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How Managers Can Cultivate Connections in the Hybrid Workplace

Matthew Saxon, chief people officer of Zoom, joined colleague Jodi Rabinowitz, global head of talent and organizational development, Zoom, to discuss empathy and vulnerability as part of the managerial toolkit during the Zoomtopia 2022 session “Humanity is Your Superpower – Fostering Deeper Connections in a Hybrid World.” They discussed the significance of managers maintaining empathy and vulnerability in this “new normal” and three best practices for making your hybrid and remote employees feel a sense of belonging.
Rabinowitz set the stage by talking about how the enforced lockdowns in 2020 redefined many workers' barriers between their personal and professional lives—thanks to videoconferencing, colleagues gained access to each other’s kitchens and living rooms while getting acquainted with everyone's pets and partners. In addition to those niceties she described, many have confronted more personal stories with coworkers and managers. Rabinowitz noted that 17% of employees (one in six) have cried on a Zoom call.
She then presented data from Gallup’s State of the Workplace 2022 report. The report demonstrated a drop in employee engagement in the past couple of years. After a steady rise over the last decade, negative emotions (worry, stress, anger, sadness) among employees reached record levels; and seven in 10 employees reported struggling or suffering rather than thriving in their overall lives. The global analytics and advice firm also discovered that leaders and managers must do more than empathize to better employee performance—they must care about the well-being of their workforce.
Rather than focus on the “doom and gloom” the pandemic caused, Rabinowitz said, “to use your experiences from the pandemic lockdown as a vehicle for making a positive and sustainable change within your organization.” She added that leaders who are aware of their emotions and how those emotions can affect their employees are the key to effective leadership. Rabinowitz said employees don’t care if their manager is the smartest person in the room—that manager must be able to connect on an emotional level.
She recommended the following best practices for managers to form stronger bonds with hybrid and remote employees.
Nurture Inclusion
Rabinowitz advised attendees to reflect on the past two years and recall how a virtual environment created their sense of belonging. Did introverts find themselves more comfortable expressing themselves via chat or annotation?
Saxon jumped in to encourage companies to ensure they grasp people’s hearts and minds from the first day of hire and “have fun with the technology.” You have to be deliberate and thoughtful about your connections, Saxon explained. For example, during his video meetings, each session begins with the team sharing one positive thing currently happening in their lives, whether about family, life, health, or work. “It’s a great opportunity to hear what’s going on in people’s lives you otherwise wouldn't go into.” Saxon also pointed out that at the start of the pandemic, most of us pretended like we didn’t see our coworker’s child wanting to arm wrestle in the middle of a call or their cat walking across their desk.
However, according to recent Gallup data, 39% of people believe their ability to connect with teammates is better now than it was at the start of the pandemic.
Identify & Mitigate Bias
“Biases are things we need to pay attention to, as [managers], to create a sense of belonging,” Rabinowitz said. Some preconceived thinking that may surface as the hybrid, remote, return-to-office experiment continues is confirmation bias, decline bias, recency effect, and proximity bias.
Rabinowitz provided an example of each—starting with confirmation bias, the tendency to process information by seeking or interpreting information that confirms one's existing beliefs. In her example: "There's no way Sally can get as much work done as Annie, who comes into the office because kids are always in the background when we're working together [on camera]." The person incorrectly perceives a direct link between coming into the office and productivity.
Proximity bias, Rabinowitz explained, is unconsciously favoring whatever is closest in time, space, and ownership while undervaluing those in remote locations. In the hybrid work environment, some people are in the office, and some aren’t. Rabinowitz advised the audience to pay attention to equitable opportunities for those who are hybrid and remote because proximity bias happens when you favor somebody who comes to the office every day because they live in the area. “Think about one different action you can take tomorrow that will help mitigate some of those biases.”
Decline bias is the tendency to compare the past to the present, leading to the decision that things are worse or becoming worse in comparison to the past because change is occurring. Rabinowitz demonstrated decline bias phrases, “in the old days, we worked in one place and remained loyal—the Great Resignation didn't exist.”
The recency effect is a bias type in which those items, ideas, or arguments that close out a conversation or circumstance are remembered more clearly than those that came first. For example, someone might judge a subordinate's entire job performance based on the last call they had with the person where that person was stressed – and possibly ignore the several previous check-ins where the employee was handling their workload with aplomb.
Facilitate Honest Conversations & Reflect on Past Experiences
Rabinowitz then questioned why it is so hard to have honest conversations when honesty is the best policy. One of the challenges in the remote work environment is that workplace leaders must be deliberate about creating trust, ensuring they're checking in with [their employees], and on the same page, she says. If you don’t have the opportunity to maintain face-to-face in-person, “teaching [the ability to have honest and respectful conversations], modeling that skill, doubling down, is important to this environment.”
Rabinowitz had some additional reflection points she wanted workplace leaders to walk away with, including how y to leverage the unique experiences and feelings associated with the COVID lockdown as the workplace returns to an office some or all of the time.
Some of the ways to reflect are by answering questions like:
  • What were your pandemic silver linings?
  • What insights do you think you gained?
  • How did you become a better person
  • How can you use what you discovered about yourselves and one another during lockdown to enrich your work relationships?
  • How has this crisis made you a more effective leader, caring coworker, and better community member inside and outside work?
“Imagine speaking to the next generation about the lessons you learned during the pandemic," Rabinowitz said. “What would they be?”
Keep these critical considerations in mind so that you and your employees can feel renewed optimism about the future of work.