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Organisations have had no choice but to embrace remote and flexible working options through COVID, and as government restrictions and mandates have lifted, hybrid working arrangements are increasingly common for employers.

But not all managers have happily embraced hybrid work, and some people leaders – particularly those with micromanagement tendencies – have struggled to adapt. Micromanagers, who often feel the need to scrutinise and control employees with less autonomy and freedom to complete their work independently or remotely, have had to learn some hard lessons through COVID.

“If you are a manager who feels you cannot trust your employees, and prefer to have all employees in the office five days a week from 8am to 5pm, that management style is just not sustainable,” said Karin Sanders, a Professor in the School of Management & Governance at UNSW Business School.

“Many managers with micromanagement tendencies who did not trust their employees had to change through COVID, as they have found they can still do the work; maybe it’s not 8am to 5pm but at other times in the evening and sometimes in the weekend. So, micromanagers have changed or disappeared.”

There has been a clear shift in work locations and patterns as a result of COVID, and Prof. Sanders said employees now prefer splitting work between the office and home, and instead of core workdays and hours, there is more flexibility all around.

Andrew Dhaenens, a lecturer in the School of Management & Governance at UNSW Business School, agreed with Prof. Sanders: “From what you see now, particularly over the past couple of years, managers have not had a lot of choice and now there are real consequences – like increased turnover,” he said.

“Some old school managers like to see their employees’ faces in the office five days a week. And it has been an issue for those kinds of managers to adapt to this hybrid way of working. From a manager’s point of view, they have struggled with how to dictate demands about whether employees are required to come in the office a certain number of days, or whether it’s certain times.”

Prof. Sanders and Dr Dhaenens have established a new Hybrid Work Leadership Research Lab, which helps organisations develop proactive and successful hybrid work strategies through six phases incorporating constructive cultures, talent attraction, optimising office space, maximising staff wellbeing, boosting productivity, and adapting to technology and staff expectations.

“This is definitely an issue at the moment for all managers, and they need help with making sure hybrid arrangements work for both the business and their teams,” said Prof. Sanders.

Employee working from home

The past two years have seen a radical shift in employees’ expectations of employers, managers, and working arrangements. Photo: Shutterstock

Meeting and managing employee expectations

The past two years have radically reshaped the face of work, and there has been a similar shift in employees’ expectations around working arrangements. A World Economic Forum survey of 12,500 workers across 29 countries, for example, found two-thirds want to work flexibly post-covid while almost a third were prepared to quit their job if they were forced to go back to the office full time.

Collectively, employees seem to want to continue to work flexibly, and perhaps be present at work a few days a week, but certainly not all five. “If you take a cursory look at any job posting right now, most organisations, especially the top ones, are offering some level of hybrid and flexible work,” said Dr Dhaenens.

“If you’re not even signalling that you offer this, there is a possibility you’re going to miss out on the top employees and your great workforce is going to choose other organisations, because this really is the new way of working.”

Prof. Sanders also noted that job candidates would likely be asking potential employers about working arrangements in job interviews.

“Employers need to be aware of this and that they will be asked if they expect employees to be in the office five days a week,” she said. “This is going to be a topic in interviews.”

Dr Dhaenens said employees mostly prefer a split of time between the office and home, with flexible hours to work around. “Those employees know that a one-size-fits-all solution isn’t going to be effective and isn’t going to work for everyone, but there are ways to provide balance,” he said.

Read more: Is the hybrid work model inclusive? Not necessarily.

What managers need to know

In understanding and establishing effective hybrid working arrangements, Prof. Sanders said there are a number of important considerations.

“Where managers have teams and employees who are really dependent on each other for work and learning, it’s really important that they are together for some days in the office,” she said.

“So there needs to be an understanding around that in order for teams to work effectively. These employees are going to be disappointed if, for instance, they have an hour commute time and they arrive to the office with no one there.”

Dr Dhaenens said the challenge and the opportunity for people leaders is knowing their employees: “that’s not simply a matter of demographics such as age or whether you have caregiving responsibilities,” he said.

“It’s truly about knowing individual employee preferences and being able to adapt to those, and one of the best ways to manage around these is to set times may be in the middle of the day where you have core working hours – and that might not be a weekly situation.

“Some employees need more time at the end of the day while others need more time in the beginning of the day but are happy to take on additional work in the evening.

“But as a manager, and certainly as employees, you understand there are key all-hands-on-deck times when everybody has to be present. And I think most employees get that.

“What we have found with hybrid work, is that it can work if managers can trust their employees, even if there are a few managers who don’t seem to love this kind of working arrangement.”

Employees in a team meeting

For work that requires collaboration, it's important managers ensure employees are still able to get together for some days in the office, says UNSW Business School's Karin Sanders. Photo: Shutterstock

How Frasers Property is approaching hybrid work

Through the Hybrid Work Leadership Research Lab, Prof. Sanders and Dr Dhaenens are working with organisations such as the international real estate group Frasers Property to better understand and implement optimised working arrangements that will improve measures such as employee engagement, productivity and organisational performance.

Prof. Sanders said Frasers Property wanted to maintain its leading position in the market and understood the importance of rigorous research to support its choices and strategy – especially when it comes to setting up hybrid working arrangements that meet the needs of employees and managers.

“Frasers is very engaged and they want to know how they have to move further with hybrid working. They are looking to find that balance between having a policy for everyone on one hand or having guidelines which make it clear that not everyone is similar which allows for flexibility,” she said.

Prof. Sanders and Dr Dhaenens will be working with Frasers Property over the coming months and years to monitor employee expectations and preferences, in order to help managers better understand relationships, learning activities and management messages.

“As a result, we are able to advise senior management about the best ways to manage their employees in the future. As an emerging applied and translational research lab, we are open to help other organisations who want to better understand the preferences and best working practices for their employees,” said Dr Dhaenens.