44’s Managing Partner Tom Abbott explains why the basics of change communications will stand you in good stead when navigating hybrid working.

Getting to grips with hybrid working can feel like a major challenge for companies, employees and managers. While many of us have enjoyed the benefits of home working over the past few years, there are good reasons to seek the right balance between office and home working, and this will be different for each organisation (you can read some top tips from Team 44 here).

But hybrid working does provide benefits to both colleagues and businesses. The Centre for Economics and Business Research found that business leaders reported a 4.9% increase in customer satisfaction, a 3.6% increase in employee satisfaction and a 3.4% increase in productivity since 2020 due to hybrid working.

Many of the tensions that we are seeing arise with clients relate to the varying opinions across companies on what the most desirable outcome is. Companies are not monolithic entities where everyone has the same view or life pressures. Disconnects between the expectations of managers and team members can feel hard to resolve.

It’s not just about the pandemic anymore either. Pew Research Centre surveyed workers in the US, with the majority home working because they preferred it rather than any Covid-19 concerns. Previous operating culture, beliefs and behaviours reassert themselves and clash with new expectations, aspirations and needs. But remember, even Google, previously a staunch opponent of home working, has softened its stance.

For communications teams, navigating these shifting sands is a daunting prospect. After the headlines and hyperbole about how ‘the world has changed’ and ‘work will never be the same’, you might feel that this situation requires radical solutions. Our experience with clients facing these challenges is that while there is room for new ideas, keeping a clear line of sight to the basics of good communications during change is fundamental.

Listen first

We’ve seen so many assumptions in the media about the world of work post-pandemic and no shortage of workplace gurus declaring all sorts of revolutionary ideas. We’ve also seen some companies seek to quickly reassert pre-pandemic arrangements, often to the annoyance of employees.

The most successful organisations take the time to listen to what their employees, managers and customers expect and then shape their response around this insight. Make time for surveys, focus groups and discussions about what people actually want and don’t be guided by the headlines.

Don’t forget the business

As with any change programme, make sure you understand the operational needs of the business and factor this into your narrative and messaging. Be clear on the employee needs, but be as clear on the business needs as well. Remember, this is about balance, not one side having the priority over the other.

Keep it simple

The temptation can be to propose new models and operating practice with layers of complexity to define the new arrangements. New policies mushroom with carefully worded corporate language.

Despite the unique situation, this is still a change programme. We’re trying to encourage colleagues to adopt a new set of behaviours and beliefs, so keep the ask simple and direct. Make it clear what actions are required and how colleagues could adapt.

Keep it consistent

In any change programme, keeping messaging consistent is critical. Managers and leaders must be singing from the same sheet. Different experiences or practices across the business are a recipe for confusion and annoyed employees.

It is possible that not all members of the leadership team agree on the approach. Fine – they can disagree around the boardroom table, but once the door opens, make sure they stick to the script and hold them to account if they deviate.

But, be open when it doesn’t go as planned

This is all new territory for many companies, so we need to expect false starts or things not going as planned. Make sure you are getting feedback on what’s working and what is not. Be prepared to adapt and change messaging to reflect what is happening and concerns as they arise. Be open and honest when something must change because of operational challenges.

Not everyone is going to be happy

This is true of most change programmes, but it’s especially true of hybrid working. Not every colleague is going to like the arrangements. Not every manager is going to agree with it. Many of us have adjusted our lives over the past two years and it may not be popular that we ask people to adjust again. As the Institute of Leadership and Management advise, be open and honest about this, and at least give colleagues a route to raise these issues and have them discussed.

Looking to learn more?

We’re working with many of our clients on their communications and planning for hybrid working. If you would like to discuss any aspect of this, why not get in touch?