It's Time for an Adult Conversation About the Hybrid Workplace
As we gradually edge out of the pandemic, the debate around the extent to which remote working is here to stay continues. Many organizations are thinking about the hybrid workplace and the balance they want to achieve between home working and office-based working going forward. Digital workplace professionals have a significant role to play in facilitating and contributing to this process.
The Hybrid Workplace Debate: We Need Grownup Conversations
The hybrid workplace, the new normal or whatever you want to call it is a topic that can provoke strong opinion, with advocates of remote working sometimes diametrically opposed to those wanting to return to how things were. Despite the polarized debates, most industry observers don’t see us returning completely to how things used to be.
Scaled-up remote working is here to stay, as is reflected in announcements from major organizations such as BP, which is expecting employees to work from home two days a week, or Nationwide, which will allow 13,000 office staff to work anywhere. We can expect continued investment in the digital workplace to support such flexibility.
It’s going to take time for organizations, teams and individuals to find the balance that is right for them. We’re going to need grown-up conversations which acknowledge the advantages and disadvantages to working both in offices and at home. We need approaches that put people and choice at the center of any decision and recognize that what works for one person, team or even organization might not work for another.
A starting point for decision-making is dialogue. Nationwide surveyed its staff and found 57% want to work from home full time, while 36% want a mix of working styles. At Content Formula, the digital workplace agency that I manage, we surveyed our staff every quarter during the pandemic to ask them how they feel about remote working. So far, the vast majority have been really positive about it each time we asked them. This surprised me. I expected work-from-home fatigue to set in after an initial honeymoon period. My informal research sample is not representational — we know from anecdotes that working from home is not for everybody, depending on individual circumstances, preferences and so on. The way people feel about where they work may also change over time dependent on their working environment.
Digital workplace professionals have a valuable role to play in helping individuals, teams and organizations find the right balance between remote and in-person working. I think they can contribute in a number of ways.
1. Harmonizing the Physical and Digital Workplace to Support the Return to Office
In the post-pandemic world, offices will need to change to make them safe for socially-distanced ways of working — including more touchless operations — and equip them to provide for increased levels of collaboration and ideation, both face-to-face and with remote staff. Not everyone will be in the office at the same time, especially if companies downsize their floorspace.
Digital workplace teams have a large part to play in facilitating safer working and collaboration. They need to partner with Real Estate on making sure physical and digital workplaces are optimized and aligned. For example, if all your collaboration is done through Teams, are your meeting rooms and AV equipment optimized for Teams use?
An office which helps people feel confident in returning to work signals an organization that is at ease with hybrid working patterns.
2. Filling the Gaps in Social Capital to Create Close-Knit Teams
I suspect that up to now, much of the remote working success is thanks to the strong relationships that individuals and teams built back when they worked face-to-face. I call this social capital. I’m not saying you can’t develop social capital virtually, because you can, but in person adds a richer, more human dimension to working together and probably speeds up the whole team-building process versus doing it remotely.
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Remote working does risk eroding some of the sense of community and even culture that works both at a team and organizational level, particularly in the longer term. Will the social capital of teams and organizations diminish over time? I’d suggest that it may be harder to create close-knit teams across a group of people who have never met each other or worked closely, day-to-day in one location.
Digital workplace teams have a role to play in facilitating digital tools and approaches that make a difference and help to build social capital across the hybrid workplace. This falls into different areas:
- Creating social channels, events and initiatives that drive community, including water-cooler channels (both work-related and fun, informal ones) and peer recognition tools. Companies should not shy away from social initiatives that have nothing to do with work — they need to facilitate human connections, whatever the driver behind them.
- Giving teams easy ways to coordinate when they are back in the office so they can plan some face-to-face time.
- Providing a great virtual onboarding experience so new starters can get to know their colleagues quicker in a hybrid or pure virtual setup.
- Supporting advanced collaboration for richer work across teams. Perhaps this is the moment for virtual and augmented reality to really break into the mainstream?
3. A Digital Employee Experience That Negates the Productivity Debate
Digital workplace teams also need to play their part in optimizing the digital workplace and accompanying digital employee experience to allow anybody to work from any location without impediment to their productivity. The digital workplace itself should not present barriers that make it better or worse to work either in the office or at home, and employees must be able to work across different locations seamlessly and without disruption. Digital workplaces should enable hybrid working and choice, rather than forcing people to work in a place they would rather not be.
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4. Driving Digital Dexterity and Confidence
Another key area where digital workplace teams can help is supporting digital literacy initiatives. Employees, managers and leaders need the skills, know-how and confidence to be able to work remotely and make the best of the tools they have. Worth noting is that some of this might happen naturally: a few of our customers have reported that staff have been experimenting with new tools in the Microsoft 365 space such as Power Automate and PowerApps.
5. Providing Workplace Analytics and Expert Perspectives
Going forward, we need reliable analytics and expert perspectives so we can embark on this journey fully-informed rather than making decisions based on assumptions. Here, the involvement of digital workplace professionals is critical to ensure that we get the right numbers, that we draw reasonable conclusions from analytics and that the employee voice is not lost in the debate. An ethical as well as expert perspective is important too. We are already seeing monitoring systems that, when used with people who work from home, raise some ethical questions around privacy.
Finding the Right Balance
The debates about remote working and its relative merits will continue to rumble on, just as they did before the pandemic, but hopefully at a higher speed. Digital workplace teams are in a great position to support remote and physical working patterns through an approach that takes some of the emotion out of the debate and focuses on individual choice, data-driven decisions, getting the best out of the time working together in the office and preparing us for more change in the future.
About the Author
Dan Hawtrey is the Managing Director of Content Formula, a consultancy that designs and builds intranets and digital workplace tools on the SharePoint and Office 365 platforms. He has written extensively on most topics related to the digital workplace for many years on the Content Formula blog.