Hybrid working with ‘remote-capable’ workforces is the phrase we are now hearing about and a way of working that is going to become the new normal. That mix of sometimes working from home and sometimes working in an office space with other people.

Regularly we are hearing about the controversy, frustration and sometimes fury created by hybrid policies and how they are being implemented post-pandemic, such as recently, the 10k technical specialists at Apple Inc who petitioned against the suggestion of mandatory return to the office for 3 days a week. Indeed the Steven Bartlett podcast with Malcom Gladwell sparked a lot of upset (1,202 comments on an Instagram post) when he referred to people working from home as “working in pyjamas” and questioning their career ambitions. Whilst the reactions to different hybrid models have been fascinating from a coach’s perspective, this blog will focus on the transition phase of being in a neutral zone when major changes are afoot and the essential dynamics needed to move forward when it’s surrounded by such strong opinions.  

Firstly, the transition model I reflect on here is William Bridges model of Transition where it refers to 3 stages of transition we face in a change process,

  • ending, losing and letting go, (when the old way of working has ended)
  • neutral zone (when we are in-between, the old ways and old identity is gone, the new state is not operational yet)
  • new beginning (experiencing the new ways of working, with energy and new sense of purpose).

The pandemic in 2020 propelled us through the ending phase quicker than we could blink and many adapted very quickly to working from home, organisations pushing through technology developments which had been on the board table for years without a decision. As we came in and out of lockdown, remote working became the norm for a while, new routines were established, the manic spinning of plates of home life and work life eased. It felt good for most. But for many organisations this way of working was only viewed as a temporary situation and eventually operations will go back to the way they were. Many employers were worried about the impact longer-term remote working could have, the potential erosion of workplace relationships and the impact this will have on their culture and could be one of their drivers to have everyone back in the office.

However, employees don’t agree, they have adjusted to the autonomy and flexibility working from home offered, a reappraisal of values and what’s important to them and work isn’t the precedent. There’s almost a sense that we’re redefining the meaning of work and what work means to individuals.

Are we stuck in neutral?

I sense from my clients that we are sitting in Bridges neutral zone, when we are not working in the ways that we used to before the pandemic and we are still defining what effective ways of working look like.

Being in the neutral zone is often a place of mixed emotions, met with uncertainty, confusion and impatience, whilst grappling for a sense of stability and clarity. It is the bridge between the old and new, some will still be attached to where they left and want to go back there, others want to push ahead, desire for new beginnings, for decisions to be made so they know where they stand in terms of where they are working and for some employees this will be the decider of whether they will stay or go. Under pressure of this polarisation, it is a challenging time for leaders and managers. Change is a process and this zone is an important part of the journey. If unattended to, teamwork is undermined, consensus breaks down, morale dips and cynicism and resentment of the change begins and therein there is a risk that chaos ensues for teams and organisations. It’s for these reasons that managing the neutral zone is essential.

Leading through the neutral zone

Developing hybrid practices and policies in the workplace is going to be one of the biggest decisions on operational practice many have ever faced. And to enable smoother transition through the process, here are 3 dynamics to reflect on:  

1. Communication and strengthening connections

Considering how employers engage with their employees, and how employees engage with their employer when some are fully working from home and some are in the office is paramount during this phase. It’s well known that communication is the key in successful change. The difference now is how to communicate. It won’t be one size fits all and people can feel isolated if they are not around to pick up on the informal chats that we used to see in the office or how decisions have been agreed. Old resentments or problems can resurface if people feel less informed and challenge a smooth transition. Check in on what is evolving, where is the resistance and unpicking any beliefs and assumptions holding back the process.

Consider where people are, how they receive company information, how they can collaborate, where they can offer their experiences and needs. Communicate in real time, dispel rumours, answer questions. Place fairness and inclusion at the heart of the communication strategy.

2. Using this zone creatively

The opportunities for evolving practices and innovation in this zone is boundless and often overlooked. While no longer working in the old way and stripped of the trappings of the past, people can connect with ideas and working differently, tapping into values and creativity, often willing to embrace and collaborate for change, whatever that may be. Take stock of what the end goal is, reflect on purpose, encourage learning from recent experiences and create time for reflection of what is discovered and the opportunities coming through. And, Bridges also reinforces that we should restrain the natural impulse to push for closure too early in the zone. It's about being careful that some thinking isn’t unwittingly squeezed out or choking off others ideas without full exploration. Use a ‘critical friend’ or coach to support the discovery phase if needed.

3. Caring for the middle

Look at how well equipped middle managers are to be effective in a hybrid environment and support the transition as they themselves are working in a very different way. The skills, and not least the mental wellbeing, of middle managers is critical as they juggle the instructions from the top to flex with the diverse needs of the teams they manage. They need support.

To succeed through this phase, consider the skills they need to have difficult conversations, the right policies they work with and the demands placed on them for areas such as reporting performance and measuring contribution (which will be vastly different in a hybrid world). And above all, their space for innovation, growth and wellbeing. Whether this is through coaching programmes, in-house training and supported buddy or mentor systems.

Being in the neutral zone can feel at odds but there is much benefit to be gained if the time is used well. Understanding where people are in the process and space for further innovation will create space to nurture new habits and readiness for new beginnings.

Questions to consider when in the neutral zone:

  • How are people experiencing the neutral zone? What emotions are surfacing? Are there beliefs or assumptions holding us back?
  • What space can we create for innovation and creative thinking? How can we explore this?
  • What do our middle managers and leaders need to transition to new beginnings? Where and how do we need to flex leadership styles to help the change?