When lockdown began in 2020, it was perhaps the biggest disruption to working styles in a long time. Most organisations were left with no option but to quickly transition to working from home. The whole situation was like a mass experiment in work-from-home across the world. Most businesses and employees agree that it has been a partial success. A McKinsey survey of 100 executives across the world and across industries also confirms that both productivity and customer satisfaction increased during this period.
As per a study for International Facility Management Association (IFMA), 81 per cent of SMEs expect over a quarter of employees to continue working from remote locations most of the time, especially in the tech world. The McKinsey survey also reiterates the same finding — going forward, nine out of ten organisations will combine on-site and remote working.
The opinion is not one-sided. As per a Gartner report, most employees consider the large-scale shift to remote working as a positive move by organisations. In fact, over 75 per cent of hybrid/remote employees report that the move has made them perceive the workplace more positively.
Establishing the hybrid work model
The ‘work anywhere’ model is not a new idea but organisations are now realising the need to consider it as a permanent model. Growing evidence shows that a large section of employees value the option of working outside of a regular office, provided they have the right tools. The IFMA survey found that 56 per cent of SMEs are pondering on reworking company budgets so that employees can have an enhanced digital experience even when away from the physical office. Technology is the answer to most of these requirements.
Hybrid work model will rule
A hybrid model implies that the physical office is no longer the main area of work even though employees would be there at least once a week. The office would serve as a hub for a dispersed workforce — a place for face-to-face meetings, team bonding and collaboration. Everyday tasks could be carried out at other locations.
The hybrid model is a mix of working from a remote location as well as working at the office while remote working could mean working from anywhere — from a client’s premises, one’s home, a coffee shop or a co-working space nearby.
Ingredients for success
The finer details of how a hybrid model will work as a permanent model are still not defined. Organisations are still thinking it through and most have at best, a high-level plan. However, it’s widely accepted that some of the ingredients that would make the model a success include the right technical equipment, good connectivity, easy access to digital tools, ability to collaborate freely and provision of sufficient training. It is important to have clear policies about what tasks must be done at the office, and what can be done remotely.
Organisations that saw maximum productivity during the pandemic are found to have encouraged moments of engagement among their employees. ‘Microtransactions’ such as idea sharing, project discussions, coworking, networking, coaching and mentorship among employees might contribute to the success of the hybrid work model.
Organisations are gearing up to implement a successful hybrid model by training managers for a new style of leadership, and rethinking processes to help employees succeed. Managers are being educated about how to make a positive impact on the team that reports to them, and how to provide and receive feedback. It cannot be denied that gains in authority are often accompanied by a loss of empathy. Organisations must try to address this using novel ways to promote harmony and reduce conflict.
Redesign hiring and talent allocation
Hiring is a crucial process since an organisation’s performance hinges on its manpower. During the pandemic, a majority of organisations were left with no choice but to move to remote hiring. The most productive ones have redesigned their hiring process completely to fit into a hybrid model in future too.
By prioritising functions and connecting each function to the best individual or team, organisations could boost productivity. Many organisations have started the process of assessing the number of people needed for each role and function. Some have begun implementing changes too. Delegating projects and letting people reach milestones in their own way is an inspiring and powerful way to allow a hybrid team to succeed. Fewer directions, more direction is key.
Listening and seeking feedback
To make sure the hybrid model is working smoothly, it is important to listen to employees and note any issues and ideas. It is essential to take regular feedback. Focus groups, human resources surveys and one-on-one conversations are a few ways to know employee pulse.
Advantages of hybrid model
A top-down look at a hybrid model shows many advantages, some easily perceived, some not quite so.
- Cost benefits: The cost of maintaining office space can be minimised with a hybrid model. Not every employee would be in the office on the same day, so workspaces could be easily shared. Fewer people would also mean lower power bills.
- Talent retention: Flexible working, be it in terms of time or location, is an attractive offer for most people. Employees will be attracted by such working conditions, and once they join the organisation, they won’t leave easily. Research shows that as long as the right tools are provided, employees value the option of working away from the office.
- Happy employees: Research shows most remote workers enjoy working from home or any place away from the office because of a zero or shortened commute time, the absence of a dress code and the flexibility in time. All of these lead to higher productivity.
Challenges of hybrid model and how to manage them
There are certain challenges, however, that must be overcome for a hybrid model to work seamlessly.
- Challenge: Technology and security concerns are at the top rung of possible challenges. Office networks are secured by many products; whereas, home networks are less secure and can fall prey to cyber threats quite easily, be it hackers or viruses. Further, computers at home are often shared, leaving sensitive business information open to theft or loss, even if unintended.
Solution: Organisations must be ready to invest in suitable security software to protect business information in the office and outside. Managers must ensure that teams are working in secure environments, wherever they’re located.
- Challenge: Prolonged remote working leads to a feeling of isolation. Not being able to communicate as and when required can have an emotional and psychological impact on people. To top it all, poor connectivity and poor call quality, made worse by background noises, can be very exhausting and frustrating. Studies show that people lose about 29 minutes of productive time each week because of poor sound quality in voice calls. Regular struggle to hear clearly can affect performance and cause mental exhaustion or ‘brain fatigue’.
Solution: (i)Businesses need to implement the most effective video conferencing and Voice over IP (VoIP) software for smooth communication and seamless collaboration. Software as a Service (SaaS) cloud applications can help teams connect virtually at any time — a technical boon really, especially in these pandemic times.
(ii)Unfortunately, background noise cannot be eliminated entirely. Wearing noise-cancelling audio headsets is the only viable option. Businesses must be ready to invest in the right services and products so that employees can be at their most productive even outside of the office.
- Challenge: Working in a physical office promotes transparency and structure, which increases trust among everyone involved. However, prolonged periods of remote working can sometimes make it difficult to maintain the same feelings. Casual conversations that are common in office environments often lead to knowledge sharing. This is difficult to replicate in a virtual environment as the spontaneity is somewhat lost.
Solution: Although the casual atmosphere is difficult to reproduce in a pre-scheduled meeting, it is not impossible. Done often enough, coworkers will share the feeling of camaraderie. Exchanges can once again lead to idea sharing outside of the formal rules of a meeting. Businesses must empower employees to collaborate.
- Challenge: Frequent remote meetings, or meetings with very little purpose, can lead to exhaustion and burnout. Not every employee needs/wants to attend all meetings.
Solution: Without making anyone feel left out, management must schedule meetings such that only necessary employees attend a meeting. Another possible idea is scheduling ‘meeting-free’ days. This can improve productivity significantly and allow employees to work uninterrupted for longer stretches. Employees could also be encouraged to chart their own work schedules, collaborate with peers and work out the best timings for the meetings.
Work in progress
Clearly, the challenges of implementing a hybrid model are not insurmountable. Most progressive organisations that are trying to codify the hybrid model have already identified processes that would require rethinking. Some have begun making the modifications too. Perhaps the motto that needs to be followed is ‘test and learn’ since there are bound to be reasons to tweak changed processes along the way.
To enable a smooth transition, both managers and team members must be clear and transparent in their communication and understanding. And for that, teams must have adequate access to reliable communication channels, especially while working from remote locations.
This is also an opportunity for business leaders to identify cultural gaps and implement measures to build a better and stronger organisational culture. People thrive in a culture that makes them feel connected and included.
Finally, collaboration is key. Teams must be navigated such that there is sufficient collaboration across work modes. Intentional collaboration among team members will undoubtedly lead to innovative gains for organisations trying to imbibe the hybrid model.