The digital divide hybrid creates between those in the room and those working from home poses significant challenges for inclusivity, collaboration, and company culture. This split in the room can have disastrous effects on business efficiency and effectiveness, with more time and energy wasted on inefficient communication. The solution to this problem is a greater emphasis on employee voice and a new era of meaningful engagement between leaders, colleagues, and the content of our meetings.
Instead of surface level engagement (like the tacit approval of a raised hand, a thumbs-up emoji, or a quick poll) we need a greater emphasis on meaningful engagement through the expression of authentic opinions and earnest listening from leaders. This may sound like it represents an increase in demand on your time, effort, and resources. But, in fact, the opposite is true.
Future of Work?
The longstanding and much discussed “future of work” is finally starting to look more like the work of the present. But the romanticised “work from wherever, whenever” that had previously seemed like the inevitable conclusion of the future of work project turned out not to be the liberating utopia we might have thought, and reports of the death of the office have been greatly exaggerated. The reality of working fully remote and asynchronous has revealed challenges for coordination and collaboration on a team level, and potential risks to mental health and overall well-being on the individual level.
More senior and family oriented colleagues may have thrived on the flexibility of remote working, while more junior employees who have more constrained living arrangements miss the mentorship and opportunity to establish a professional network that comes with working on-site. It has become clear that the office will play a big part in the very near future of work, but that there will continue to be a challenge for effective communication, coordination and collaboration when some of the team will inevitably remain dispersed.
Our response to our teams being dispersed by the pandemic has been to increase the frequency and length of meetings and internal communications. But are more meetings really what we want? And there is evidence to suggest that this increase in frequency is having a negative effect on productivity and employee satisfaction. As Microsoft found when it discovered that meetings, emails, chats, and documents created, had increased in frequency and length during the pandemic. More effective meetings can be led through an emphasis on meaningful engagement. Reducing the duration and frequency of meetings by making more effective use of the time through the conversion of a passive audience into active contributors who are affecting the agenda and moving it forward in the moment. Making meetings more efficient, engaging and meaningful.
A greater emphasis on meaningful engagement has the capacity to bridge this gap between the two groups: remote and on-site. But when we talk about meaningful engagement, what is it we actually mean?
Relationships, Relevance and Expertise
We deepen the meaning of our employee engagement when we foster strong relationships between three elements that exist in almost every meeting and workplace interaction. The leader, the audience, and the content of the meeting – as well as the relationship between these three elements – holds the key to meaningful engagement.
Through strengthening the connection between yourself and the audience you foster strong interpersonal relationships that enable greater comfort and the ability to have frank and honest discussions. Being conscious of the relationship between the audience and the content helps ensure that the content is relevant to them, which means that they can engage with the content more readily. And ensuring a strong relationship between yourself and the content you deliver demonstrates a level of expertise which enables you to effectively facilitate the meaningful engagement that is taking place and regulate the discussion from a position of authority.
So what does meaningful engagement look like in practice?
It means opening up to becoming a leader who really listens (in the words of Stephen R. Covey: “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply”). It means devising meetings that are structured in a way that allows for your audience to dictate the direction the discussion moves in, rather than providing the veneer of participant input while really firmly maintaining control yourself. Or even worse, not allowing for participant input at all.
In practice this means resisting the urge to use quick polls for surface level engagement, and instead opening up regularly for input that your team articulates for themselves. Open and honest Q&A sessions, ideally made anonymous, and hosting these regularly can help to avoid getting bogged down in the quagmire of endless message and email exchanges, accumulating documents and siloed smaller team meetings.
Bridging the Hybrid Divide
We need to have stronger inter-employee relationships in order to improve our abilities to collaborate over a digital divide, we need to ensure that the content of meetings and workplace interactions in relevant for the people hearing it so that we can be more efficient in coordinating our work, and we need to be mindful of our own expertise on the topics we cover so that we can communicate more clearly and effectively.
We know that increased engagement is the key to reducing the distance between remote and on-site employees, but the meaningfulness of that engagement will determine how much of a success leaders and organizations make of new hybrid ways of working. How much employees are allowed to express themselves and how much leaders listen to their colleagues is a key part of encouraging more meaningful engagement. And making a habit of exhibiting listening leadership serves to benefit everyone, and to make hybrid all the more likely to work.