The Hybrid Distraction

Experts say some firms became too focused on employee arrangements and other distractions. How they are trying to move on.

At the company-wide town hall, four employees asked questions about their remote-schedule arrangements. Hiding his frustration, the CEO gamely answered them. A year earlier, he’d set schedule guidelines and empowered his managers to make the best decisions for their teams. Then he’d moved on to other pressing concerns. But his people had not, and the topic continued to suck all the air out of the town hall, leaving no space for important questions about talent retention and the wobbly markets.

Even as hybrid scheduling, work-from-home arrangements, and similar topics continue to capture the focus of employees, managers, and media, the biggest challenge facing leaders this summer may be turning people’s attention elsewhere. “They're a distraction from the things that really matter,” says Dan Kaplan, senior client partner in the CHRO practice at Korn Ferry. Kaplan says that top leaders need to focus on crucial matters like talent, supply chains, wobbly markets, and inflation. “If executives are still debating hybrid schedules,” he says, “they’re not able manage their teams or navigate tough markets. The goal is to make a decision, and move on.”

One company’s distraction can be another firm’s critical issue: some businesses are legitimately mired in topics such as communication with Generation Zers and still-evolving remote arrangements. But many are striving to move on. For example, many companies with hybrid staffs have seen stable employee work outputs for over a year. “None of my clients are talking about hybrid work arrangements anymore,” says Kristi Drew, global account leader in the Financial Services practice at Korn Ferry. “They’ve moved on to discussing talent management and where the economy is going.”

These topics are so sticky—so difficult for leaders to move past—because of the fatigue issue involved. “On some of these issues, the can was kicked down the road for years," says Mark Royal, senior director and employee-engagement expert at Korn Ferry. Most executives and employees expected to see a remodeled workplace emerging around the third quarter of 2020, in tandem with the first round of return-to-office plans. But nearly two years later, unknowns still abound. “It’s tiring and unsettling for both organizations and individuals,” says Royal.

The key to moving on to essential leadership concerns, experts say, is to understand that making major changes to long-standing ways of working takes time. That said, those changes should not unnecessarily consume large quantities of executive attention. This—counterintuitively—requires addressing these distracting topics for employees thoroughly and appropriately. “It goes back to the principles of change management,” says Elise Freedman, Workforce Transformation practice leader at Korn Ferry. She encourages leaders to be transparent about changes in policy. This means clearly explaining the criteria behind decision-making, acknowledging inherent challenges and the emotions involved, and demonstrating how leadership will support employees in that journey. “Inevitably, not all stakeholders will be happy, but they’ll respect why companies made those decisions,” Freedman says.