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Hybrid Work Model Pushes Managers to Make Human Connection the Top Priority

Hybrid Work Model Pushes Managers to Make Human Connection the Top Priority

It will take a human connection to lure and keep employees on the job in a hybrid work world.
Crushing it at work means more about how we interact with one another than checking off assignments on a work to-do list. Thank the COVID-19 shutdown for that. When people emerged from the various self-quarantines, many had decided that it was no longer worth expending precious life moments for some coins at a job that literally leaves you breathless.
People demanded more: time, balance, flexibility. They weren’t willing to hold onto a position that did not align with their personal purposes. So, they packed their desks and offices leaving companies befuddled.
Essentially workers said: out with bottom-line businesses, and in with people-centric organizations. The engineering industry has not been immune.
Several companies have felt the friendly nudge to shift if they want to keep their best and brightest. And, the numbers don’t lie. The latest U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics hold steady at 11.3 million job openings with 6.7 million hires, yet 6.1 million people left their jobs in February.
With no end of the great resignation in sight, what should company managers do?
Change, urged Karen Leak, the early career program manager at Rockwell Automation. She’s ridden the workplace pivot for the last two years and understands more than anyone what people have been through. She, like many of her colleagues, has listened to her employees and found ways to adjust, improve, and augment her managerial style to accommodate today’s burgeoning hybrid work world.
“When you want to get the best out of individuals, as managers, you need to tap into individuals,” she said.
As people re-enter the workforce, they are bringing with them two years of emotional, mental, and physical upheaval.
“Some have been shut up in their rooms and not among people,” she said of early career employees. “They’ve finished classes on their own, and now we’re telling them to come on back into the environment and interact with others.”
The transition back into the office and among people won’t be easy for them to readily embrace nor should that be expected, Leak reminded, adding that instead, she believes managers must become empathetic leaders. Give employees the space to share and be ready to actively listen.
“Be comfortable and step into those conversations with people,” she offered. “Be supportive as they express themselves. As an African American woman, when stuff was going on with George Floyd, so many things came at one time. But I still had to show up at work even though in the back of my mind my soul was aching.”
She shared that what got her through was colleagues’ empathy shown for her in that situation. Now, she wants to pay it forward.
“As we are unfolding out of COVID, mental health is a topic we as managers should dig into just a little bit. Make sure we understand the signs of depression, Leak said. “Not that we are psychiatrists, but to know that we have resources that support our employees. We have to make sure we set the environment, so they can come to us with that conversation.”
Recounting a moment when working with high school seniors visiting the plant, she turned to one asking how things were going. The teen broke down emotionally because the big theatre production and prom were both cancelled. Instead of offering a pat “I’m sorry,” Leak took the time to be present and listen to the young woman.
This story is typical among the moments early career employees missed. So, when we bring these people on board, she said, we must go out of our way to make connections. This begins with our teams.
“Technology has advanced, so that we can connect visually,” Leak said. “Prior to COVID, we didn’t think to use those technologies although they existed. Now, they have become effective daily tools.”
Connecting with employees and making them feel part of the organization is paramount to creating a cohesive work environment especially when instituting a hybrid work model. At Rockwell, Leak said they use touch-ins like their Virtual Fun Fridays.
“We’re just talking. Finding ways where we can connect and have conversation. Not necessarily about the project, but just random conversation,” she said. “I am a Marvel fanatic, most of my team is as well, so we talk about having watch parties for the latest Spiderman movie. So, if you are using Teams or Zoom, make sure you stay connected to the whole person.”
Part of connecting with the whole person means understanding that when people are at work, they really want to do their best. So, it’s important to offer feedback and mentorship.
“When trying to get the best of the best, they want to come on site and really just rock it — really perform,” Leak said. “And then, there is this little voice in the back of their heads that says, ‘I don’t know if I really stack up.’ Same as with any career: we want to get in and make our mark. We want people to see how we can contribute.”
Being seen is the operative idea. Whether managing in-person employees or virtual team members, remembering that all want to be noticed for their company contributions and workplace hustle must stay in the forefront of managers’ minds.
In various reports, it has not gone without notice that the hybrid work model sometimes is positioned as trading flexibility for visibility, which can hinder career upward movement. However, Leak pointed out, that is not the case at Rockwell.
“There is no reason I can’t have a very effect conversation with a VP, or director, or someone ahead of me and still have that mentorship relationship going on,” she said. “My work is my work. If I am not taking care of my responsibilities then that’s going to show whether I am in person or not. The rest is the network. I can literally—with these technology tools— talk with anyone around the world. Whereas before, I might have been limited. It’s all in the culture of the company.”
Nichole M. Palmer is an independent writer in Charlotte, NC.

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