Change can be messy.
And the change to hybrid schedules has proven to be pretty messy for a lot of organizations.
Many of the leaders I’m speaking with are struggling to make sense of this messiness.
In one case, a leader was puzzled over why less than half of his hybrid employees came into the office for a big event they had planned. Executives had flown in from all over the country for the event and yet employees who lived minutes away made the choice not to come in. He was disappointed and confused by why people hadn’t shown up.
When I asked if he had communicated an expectation that employees were required to be at this event if able, he told me that HR wouldn’t allow it.
In other words, the leader is frustrated that employees didn’t do something he wishes they would, but that they aren’t required to do.
A leader at another organization expressed frustration about employees who won’t turn their cameras on during virtual meetings.
When I asked if the employees were clear on the expectation to have cameras on in every meeting, the response was “Well, they should be. It’s covered several times in their new hire orientation.”
As we talked more about it, it was revealed that the expectation to have cameras on in every virtual meeting wasn’t explicitly written down anywhere. Plus, it wasn’t clear if managers were providing feedback or creating consequences when someone didn’t do it.
To recap, here is a leader who’s frustrated that employees aren’t behaving in the way she expects even though the expectation isn’t written down and there are no consequences for not behaving in alignment with the expectation.
This kind of messiness leads to management headaches, confused employees, and declining engagement and performance.
And it’s all avoidable.
My daughter is about to get her driver’s license in January. This license, for her, represents the ultimate freedom.
Overnight, she will have the ability to jump in a car and go wherever she decides the road will take her.
But she’s still sixteen and still a new driver, so, there have to be limits put on this new freedom.
As the date nears, my wife and I are thinking a lot about the boundaries we need to put in place to give her plenty of flexibility while also looking after her safety (and that of everyone else on the road).
We’ll have expectations around communicating her schedule proactively with us–where she is going, how long she will be there, when she will be home, etc. We’ll have specific rules about how she drives (e.g. following speed limits, no phone use, etc.). There will be explicit curfews.
You get the picture.
The plan is to discuss this with her and then ask her to write down exactly what we’ve agreed upon. This way, when she gets her license, she knows clearly what flexibility looks like for her with this new license. Anything outside of these boundaries requires further discussion.
The clarity about the boundaries gives her more agency over her new flexibility. The boundaries will create greater freedom.
I’m sure there will be hiccups and learning curves, but by being clear up front, we’ll likely make the process a lot less messy than it might otherwise be.
Moving to hybrid or remote workplace schedules for employees is a lot like my daughter getting her license.
However, instead of getting really clear upfront about the expectations and boundaries associated with this new license for flexibility, we just handed over the keys and hoped for the best. Then, when people use their flexibility in ways that don’t align with our preferences or expectations, we get frustrated as leaders.
That’s where things get messy.
How are employees supposed to align with your expectations if you don’t communicate and manage them?
To help employees feel the autonomy and freedom that flexible schedules allow requires the work to set the boundaries that make the flexibility work in the first place.
No boundaries lead to messiness and disengagement.
If you’d like to make the experience of hybrid schedules feel less messy, the key is to get clear about boundaries and expectations. To help you with where to start, here are a few tips.
I call it the golden rule of management. Anything that affects how you feel about an employee’s performance should be written down as an expectation for them.
The act of putting something down in writing forces clarity. As leaders, we always think we are more clear about expectations than we are. The “cameras on” story I shared earlier is a great example.
In that case, the solution I recommended to her was pretty simple. Write out the expectations and share them with employees. Here’s how it might look:
We are a “cameras on” culture. We believe that it’s important to see each other. You are expected to have your camera on in every meeting, large or small. If you can’t have your camera on for some reason, you need to proactively communicate why to your colleagues in the meeting.
That’s pretty clear. It removes any uncertainty I may have as an employee about “Does that apply to this meeting?” The answer is always yes.
Bottom line: If it’s not written down, it’s probably not clear.
In my research into what’s working and what’s not around hybrid and remote work, one positive thing I’ve learned is that employees are surprisingly reasonable.
People don’t usually get upset about being told that they need to do something or be somewhere at work. They get upset about being asked (i.e. forced) to do something that seems to be for no reason or a reason that feels arbitrary.
The perfect example of this is what’s playing out at Amazon. In all of the communication from CEO Andy Jassy to “return to office or else”, there’s never been a good reason offered for the move. It’s been some abstract comments about “culture” that are backed by no evidence.
People hate being gaslit. To avoid that, make sure you have good reasons for what you require of employees that you can openly share.
When people understand why an action is being taken and the rationale seems reasonable and based on what’s best for the business, they tend to be far less resistant, even when they don’t agree with the direction.
Plus, if you don’t have those good reasons for making changes, why are you taking action in the first place?
That’s just creating messes to create messes. Not a wise idea.
I’ll be honest. When that leader shared that their HR department wouldn’t allow them to require employees to come to the office, I had a strong and mixed reaction.
On the one hand, what do you mean HR won’t let you require the employees to come in for an afternoon? Seriously?
You’ve taken the idea of flexibility way too far if your interpretation of it is that you can’t ever require an employee to be anywhere at any particular time. All this does is set up unavoidable tension between leaders and employees.
There are times that we justifiably want and need employees to be somewhere specific for a specific reason and it’s perfectly reasonable to require that of them. Just make sure you have a good reason for doing so (see #2 above).
On the other hand, my guess is, that in this specific case, HR was trying to protect employees from leaders like Andy Jassy who simply prefer employees to be in the office and thus require them to do so. This is exactly what employees hate and push back against.
But, rather than put in more nuanced guardrails and guidance for leaders, this HR team just issued a broad mandate of “no requirements.”
This is taking a messy situation and making it worse.
It’s okay as a leader to set expectations and hold people accountable to them. If you need employees to be in the office and you have good reasons for it, it has to be okay to set that expectation.
That said, be considerate about the disruption you may be causing to their life and routines when you set these expectations. Needing to come to the office might disrupt childcare or other caretaking responsibilities. This can be really challenging, particularly for single parents.
The organizations who make this work provide plenty of warning and offer support when it’s warranted in these situations. Follow their lead.
This is something I didn’t truly understand until I was a parent.
Children are smart and they take you at your word. If you threaten a punishment for not doing something and you don’t follow through on the punishment, they stop listening to your threats. You clearly didn’t mean it.
Similarly, if you set an expectation for your child and there’s no consequence when they fail to meet that expectation, they know it isn’t a true expectation. So they start ignoring it. Why wouldn’t they?
The same is true with positive consequences. When a child experiences a reward for a specific behavior, they quickly realize that this is what matters. For example, if I consistently get praise when I pick up my toys, I may keep doing that because I crave the praise.
Real expectations and boundaries have real consequences (good and bad).
If you set the expectation of a “cameras on” meeting culture, then if someone shows up to a meeting and refuses to turn on their camera, there have to be consequences.
Initially, it could simply be a coaching conversation with the manager to ensure there’s clarity about the expectation. If it’s repeated after that, then it’s a performance issue and should be addressed as such.
If there aren’t consequences, you should not be surprised when they ignore the expectations or boundaries.
This is yet another reason to be really intentional about the expectations and boundaries you set. If there’s a solid “why” supporting the boundary that is understood, employees are less likely to push back. And then they do, it feels more appropriate to enforce the consequences.
People want flexibility. No, people expect flexibility.
The pandemic era of work revealed what was possible. It broke down barriers and revealed a new era of work brimming with the potential for flexibility.
We’ve been granted a new “license” to drive into the new flexible future of work. That’s where your people are expecting you to take them.
But to avoid wrecking our new vehicle and squandering this opportunity, we’ve got to spend the time and do the work to set boundaries.
Change is messy.
But it doesn’t need to stay that way.
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