Will hybrid working be the post-pandemic norm?
Thanks to the development of technologies that make remote collaboration possible, such as Google Workspace, Slack, Zoom and so on, forced home-working during the pandemic was entirely feasible at short notice.
For years, flexible work patterns, including hybrid arrangements, were a nice idea, something to lightly experiment with, but few organisations truly embraced them… until now.
A survey in May 2020 found that 55% of workers in the US want a mixture of home and office work, while in the UK, employers expect the proportion of regular home workers to double to 37% post-pandemic.
A survey from April 2021 shows that 99% of HR leaders expect employees to work in some kind of hybrid arrangement moving forward. While experts in China have predicted that by 2030 there will be a 60/40 split of onsite/remote work.
So is some form of flexible working here to stay? Yes and it’s likely to be a hybrid arrangement, which effectively means a bit of both – some time in the office, some out of the office.
This is not to say there isn’t push back or scepticism among employers and workers alike. Companies might perceive hybrid arrangements as too disruptive a step to take, as not worth it. While some employees perceive a lack of human interaction, a sense of being out of the loop, as detrimental to career progress.
Arguably both perspectives stem from a failure in corporate culture, from mistrust, fear of change and the new, or simply a lack of understanding than a problem with remote working per se. But it also highlights the importance of doing hybrid well, of understanding its nuances, particularly in its differences to onsite working.
Remote versus in-office working
Many companies and employees alike have found that remote working can ‘work’. Remote workers can be more not less productive, while enjoying the perks of working from home, eg no commute, wearing casual clothes, eating better and/or more affordably, a generally improved work-life balance. Companies get to enjoy equal or better levels of productivity at lower costs associated with office rental, executive travel etc.
But there will also be losses from reduced office time. Onsite work, which is arguably more structured and transparent than remote working, can help build trust and confidence between management and staff. It’s also how organisational cultures are naturally developed – from water cooler chats to team lunches. These can be catalysts for knowledge-sharing and collaborative problem-solving. All of which is difficult (but not impossible) to replicate in a virtual environment.
Making hybrid work
Face-to-face and hybrid work share fundamental necessities in order to function well. They both require good planning, communication and leadership. Ineffective or unnecessary meetings and confusion around responsibilities are often the bane of any job, but they can be accentuated when communicating, planning and collaborating remotely.
Remote working also poses specific challenges around technology and security, with home networks more vulnerable to cybercrime than office networks. Remote workers are also more likely to share computers with people outside of their organisations.
In a hybrid arrangement, in which employees are less ‘visible’, there needs to be more of a focus on measuring employee performance based on outcomes as opposed to behaviour.
Additionally, while managing hybrid teams is fundamentally the same as managing in-office ones, just separated by distance and connected by technology, a few things need considering. For example, staff can burn out if expected to undertake too many, and especially unnecessary, video calls. Virtual ‘catch ups’ should be purposeful and not felt by the employee as a boss who’s untrusting or uncomfortable managing virtually checking in constantly. Fault lines can develop between hybrid and in-office teams, in an us-versus-them scenario, with misunderstandings or miscommunication potentially leading to tension and conflict.
Manage meetings well, so no one feels left out, but equally no one feels fatigued from doing too many. Meeting-free days can help with productivity and give workers uninterrupted time to focus on projects.
Listen to employees. Continually seek feedback via one-on-one conversations, focus groups or HR surveys.
Recognise and reward employees. Provide performance incentives, such as financial rewards or tokens of appreciation, which help develop a supportive culture that increases employee commitment.
Both parties, employers/managers and employees, must be transparent in their communication and understanding of hybrid plans. Put in place policies that define what tasks happen in the office and remotely. Ensure remote workers have reliable access to communications and that all employees receive the same information at the same time, and in a timely manner.