It may not yet be clear what our “next normal” will look like. But we can be certain that work won’t look like it did before. Propelled by the global health crisis, we have entered a “new world of work” – one in which productivity and outcomes are favoured over measuring time at your desk; work is defined as what you do, not where you go.
A hybrid work model (in which employees can work from either the office or anywhere else) offers both organizations and individuals a number of benefits. It affords employees greater flexibility, for example. But depending on the approach the organization takes, a hybrid model can pose a number of challenges to the health of an organization, including inequity, exclusion, disengagement and a decline in innovation. To minimize or eliminate the risks of these challenges, organizations and leaders need to plan for an implement a hybrid model in a mindful and deliberate way.
Three Potential Risks
Risk 1 – Inequity
In hybrid models where employees have complete flexibility to decide where they work, people who spend more time in the office may have better access to resources, including people. Folks working on-site may have more opportunities to spend time with their manager, colleagues or leaders from different departments or work groups; they may have access to onsite perks like free tea, coffee, snacks, gyms, and daycares; and the tools available to them (like printers, smart whiteboards, or sophisticated teleconference equipment) may be significantly better than what is available to people working from home. While it may be tempting to think that the flexibility of working from home makes up for what these employees may lose out on, that can be a risky assumption in an era where the war for talent is expected to reignite.
Risk 2 – Exclusion
Anyone who has attended a meeting virtually or by teleconference while everyone else was in a room together is familiar with how challenging it can be to feel as though your voice is heard just as much as everyone else’s. If not thoughtfully implemented, a hybrid work model has the potential to normalize this kind of two-tiered interaction, making off-site colleagues feel disconnected or excluded from team interactions. People working on-site may have more opportunity for unplanned social activities with colleagues, like impromptu lunches or coffee breaks.
Risk 3 – Disengagement
In scenarios where employees will be mandated to return to working in the office for a fixed number of either random or assigned days, the risk to a decline in overall job satisfaction is high. In a recent study of CHROs, COOs and CEOs, 39% anticipate conflict regarding their return to work/hybrid model, and 23% are unsure about how employees will feel. Employees who liked the work-life flexibility offered by working from a home office and who proved that their productivity could remain high may resent being forced back into the office, where the time at their desk and work is more closely scrutinized. At the same time, employees who missed regular, in-person contact with colleagues and (for some) the superior working conditions at the office may resent being forced to work from home for part of the work week.
Eliminating or Minimizing the Risks
Proactively identifying and taking action to eliminate or minimize the risk that these challenges present will be key to a successful return to work across virtually all industries. To influence better outcomes:
1. Pay attention to the details. Map out the entire day-to-day employee experience for both the on-site and virtual environments and identify sources of inequity or exclusion. Look at every detail, right down to the campaign posters that hang on the wall in the lunchroom. For each potential discrepancy identified between the two environments, put measures in place to level the playing field.
2. Understand and leverage your technology. Turn on community-building tools like Yammer to create opportunities for coffee chats, lunches, and “casual virtual collisions”. In addition, ensure that hybrid models don’t negatively impact your ability to use features and functionality of online meeting platforms to engage virtual participants. For example, if meeting attendees in a conference room watching a presentation on one screen, the presenter loses their ability to engage their audience using polls and chat, and colleagues joining virtually will have far fewer opportunities for engagement. Instead, have the people in the office bring their individual laptops (but only use one audio source), so you can still use tools to drive meeting participation and engagement. In-office employees will still have the benefit of being able to chit chat with their colleagues before and after meetings and read each others’ body language, and colleagues joining online will feel more connected, too.
3. Listen and adapt. This next era of work will be new and different for most people and organizations, especially in early phases, when public health measures may still constrain hybrid models. During these early phases, in particular, it will be crucial to have “employee listening” measures in place to capture feedback about what is and isn’t working as you go. This might look like a regular pulse survey or any other number of feedback mechanisms. If you don’t already have a ‘return to work’ team, consider forming one to monitor the data and make recommendations about how to adapt.
4. Invest in developing the new skills required for success. There is no question that in the next normal, leaders and individual contributors will need new skills to succeed. People will need to be able to properly assess what work is better suited to being done in the office together, versus at home. They will also need to be prepared to ensure equal effectiveness regardless of the location of work. Employees, even tech-hesitant ones, will also need to become more digitally savvy. Leveraging technology to communicate effectively will need to become habit, rather than a novelty. We have been surviving for the past year, but the goal should be to help people thrive in a virtual or hybrid world.
About the Author
Michelle Moore is the Senior Vice President, Strategic Solutions at HORN. Michelle has over 25 years of experience working globally with organizations to use human capital to solve complex business challenges, and with individuals to maximize personal effectiveness and career success. She has expertise across a broad range of industries and holds specialized knowledge in innovation and digital transformation.
HORN is a learning and development company dedicated to creating learning that cannot be unlearned. We go deeper. We create lasting changes in behaviour, performance, and business results for salespeople, sale managers and leaders.