Is the Hybrid Work Model a Half Measure?
The changing reality of work these past few years has thrown organizations around the world into a workplace model few had anticipated or prepared for.
While the successes of "work-from-anywhere" have led many organizations to embrace a distributed workplace, some are eager to return to the office. With employers and employees expecting different realities, what's in store for the future of work? Is a hybrid work model the solution or just a half measure? And what is the next evolutionary step in this workplace?
Here's a look at how we got here — and where we may be heading next.
The Remote Workplace Before the Pandemic
Remote work has always had its own set of challenges. A November 2019 Gallup report showed that isolation and loneliness were problems for nearly a quarter of remote employees, and that remote workers often felt like they were left out of company activities or missed out on casual conversations with team leaders and other employees.
Prior to the pandemic when remote employees were not as common as today, they were often an afterthought and left to their own devices — literally. Virtual or digital whiteboards were not widely used, and communication and collaboration platforms lacked the functionality they have today.
Standardization of software was also not common, so remote employees within the same organization used a wide range of different platforms. Because of that, those employees often missed out on crucial conversations, let alone casual "watercooler" conversations with coworkers.
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The Evolution of the Remote Work Model
The velocity of change to the remote workplace, the uniqueness of the circumstances in which it happened and companies' lack of preparation for a pandemic meant many organizations' temporary plans fell short. Even the best plans had to be rethought and revamped again and again.
As remote workplace advocate Chris Herd remarked, instead of taking 15 years to move an entire workforce to a remote model, organizations were forced to make the transition in 15 months. While this had several advantages, many companies found themselves working in the dark, as they dealt with issues they had never encountered before.
Luckily, the emergence of new technologies, software and applications helped smooth the transition. Herd believes that by 2030, there will be at least 80 million remote workers — and millions more once companies figure out how to make the remote workplace even better.
He described the essence of remote work as “empowering every individual to design work around their own requirements in order to do the best work they have ever done,” and his company, Firstbase, aims to help companies make the transition. The company, which operates remotely of course, brought in $13 million in venture funding in May 2021 to help companies set up hardware and infrastructure for remote work.
Although most remote employees have voiced their desire to maintain the freedom and flexibility remote work affords them, many companies are encouraging — and even mandating — a return to the office as we inch our way out of the pandemic. JPMorgan and Citi, for instance, announced in early January that they would require employees to be back in the office no later than Feb. 1, 2022.
Remote-work advocates such as Herd believe such a move is extremely shortsighted, comparing it to companies that did not embrace computers in the 1990s and those that failed to recognize the significance of the internet in the 2010s. Given the incredible successes of the work-from-anywhere workforce during the pandemic, including productivity rates that surprised even the most jaded team leaders, one can only imagine how well such a workforce would do given the best of all remote workplace scenarios.
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The Importance of Employee Well-Being
Many feel that remote work is, and should be, the way of the future. According to Quantum's 2021 State of Remote Work report, 30 percent of employees are hybrid, and 35 percent work remotely. Perhaps most interesting is that 21 percent of employees want to work remotely full time, and 68 percent want a hybrid work schedule. Only 11 percent of workers want to work onsite full time.
Companies that want to improve employee experience and retain talent would stand to gain by paying attention to workers' wants and needs. Job dissatisfaction caused record numbers of employees to resign in what's been dubbed the Great Resignation. A record 4.5 million employees quit their jobs in November 2021, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Dr. Mary-Clare Race, chief innovation and product officer at LHH, a Florida-based management consulting firm, said organizations need to focus on employee well-being to avoid being a victim of this mass exodus as they shift to the hybrid workplace.
"As a society, we need to redefine the entire notion of what work will and should look like, and there has been much talk of how the hybrid work model will be core to this revolution," said Dr. Race. "We’ve seen that employers are missing the mark when it comes to understanding and addressing the issue of employee well-being — in most organizations the arrival of hybrid working has resulted in digital overload and had a detrimental impact on work-life balance."
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The Role of Inclusion in Hybrid Work
What's critical for organizations to understand is that the evolution of the workplace isn’t about technology or finding a new way of doing the same old things. Rather, it’s about looking at the workplace through a people-centric lens. It’s about having empathy for employees and recognizing they are the most efficient when they are able to decide when, how and where they work. It's about ensuring that whether an employee is working in the office or remotely, they know they are equally valuable and are part of the conversation.
"A key part of this will be focusing on inclusion and re-evaluating what this looks like in a hybrid world," said Dr. Race, who stressed that employees need support through prioritization, encouragement from managers and dedicated focus time amid the endless stream of video calls, chats and emails.
"Managers must recognize that one-size does not fit all when it comes to making the hybrid model work," she said. "Organizations will need to be much more flexible and take a personalized approach for their employees."
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As workplace dynamics continue to shift, leaders should seek to understand how a hybrid workplace impacts morale and prioritize a positive company environment to boost employee retention, said Jesper Zerlang, CEO of SIEM software platform provider LogPoint. "In the modern workplace, every person is created equal, but one size does not and should not fit all," he said.
In Zerlang's view, organizations should not offer a remote or hybrid work schedule but instead implement flexibility for each employee. Companies will be better able to create a work environment that can help employees meet their specific needs, even if that means every one has a different workplace or work schedule.
"The modern workplace makes people the main priority and when an organization instills trust in and values their employees’ time and commitments, better business performance and outcomes naturally follow,” he said.
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Why the Hybrid Workplace Is Unequal
- The decision-maker isn't remote: Leaders who work in the office can't experience the virtual environment and aren't able to effectively understand what works and what doesn’t.
- Not giving agency to individuals: One benefit of remote work is that it allows workers to decide when, where and how they work. The hybrid model takes this away by forcing workers into the office on specific days.
- Unequal opportunity to contribute: Goldberg said this is the biggest hurdle organizations with a hybrid model must address: Ensuring equal opportunities for all employees to contribute, grow and learn. Even if employees are given a choice to work remotely or hybrid, those who remain remote tend to feel left out when others work in the office.
Toolie Garner, leadership expert and CEO of Remote Leadership Success, said the equal opportunity challenge is why she prefers fully remote over hybrid.
“I'm in favor of fully remote work whenever possible, but if a company is going to insist on hybrid work, then they're going to have to take seriously the accommodations for remote workers to provide an equal opportunity workplace,” she said.
What's Required to Evolve Beyond Half Measures
For things to truly evolve, companies will have to embrace the idea that workers can reside anywhere and still effectively do their jobs and contribute value. When companies employ remote and hybrid employees, they have to consider ways to keep everybody on the same page.
“Stop thinking that everyone has to be in the room for innovation and collaboration to occur,” said Garner. “If you're working with a hybrid team, some will be at home, some in the office. You can't always count on everyone being in the same physical location for meetings, so you need to apply the same techniques you used when everyone was at home."
For instance, she suggested having each on-site employee attend company meetings from their own device rather than bringing everyone in as a team on one camera. "That restores the egalitarian nature of meetings and prevents side conversations in the room that remote people cannot hear," she said.
There's no doubt leaders must shift their thinking when working with a remote or hybrid team. For instance, off-the-cuff but important conversations that occur spontaneously in the office should be shared with remote staff to avoid unintentionally leaving people out of important communications. Similarly, leaders must give as much importance to virtual meetings as they do in-person meetings. Garner said there's a tendency to discredit virtual interactions and view them as less effective, particularly during the onboarding process.
Work-from-home situations often provide opportunities to know remote employees better, she said. For instance, if they’re video-bombed by a pet during an interview, leaders could ask them about it or come up with ways to help employees feel seen and appreciated. That level of involvement and personalization increases loyalty. With the talent marketplace being so competitive right now, empathetic and smart employers will adopt a human-based approach to managing employees.
With the move to a remote or hybrid workplace, many organizations have chosen to focus on the software and technology that can re-create the office environment in a different location. Yet, the truly evolutionary workplace is guided by flexibility and a genuine interest in the human element — whether those employees work in the office, in their homes, in the coffee shop, in the middle of the night or during the day.
Time and location should not define an employee's potential, productivity or contribution to an organization's success.