How the Hybrid Workplace Is Changing the Culture of Work
While the return to the in-office workplace is by no means a foregone conclusion, what does appear increasingly certain is that millions of workers will be adapting to hybrid work models by the middle of this year.
Data from the 2022 Microsoft Work Trend Index, released last month and based on the findings a study of 31,000 people in 31 countries alongside an analysis of Microsoft 365 data and labor trends on LinkedIn, appears to underline this uncertainty. The report's authors highlight five trends that leaders will need to address or risk being left behind:
- Employees have a new “worth-it” equation.
- Managers feel wedged between leadership and employee expectations.
- Leaders need to make the office worth the commute.
- Flexible work does not have to mean always on.
- Rebuilding social capital looks different in a hybrid world.
Adapting to these trends will require a change in workplace culture, though, and for managers and leaders this will be the biggest single workplace challenge over the coming months. Hybrid work isn't just a shift in where work gets done. It's a shift in how it will be done.
Establish a Data-Driven Approach to Hybrid Workplace Strategy
The real practical challenge is to develop culture, processes and technology that work together, said Emily Klein, director of enterprise transformation at New York City-based Capgemini Invent, the digital innovation, consulting and transformation arm of the Capgemini Group.
“Ensuring a hybrid workplace is high performing requires thoughtful consideration of culture, processes, digital platforms and tools that ensure productivity and security across an enterprise," she said.
The pandemic offered a real-time laboratory to develop insights into effective remote work for companies worldwide, and we are all now carrying lessons learned from the past two years that can be used to optimize hybrid workplaces, Klein said. Start with a data-driven hybrid workplace strategy, determining what degree of flexibility employees have over their schedule to work individually and in teams, and whether a 3/2 ratio of office days to home or remote-first model will be the norm, for example.
Management decisions should be informed by employee assessments and feedback in balance with identified business needs.
Related Article: Is the Hybrid Work Model a Half Measure?
Determine What Role the Office Will Play
How the corporate office supports social cohesion, innovation and professional development is an important consideration as well. The office is still an important part of the enterprise, especially for those companies that are actively working on developing a hybrid workplace.
“The office plays a significant role in an evolving hybrid workplace ecosystem as we consider what activities drive business value that require in-person presence," Klein said. "Clarifying those activities determines the 'why' for keeping physical workplaces to support innovation, professional development and culture building."
Organizations pursuing a hybrid approach need to be increasingly flexible and porous in their structure and work practices. That means supporting workers in the same way regardless of location, time zone, hours worked or employment status. Permanent full time staff, contract workers, freelancers and even customers and external partners within the supply chain or sales channel are all key players in the hybrid workplace.
That also means developing the skills that leaders, managers and employees will need in response to changes to internal functions such as onboarding, performance management and coaching in the hybrid workplace. Performance and engagement go hand in hand.
Related Article: Is a Return to the Office Right for Your Company?
Focus on What Provides Long-Term Value to Employees
Indeed, short-lived perks and rewards aren't what really motivate people in the workplace, said Lars Hyland, chief learning officer of New Zealand-based enterprise learning technology company Totara Learning. Opportunities to learn and develop new skills, work in an environment that is psychologically safe, and have the autonomy to get things done, all within a shared set of values and purpose, will do the trick. In other words, the basics of good management and respectful communication have the most impact on engagement, resilience, commitment and performance.
“Emphasis should be placed on building a culture of trust and confidence in people's ability to achieve goals in the best way that suits their individual circumstances," Hyland said. "That way performance measurement focuses on outcomes, not inputs and clock watching."
Hybrid work is here to stay for future generations, he said, and for it to be inclusive and supportive for all, there needs to be an emphasis on effective asynchronous communication and collaboration.
"That means less Zoom meetings (and none back-to-back) where some are in the office and some at home — these are synchronous and usually unsatisfying for all," he said. Instead, Hyland recommended companies support more structured messaging and reporting of project progress, and use of workspaces and discussion forums that transcend time zones and encourage thoughtful input from everyone.
Related Article: Asynchronous: The New Trend in Collaboration
Identify Emerging Inequalities Hybrid Work Can Cause
As COVID restrictions ease and more employees head back to corporate offices, there is a growing spotlight on the inequalities this can cause. If companies don't clarify exactly what the workplace should look like, the hybrid workplace is not going to succeed, said Elisa Vincent, vice president of talent enablement at Nashua, N.H.-based Skillsoft.
“If the model has not been carefully crafted, organizations run the risk of toxic cultures and a divide of haves and have-nots forming, meaning those remaining remote may feel at a disadvantage compared to those in office,” she said.
As they develop hybrid work strategies, organizations need to be mindful about inclusion and equity or face retention risks and a decline in employee engagement and happiness. Hybrid equity is one more important facet of enterprise diversity, equity and inclusion activities. Managers and supervisors must understand how to foster psychological safety so all employees feel equally supported, Vincent said, and leaders have to understand that leading virtually and leading in person require different skillsets.
The onus is on organizations to provide the resources needed for them to acquire that knowledge. To navigate this, she said, some organizations are hiring chief remote work officers or chief workforce officers, leaders who are solely dedicated to ensuring consistent work equity. Regardless of title, however, this mindset of equity must be consistent across all levels, with each employee having access to training opportunities on how to navigate the hybrid environment.
Related Article: Who's In Charge of Your Hybrid Workforce Strategy?
Redesign the Office With Employee Experience in Mind
The concept of the office and the culture around it is undergoing a huge transformation, said Soumya Das, COO at San Francisco-based Inpixon. The office of the future is now everywhere: at home, on the train or in a coffee shop. Hybrid work does not just encompass a home or business office. It is any place or location with connectivity.
The upshot is that the office will no longer be a place where everyone goes five days a week to sit at an assigned desk. Instead, it must accommodate unprecedented fluidity.
“The onus is on companies to ensure that the office of the future provides an outstanding user experience for workers," Das said. "Think about what a major shift this is. Rather than the top-down approach where an organization imposes a certain office design on workers, sometimes without considering how people want to work, post-pandemic flexibility requires that employees’ needs come first."
The office of the future will require more than just an airy, open floor plan and ergonomic furniture. Many workers returning to the office have grown accustomed to instant gratification and having things their way. They expect to have the information and tools they need to do their jobs at their fingertips at all times. The new office environment will need to respond to those needs, offering interactivity and flexibility with an emphasis on saving time.
"The world has changed, and the office is changing along with it," said Das. "Employee experience has now become the true north in office design and technology, and that will remain the case long after the pandemic has subsided. Now is the time for companies to invest in technology that will make hybrid work a delightful experience for workers."