A Hybrid Workforce – Could it Work for You?
For all its pros and cons, remote working has been the legally required norm for the majority of us over the past year. But as restrictions gradually loosen and we contemplate the world of the office once again, discussion has been rife about the type of workplace to which we might return. Some organisations are charging ahead with a full-scale return to the office, in search perhaps of the ‘old normal’. But, as the proportion of jobs advertised as ‘remote working’ on a more permanent basis in the UK has more than quadrupled in the past year, it is clear that others are going for the opposite, with many giving up office space and planning for a fully remote team going forward.
And yet, there is much to be said for the middle ground. Whilst home working started off as an exciting change (time to do the laundry in between conference calls! Saving so much money on lunches!), a full year of remote work has caused most of us to realise what we are missing. Technology has gone a long way to keeping us connected, but when it comes to teamwork and collaboration, there is no substitute for an in-person meeting, or a group discussion. Indeed, in one recent study, only 15% of staff would want to work remotely every day, whilst 86% of staff want to continue working from home or remotely for at least one day per week. This leaves business leaders with the unenviable challenge of building a hybrid workforce that is effective and sustainable.
From now on it is clear that a level of flexibility will be expected rather than requested by employees, and from a management perspective, the past twelve months has shown there is little impact on productivity for individual tasks. This has also been confirmed by the research, which shows that over 20% of the workforce could work remotely three to five days a week as effectively as they could if working from an office.
This may work well on an individual basis: not so, however for more collaborative teamwork, where balancing schedules and working around technology constraints has posed more of a challenge, and a fully remote team is not a sustainable long-term option. So how can organisations balance employee preference which the necessity of business as usual?
“In a lot of ways it’s going to be more disruptive than when we went all remote,”
The first and most basic step to consider is the administration that this set up will require. We cannot expect hybrid working to succeed organically – without planning a structure, the logistics alone will be a full-time job. Many leaders are looking to reduce office space, or reengineer offices to create an environment better suited to hybrid working, and with a smaller space available, employees cannot expect to just turn up on a whim and hope for the best. So how can you manage the working requirements of teams and individuals, and balance them with project and client work?
It will be vital for companies to make the best use of the space on offer, rather than being packed to the rafters on some days, and a ghost town on others. One solution is to institute so called ‘collaboration days’, as at Google, reviewing usage requirements at both a team level and company-wide, to manage capacity. Whatever approach companies take, every organisation will need to develop an operational strategy that will cover all eventualities: those working remotely and those in the office, the frequency of office usage, and the tools people will require to be successful in their roles. These don’t need to be set in stone, processes can be adapted; offering a framework will help empower employees to work as flexibly as they need, as well as offering the tools they need to contribute on an equal level, whatever their location.
A less tangible but nonetheless crucial focus for businesses looking to embrace a hybrid workforce, will be organisation culture. When we all found ourselves in the same boat (remote working from home) there was a sense of inclusivity. This will no longer be the case as situations vary, and some people are working in the office, some not. It will be critical to avoid a ‘them and us’ culture between those in the office and those who are remote. Leaders should consider how they can mitigate this, particularly when setting up meetings that will require both in-person attendance and digital involvement. Just because meetings are being conducted in person, the technologies that have supported remote working so effectively may still be useful. For example, when voting on wider issues, it may be helpful for all participants (whether physical or virtual) to use polling software, or a digital whiteboard to share ideas, and ensure all voices are heard equally.
Networking and connecting with others can be challenging for many people, even under the best, in-person, circumstances. Without being in the same room, it can be difficult to check in on your team, and build meaningful connections. Employee isolation has been a widespread issue during the pandemic, and employee engagement is a hot topic for leaders. One of the main drivers when it comes to boosting engagement with your employees is the relationship with immediate managers and the wider team. Managers must strive to create a culture where personal connections are important, and a supportive network is an underlying factor for every team. Whereas in the past, casual chats happened organically at the water cooler, or over morning coffee, this now means making a proactive effort to engage with employees on a more personal level. You don’t need to become best friends, but taking the time to check in can help reduce feelings of isolation, engage your people, and get the most from your team.
Another key factor in employee engagement is the working environment and the so-called work/life balance. When the office and the home merge, it can be very difficult to separate the two. During the past year there have been little other distractions for people to fill their time, and as such workloads have gradually crept up and up. It will require a concerted effort from leaders to attempt to correct this blending of work- and home-life.
Digital exhaustion and screen fatigue have gone from being little-regarded concepts to a mainstay of our daily lives. Screens have facilitated all our interactions remotely, and it has become clear that this is not a sustainable set-up for organisations. Not only do humans respond differently via a screen, but technology has also allowed us to be ‘always available’ to the extent that this is now the generally expected norm. This has also led to a more unstructured working style amongst teams, meaning employees are required to be ‘always on’ in case required. When analysing communications over the past year, Microsoft found that 62% of calls and meetings were unscheduled or conducted ad hoc. It is down to leaders and managers to create a culture that holds people’s time in high regard. As the world opens up, we will find that availability starts to shift, and building more structure into the working environment when it comes to meetings, calls and discussions will be vital. This is also a chance for organisations to not only emphasise the importance of breaks and time away from screens, but also to empower employees to set up a more balanced workload.
Technology is going nowhere, and will be a key element in building a flexible and hybrid workforce. In fact, 62% of remote workers would like their employers to provide better technology that will help keep them connected with colleagues. But how do you leverage the benefits of technology, without letting it take over? Now is the time to take back that control! Tools that have allowed us to collaborate and connect from anywhere have proven their usefulness during the pandemic, but in order to incorporate them into the longer-term workplace strategy, it is important to consider how they are being used, and how well they work for the business.
We all work differently and to different schedules, and one of the great benefits of a flexible and remote environment is that we can work when it suits us. Perhaps you work best in the evenings, whilst your colleagues like to start bright and early: by using technology to your advantage, this does not have to have a major impact on team productivity. For example, if you work best by night, by all means write those emails then, but schedule them to be sent during office hours the next day. Most importantly of all, communicate your availability! Block time to focus on certain tasks and make clear to your colleagues when you will be available for calls and collaboration.
Technology solutions should be making our lives easier and more efficient; however, this may not always end up being true. In some cases, the repeated messaging and back-and-forth emails end up using far more time than the meeting they were supposed to replace. Face time tends to be the best process for collaboration and idea generation, so consider when a 15–30-minute meeting or even video conference would be a better use of time than typing answers to those ‘quick’ questions.
The pandemic and the sudden shift to fully remote working has also given many people a pause for thought about their professional trajectories. A survey recently found that more than 40% of the global workforce are considering leaving their employer this year. Being able to offer an adaptable working environment will also prove fundamental when looking to attract and retain the best and more diverse talent, as employees come to expect a degree of flexibility in their careers.
In short, a hybrid workforce may be the ideal solution for many organisations looking to offer more flexibility to their staff, whilst ensuring productivity. However, this isn’t something that will just ‘happen’: creating a sustainable process that will last longer-term will require a considered strategic approach. Organisations should be looking at all aspects of a hybrid setup, from office space and technology solutions, to recruitment and company culture, to ensure they are realising the benefits and getting the most from their teams, whilst minimising any downsides.