Our experience at work is made up of a medley of intangible but critical components – from culture to leadership to ways of working and the spaces we work in and the people we encounter. With the widespread shift to hybrid working amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the employee experience has only become more complex to manage. Leaders face the challenge of creating a consistent and compelling employee experience across geographical boundaries and multiple locations, and are confronted with the question of what role they should play in facilitating this. With experience at the centre of a successful approach to the future of work endeavours, refining and adapting the way we manage these challenging elements is more important now than ever. At the heart of this is our emerging understanding (built on hard neuroscience) that our brains have consistent ‘social cognitive needs’ that must be catered to if we’re going to triumph in the hybrid work future. Evidence shows that office life has traditionally brought with it a variety of ‘energy sources’ that feed these needs. From shared rituals that trigger a release of serotonin, to public praise that brings with it a burst of dopamine, to celebrating success together that can cause adrenaline to rise, to informal chats by the coffee machine that create connection and a boost of oxytocin.

These brain chemicals, in turn, can impact our ability to think logically, deliver creative insights, improve focus, support courage and persistence in the face of adversity or challenge and, crucially, show understanding and empathy for others in the workplace. They can also impact our wellbeing in the workplace – at a time when remote work can make it harder to identify who is struggling. As organisations move forward, creating a positive and engaging employee experience demands that leaders must look to intentionally create ways to meet their people’s cognitive needs without relying on the usual levers.

The key challenges and opportunities for organisations

Remote and hybrid workers have lost the enabling environments they used to rely on.

Our remote work experiment has confirmed that elements of the work environment or experience that have traditionally been viewed as ‘nice to have’ are actually critical to the performance environment we’ve created around our people and ourselves, supporting and engaging our social cognitive needs. As one example, how much an employee feels they belong impacts on their serotonin levels. When serotonin levels are healthy, we feel a sense of calmness and safety. This in turn switches off the fight or flight response and can help with more logical, structured thinking. Yet, working remotely, many of the subtle but consistent serotonin triggers (like the feeling of ‘belonging’ and comfort sitting with your team in a familiar spot) are now missing. To help keep brains working at their best we need to be more intentional about how organisations respond to this ‘remote gap’ and support people’s needs when their environments and circumstances have changed.

Redesign for the new normal.

What worked when most employees were office-based may not work at all in an environment where many people are doing their work online. The experience is different and the outcome will be different. We need to re-design processes, activities, and ways of working for the new normal, catering for the physical and virtual work environments.

Thinking about the health of organisational networks, not just individuals.

By nature, remote, flexible working doesn’t build close relationships in the way in-person working does. Because we only ‘see’ the people we’re directly interacting with, individuals struggle to understand the broader network of relationships that make up the business as a whole, and the effort build new relationships is significantly higher Yet performance in an organisation is all about the health of networks and networks are only as strong as their weakest links or members. If you’re wondering why your teams internally are not having the impact they should, it could be because in the transition to remote work, key relationships have dropped away and hidden silos are emerging. Just as we expect sales teams to work consistently to build effective relationships with clients, work may now need to be done internally to build this muscle within organisations, starting with using robust data to identify weak spots.

Finding ways to stimulate creativity and innovation.

In remote work environments, doing anything that involves set processes, like administrative work, is relatively straightforward. Employees can usually follow processes as they’ve always been done face-to-face and, indeed, many whose work focuses on operational delivery have found benefits in the relative control and lack of distraction they find in working from home. By contrast, creative work and innovation has taken a hit. Many incidental interactions that give rise to new ideas and the supportive work environments to enable collaboration are missing now that people are not meeting face to face. And it can be much harder to build the comfort with others that you need to enable free expression, constructive discussion (‘creative friction’) and aligning views. If your business depends on people coming together to solve complex challenges, you need to consider how your people are finding ways to reintroduce tthe creative spark, and to re-learn how to create collaboratively.

Discovering how to best uncover those who are struggling – and provide support.

Often, organisations are only finding out that their people are not coping too late. The subtle reactions that used to cue us into someone struggling are nearly invisible in a video call, telephone or text message. And for those who are uncomfortable expressing, hiding what’s going on (or, as some would misguidedly say, ‘trying to stay professional’) is much easier. Compounding this ‘online empathy gap’, we know from the data that people’s experience of remote/hybrid work varies enormously with their personal circumstances. This means that in a hybrid work scenario, trust building will be key so that people feel comfortable opening up about challenges they may be having. Developing capabilities in your leaders to close the empathy gap and build team habits that enable everyone to support each other will also be critical to sustaining your culture and the wellbeing of your people.

Building leaders of tomorrow who are ready for the challenges of leading a hybrid organisation.

The changes that have taken place during the pandemic necessitate another look at how organisations engage in succession planning and create the leaders of tomorrow, through leadership development. More than ever, leaders need to be able to understand the cognitive needs of their people and the new levers that they can use to support and engage them.

What questions do CHROs need to be asking?

  1. Are we looking at how remote/hybrid working is impacting our employees’ experience of work?
  2. How do we get information about how healthy and happy our teams are?
  3. How are we energising and inspiring people – and making room for creativity?
  4. How do we balance efforts to do this with the need to solve for burn out, uncertainty and stress, as boundaries blur between work and home life?
  5. Are we just measuring individual performance or are we measuring the connectivity and the collaboration between individuals?
  6. Do we understand the most important performance networks within our organisation and are we helping people to curate and strengthen these?
  7. Have we determined what the evolving role of leadership means in our organisation and what are we doing to ensure we set our leaders up for success in a changing landscape?
  8. Are we adapting our succession planning and leadership development to ensure that we are creating leaders who are ready for the challenges of leading in a hybrid environment?
  9. Are we consciously focused on finding way to help leaders build trust with their people and ‘close the empathy gap’?
  10. How strong is our reputation as a supportive ‘remote work’ organisation – how well placed are we to compete for talent in a post-pandemic, flexible wo