Hybrid Working – the Relationship Divide

Over two articles, we explore the challenges facing HR leaders as they prepare to implement hybrid working.

As part of our research into future ways of working, we held a series of interviews and a round table event with senior HR leaders from around the world on this topic and have distilled the challenges into two headings:

In this, the second of two articles, we look at the Relationship Divide. The first article can be found here. As the details of the discussion are potentially price-sensitive, participants and their contributions have been anonymised.

Belonging & Connection

Lockdown has given us an insight into some of the psychological and behavioural challenges that could persist in a permanent hybrid working environment, with the biggest threat being to our sense of belonging. A number of HR leaders have reported that whilst overall engagement scores have gone up, belonging has gone down during lockdown. How do you create a sense of belonging in a largely remote workforce, where the employees are juggling their home and work lives – two lives that co-exist in the same physical family space?

In her brilliant TED talks (and books) on shame and vulnerability, Dr. Brené Brown gives us some insights that may well apply here: how do we make the challenges of juggling this intertwined home/work life feel like a relatively safe and natural vulnerability that can be shared with colleagues, rather than a situation to feel ashamed of? Because if we can’t, then those employees are going to feel disconnected from everyone else, like they are the only ones struggling with this.

People feel connected to us, and form lasting bonds, when they can see the whole person, the real you. This whole self is easier to see in the unguarded moments between meetings, in an office environment, over lunch or coffee – but how will we be truly seen when all of our verbal/visual interactions are though structured, time-bound meetings? How will we form new connections if there is no space in the day for serendipity and chance encounter?

Some of our research participants are already doing something about this and have increased the sense of belonging as a result. They have made a focus on wellbeing a top priority, with psychological counselling for staff, family networks, buddy activities to prevent isolation and a plethora of other activities that create a sense of community. This has to go deeper than enforced Friday Zoom drinks though, it has to make safe spaces for employees to share their whole selves and to address their particular causes of disconnection, without shame.

Leadership & Culture

We have seen a significant shift during the pandemic to a form of leadership that has to focus much more on the individual and their unique circumstances. Leadership has become more personal because we have been exposed to the real diversity of our colleagues’ lives – the kids interrupting a meeting, the shocking number of parcels we receive (or is that just me?), the dogs barking, the décor of our homes, our partners walking behind us half-dressed because we are working from the bedroom. And these are just the surface differences.

Some of our participants are also worried about culture-fade. How do new joiners pick up the culture of the company when they are walking into a screen rather than walking into the office? How will they even learn what being a team-member means in this culture if they only visit the office once a week? Will employees forget what they are a part of if their interactions are only through meetings – and will our cultures therefore fade?

Some leaders have struggled with trust – how do they know their employees are “pulling a shift” when they can’t see them? Experiments with productivity tracking and workforce surveillance via office applications (such as Microsoft) has already been exposed as potentially corrosive; and these practices reveal much about where leaders sit on McGregor’s X and Y theory of work motivation.

It is clear from our conversations that some leaders have risen to the occasion whilst others have been exposed. What does this mean for leadership development and advancement? Have the core competencies we look for in leaders shifted?


Our participants have noticed how work relationships have been rewired during lockdown and this presents an opportunity – as well as a threat. Prior to lockdown, the office environment tended to dictate which groups you had an “insider” relationship with. This made it difficult for those in remote offices, who often had “outsider” status as a result. Lockdown has begun to show how, when everyone is remote, anyone can become an “insider” – project membership especially can be more diverse and dispersed geographically.

The shadow side of this is that remote workers are also freer to become individualistic when not exposed to a regular set of team members – the influence of the group is less keenly felt when you are sitting at home. Which brings us neatly back to belonging – how do we create the opportunities for bonding and collaboration with a stable “home” team in a hybrid world and avoid the worst effects of ephemeral, fleeting relationships with “distant” colleagues.

In future articles, we will explore these challenges in more depth and provide evidence of what HR leaders are doing about them. I’m quite sure we will discover many more challenges along the way.

If you are looking for inspiration and pioneers in the hybrid working model, you can find a list of employers who have made a public commitment to this mode of working here.

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