a blended approach of working back in the office and continuing WFH routines in a post COVID-19 world, which can have a positive influence on morale and engagement. 
  3. Develop engagement activities/team meetings/social events that address those working in the office and those WFH.
  4. Ensure constant communication and contact with followers to promote engagement and morale. 
  5. Leaders should use charismatic and transformational leadership styles that demonstrate the value that employees bring to the organisation, and the challenges that they may face whilst working in the office or WFH. 
  6. Finally, personal and professional development conversations frequency should be increased as they keep strong performance stimulated and employees engaged with their work.