The modern workplace has evolved into a mix of on-site and remote workers since the emergence of the Internet. When employers found out that people can work from home, businesses have shifted toward digital solutions and started uploading their data on the cloud. The coronavirus pandemic further pushed business owners to adapt to what researchers call the future of work: the hybrid workforce.
So, why does social cohesion matter in managing a hybrid workforce? If organizations fail to focus on social cohesion as a critical organizational capability, they won’t maximize their organizations' knowledge. Workers will find it harder to achieve their company objectives; without attention, the hybrid model can lead to poor performance over time. The good news is that leaders need only remember that people are inherently social. Workforce productivity will follow after that.
From small businesses to large corporations, business leaders are aware that some tasks are doable virtually. Some remote jobs can be done effectively notwithstanding the difference in time zones. A good CEO knows how to acquire the right talents to suit the company's goals. However, the biggest challenge isn't hiring people who are fit for the role but in keeping them engaged and working productively.
Andrew Mawson, a pioneer and thought leader on workplace strategy and organizational design, talks about the modernized approach to managing a virtual workforce that maximizes productivity. He also shares vital research on the impact of social cohesion to work performance and how to develop and sustain it in a hybrid workforce.
Andrew is a founding director of Advanced Workplace Associates (AWA), an independent management consultancy with a multidisciplinary approach to workplace innovation. Through research-based and scientifically supported advisory services, Andrew introduces agile working and cognitive fitness as a workplace strategy. As the managing director of AWA, he leads change management programs for companies in various industries in the United Kingdom, Europe, and the United States.
Traditional organizational models have ceased to work as businesses continue to adapt to a more diverse, globally minded, and technologically savvy workforce. AWA's 2015 research on knowledge worker productivity was a result of their online workplace survey and focus groups with senior leaders, identifying six key factors they should consider in corporate development programs.
Knowledge workers are a new breed of workers who “think for a living.” Peter Drucker coined the term in the 1950s when he saw that the future organizations would heavily rely on ideas, creativity, resourcefulness, and competencies of its employees. Fundamentally, a knowledge worker contributes knowledge to others through written papers, published reports, or illustrated designs that can create something of commercial value.
A company's workforce can be composed of full-time staff and contractors, on-site and remote. When managed well, the hybrid workforce allows for flexibility that has multiple benefits for employers and employees. Artificial intelligence or AI has also enabled a more efficient workforce to automate routine operational work, leaving room for workplace innovation to grow.
Andrew explains that an organization is the aggregation of the knowledge and energy of all of its people. The six factors associated with knowledge worker productivity emphasize human development and team performance:
1. Social cohesion
2. Perceived supervisory support
3. Information sharing
4. Vision and goal clarity
5. External communication
“If you look at the six factors, what they do is lead to a psychologically safe environment,” says Andrew. The traditional “command and control organizations” often set leaders in competition, creating barriers and breaking the flow of information, leading to knowledge hoarding. A common pitfall among companies wanting to boost workplace productivity is leaving out employee engagement.
“Social cohesion is a fancy scientific term for business friendship,” says Andrew. It entails a shared liking or team attraction within the company. “The more people you are socially connected to, comfortable with, and like, the more likely you'll see a more comfortable flow of information.”
Andrew tells his clients to allow systems where people can engage with executives vertically in the organization. “I'm also talking about community level—teams of teams,” adds Andrew. “People should feel comfortable to be open enough with senior people.”
As most employers expect a return to the workplace within the next 12 to 18 months, business leaders are reshaping their workforce models and operational schemes. Some organizations were built with a distributed workforce worldwide, with knowledge workers thriving in such hybrid environments. Those companies that rely on the physical environment to bring people together will need to be more intentional in developing social cohesion.
“What we've recognized is we need a continuous strategy for developing social cohesion and maintaining it,” says Andrew. Aside from online meetings and virtual events, his company makes interviews and training accessible for all the teams to know each other better.
“The social cohesion component of this is, A, getting people comfortable with each other so that they are able to be supported and be generous with their knowledge and their ideas and, B, the more people you know well, the more you know about what they know,” explains Andrew.
Managing a hybrid workforce is a new leadership skill set. According to an AWA study, developing strong social cohesion will need leaders to be more transformational instead of directive and supervisory.
“It does require a slightly different leadership style—a little bit more democratic and open,” says Andrew.
“I try to create socially connected situations in supporting people do what they do,” shares Andrew. The executive leadership's role is to give useful guidance and clarity as much as possible, especially in leading virtual teams during a pandemic. “We run events to create a little bit of lightheartedness around the organization.”
Andrew also recommends using available software tools to engage employees. “We use Spark Collaboration which basically sets up coffees between different members of the team across the world for people to get to know each other.”
Company objectives usually cascade from the top, ignoring that lateral decisions involving different departments and teams make up many organizational processes. This can cause workers to only focus on their part instead of collaborating for the complete desired outcome.
Andrew thinks traditional organizations should take advantage of the current circumstances and work toward establishing a flat company structure.
“If you're an organization that is very hierarchical and status-conscious, make the best out of the virtuality and the knowledge you have on the team,” suggests Andrew. “You're gonna have to start thinking a bit differently about the way you manage the organization.”
When the setting of company objectives happen at the team level, workers share their knowledge and ideas more freely. Social cohesion helps build relationships between members and teams, which lessens the friction associated with implementing change management strategies.
Andrew shares that the idea of being in a physical environment to feel connected is being challenged today. “People are feeling more connected with their organizations and teams now than they did before COVID-19, which is kind of ironic,” says Andrew. He thinks that the main reason it appears to be working now is due to invisible power differences.
Imagine a ten-person meeting where five are at a boardroom in London, and the other five are working off-site. “Meetings are being reported to be better,” says Andrew. Before, people who joined a teleconference meeting felt that they were second-class citizens. This is especially common in organizations with a heavily office-based culture.
Andrew encourages leaders to train their workforce to work online indefinitely instead of treating this time as a short-term arrangement. Embracing a digital culture upgrades people's technology skills and confidence, and the physical workplace serves as an added component.
“What has happened is that people, leaders particularly, are recognizing the need to communicate more now than they ever did when they were in the physical workplace,” says Andrew. “People have to take responsibility for the cohesion they create.”
But it's not just leader–staff or coworker–coworker relationships that matter. Andrew emphasizes the need for people to talk to each other as human beings instead of human resources, which you tap when you need something done.
While leaders will need to work a little harder to tune into their workforce needs and capabilities, strengthening the habits, policies, and practices that keep the workforce virtual is crucial to maintaining social cohesion in the workplace.
“When you're bringing new people into this model, you really have to be quite structured in how you help them to create their own networks,” says Andrew. A diverse and distributed workforce involves people not only in different geographical locations but also of varying demographics. This includes old-timers in the company with a vast amount of crucial organizational knowledge.
Managing hybrid teams requires leaders to be flexible in their communication styles. Due to its nature, there is a potential for misunderstandings, ambiguity, overlooking other members' needs, and a lack of empathy within the team. Andrew thinks creating psychologically safe environments is still possible in the virtual world and that leaders will need to adapt.
The most important conversation that leaders should have during this time is reimagining the future of work and how their organizations will adopt it in their workforce planning. Anticipating the prolonged virtual working arrangements due to COVID-19, AWA’s research shows it is essential to be more intentional in the way we behave to keep relationships healthy when we work apart.
Andrew hopes business leaders will seize the opportunity to review their office needs and how their organizations can make it a value-adding experience rather than one based on management by observation.
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