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How We Can Shape the Evolution of the Hybrid Workplace

March 31, 2021 Digital Workplace
James Robertson
By James Robertson

There’s no way we’re going back to the working practices — and working environments — of the pre-COVID era. Every survey conducted shows the vast majority of employees want to spend at least some time at home each week, with many preferring to work entirely at home.

We all pulled together to make work productive in 2020, with the clear understanding that it meant the difference between survival and extinction for businesses, and therefore for our jobs. As we progress into 2021, these new working practices are being formalized under the banner of the hybrid workplace (or hybrid workforce).

Digital tools and online working practices will be crucial elements in the hybrid workplace, and as digital workplace practitioners, we have an important opportunity to shape how all this evolves.

The starting point is to understand what’s involved in shifting to the hybrid workplace.

Hybrid Workplace Framework

A Hybrid Workplace Framework to Navigate the Switch

The Hybrid Workplace Framework developed by my firm, Step Two, provides a top-down structure to the many changes and decisions involved in the shifts currently underway.

The framework combines four elements — stance, leadership, management, enablement — to create a clear vision of the desired end state for the hybrid workplace. More than just aspirational statements, it gives concrete guidance on the overall approach that will be taken.

For example, a business may have this overall objective: “We will be providing the vast majority of our workforce the opportunity to work flexibly between the office and home, with the exception of those business areas that must operate on-site.” That must be backed up with clear guidance on how common challenges and needs will be addressed, such as: “All employees must have a safe and productive work environment. If for any reason that’s not at home, then come into one of our offices.”

The leadership team must spearhead the hybrid workspace, with each leader addressing aspects that fall into their area of responsibility. Leaders will need to communicate early — and often — about hybrid working directions, as they did during the pandemic itself.

Leaders will also need to shift their personal working practices to visibly match the changes happening in the workforce as a whole. This will allow them to work productively with others in the new hybrid workplace.

Management of employees will be more challenging in the hybrid workplace, as we will have to move away from the entrenched beliefs that affected remote employees in the past, such as "out of sight, out of mind."

HR policies and procedures as well as other management practices will need substantial changes. Managers themselves will also need training and support to be most effective in working digitally with their team.

Lastly, further enablement will be needed to provide a smooth evolution to a productive hybrid workplace. This includes a much greater focus on digital literacy, beyond the basic change management work that was done when new platforms were rolled out.

Leaders will also need to put in work to further streamline how both digital and physical spaces are designed for on-site and remote workers. Many rough edges and overlapping systems remain that were the products of rapid change in 2020, and these will need to be refined in both employee experience and functionality.

Related Article: 4 Ways HR and Digital Workplace Teams Should Work With Corporate Facilities

How Digital Workplace Practitioners Can Ease the Transition

The hybrid workplace framework is primarily a model for senior leaders and strategic taskforces, to bring together the many decisions and directions required into one model. So where do we, as digital workplace practitioners, fit in?

As digital workplace practitioners, intranet managers, internal communicators, HR managers, knowledge managers and IT leaders, we’ve already been deeply involved throughout 2020 in how businesses work both flexibly and digitally.

The opportunity now is to connect up with the more strategic — and less reactive — activities around the hybrid workplace. We can add value at every level of the framework outlined above.

For example:

  • Stance: Organizations are all evolving in parallel when it comes to the hybrid workplace, but some are moving faster than others. As digital workplace practitioners, we’re plugged into effective sources of insights that we can share with senior leaders, to help with the "art of the possible."
  • Leadership: Internal communicators have long worked with senior leaders, helping to guide and shape how they communicate and connect with the wider workforce. This advice can now be broadened to help leaders build new digital skills, with support coming from other groups such as intranet, digital workplace and HR teams in conjunction with traditional comms advice.
  • Management: A lot of changes will need to happen at the management level, from practices to policies and systems, for the hybrid workplace to be a sustainable reality. Again, we can play a proactive role here, taking what we’re learning from other organizations and helping to identify and resolve issues in a strategic rather than proactive role.
  • Enablement: It goes without saying that the enablement component of the hybrid workplace framework is likely the domain of the readers of this article. Like other aspects, we need to pick up the pace of change, getting ‘on the front foot’ to design elegant and productive experiences that actively support new ways of working.

While top-level decisions about who gets to work where may be above our paygrade, there’s no question that digital considerations now need to pervade all decisions, even those made by senior leaders.

This is a chance for practitioners to build on the kudos we gained during 2020 to accelerate the strategic transformations happening in 2021, and in the process get a little bit closer to the ideal digital workplace we’ve been striving for.

Related Article: Year One AC: How the Digital Workplace Is Evolving Post Coronavirus

About the Author

James Robertson is the originator of the global movement towards digital employee experience (DEX). Twenty years in this space, he’s one of the leading thinkers on intranets and digital workplaces. He’s the author of the books “Essential Intranets: Inspiring Sites that Deliver Business Value” and “Designing Intranets: Creating Sites that Work.”

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