Disruption is the catalyst for change. Globally, we experienced this generation's greatest disruptor in 2020 causing a worldwide scramble by C-suite executives to enable their enterprises to work remotely. Branded “The New Normal”, it became clear that one of the longest standing barriers to remote work - that you cannot trust employees to do their jobs if you can’t see them - was not true.
Contrary to these dated ideas pertaining to where employees needed to be in order to do their best work, the rapid migration off-site in response to the pandemic surprised business leaders as to how successful remote work could be, changing the narrative around the future of work as we navigated the challenges imposed by Covid-19.
Now though, a stand-off is happening between businesses as leaders still question the long-term value of nontraditional workforce models - hesitantly waiting for the first mover to implement a fully developed hybrid model. Reluctance to be that mover again relates to thinking that pre-dates the current environment. An environment which demands that your business needs to anticipate and react to constant change. Hybrid workforce models are consistent with this type of flexible thinking.
These preconceived “myths” preventing leaders from unlocking the potential of a hybrid workforce strategy, laid out by Gartner, must be debunked for leaders to build resilient and prosperous organisations in a state of global recovery.
The belief that when things go “back to normal” there will be a a reopening of offices at full capacity is set in the assumption that remote work will again be an anomaly, rarely granted and scarcely applied.
But the truth is that the boundaries of hybrid strategies do not stop with employees working from home. The model requires that the goal of achieving the greatest levels of employee productivity and engagement determines where and when employees get their work done. Under this model, employees should expect their working environment and working schedule to be interchangeable where the rationale to do so implies better efficiency and productivity.
Three key issues stand in the way of business leaders working to achieve a full-fledged hybrid workforce strategy, starting with the economic rationale. Leaders need to build the business case via tangible benefits, including a reduction to operating costs and defining the overall workforce outcomes that determine degrees of employee flexibility across the different personas in your organisation.
Leaders must tackle employee experience by identifying the optimal way to invest in their employees to achieve returns on a remote workforce, ensuring that the wellbeing of employees can first be protected and then improved using insights from their digital environment.
The hybrid model in place must also fully support its entire workforce by adapting both existing facilities to accommodate a safe return to the office and the working environments of (remote) individuals by redesigning their workflows and providing bespoke, targeted technical support and investment based on the impact that the organisations digital business has on their output and experiences.
For the most part, the misconception that remote workers are not productive exists due to a legacy of micromanagement styles dictating that all employees should be in the same location to enable direct oversight for management and suggests why remote work was significantly more limited pre-Covid-19.
While there is still a large amount of skepticism for the reverse, there is no evidence to say that remote employees are not delivering against their business outcomes. In fact, the 2020 Workforce Responsiveness survey reports that fully remote employees outperformed those who never work remotely far more often than not. Anecdotally this blurring of the boundaries between work and social lives, dressing more comfortably and spending less time and effort commuting, along with other home comforts is inspiring employees to work beyond expectations and report higher performance.
Businesses must now ask themselves what they can do to nurture a productive remote workforce and move on from the preconceived idea that productivity is harmed by remote work.
To support your remote employees, they will require access to the hardware and digital tools they had in the office as a starting point. Then it becomes the role of leadership to adapt legacy micromanagement cultures and instead use data to identify the individuals that are losing time out of their day to underperforming aspects of their digital environment. Continually improving these environments will empower employees to work efficiently whilst mitigating the amount of wasted payroll accrued waiting for slow or unresponsive applications and services.
Tracking the productivity of employees at the beginning of the migration to remote work may have seemed like an appropriate way of knowing the effects of where employees are working, what time they log on and then for how many hours in the day. Of course with nearly all departments and teams now working remotely - completing an array of different functions - productivity becomes significantly more context specific and more difficult to accurately measure at individual level.
Studies have already shown that offering employees radical flexibility regarding their choice over when, where and how much they work procures a greater volumes of high achievers in enterprises compared to those restricted to the 9-5 office regime.
The hybrid model changes the focus of leadership away from simply how much work a person can produce in one day and instead, quantifies success based on the frequency that individuals are producing the desired business outcomes agreed upon by HR and senior leadership. By identifying and tracking the measure that capture success, leadership can understand where to direct resources to constantly improve both workforce and overall business outcomes. For example, efforts should be made to track improvements to the wellbeing and mental health of employees in relation to business objectives such as increasing revenue through greater efficiency and reductions in costs.
There are, of course, a number of jobs that are impossible to do remotely. Predominantly these on-site job functions are heavily reliant on physical work, demanding in-person manual input with little to no aspects that can be completed elsewhere or at another time such as assembly line workers, transportation and those in construction.
For many roles though, the composite parts that make up the sum of a job have far greater “portability” than business leaders believe. Lawyers or surgeons for example may find the most critical 20% of their working day in court or theatre cannot be done unless they are on-site, yet the subsequent 80% of their day is comprised of more portable tasks like writing reports and other admin. The hybrid model of work acknowledges the portable composite tasks of individuals rather than making assumptions based on role as to their capability to work flexibly.
Evaluating the portability of tasks will be a requirement for organisations that wish to successfully implement a hybrid strategy. Leaders must set about designing expectations for their employees about the work that they can do anywhere, what needs to be completed on site whilst understanding their preferences first and foremost. Whichever balance of remote and on site work is set out, the correct resources should be allocated to do so and their daily experiences of these assessed continuously.
C-suite executives are often the architects of certain cultures within an organisation, employing vision and leadership to promote beliefs and values throughout the workforce. Having spent time disseminating a desired culture across the business, their view is that it should remain static in anticipation that the hybrid way of work will be temporary and a return to on-site work will fall back into place with legacy values. This mindset views hybrid working as a risk to sustaining cultures within the company and perceives the productivity of employees as fostered through micromanagement and oversight.
Culture, norms and values reflect society and societal change - they are not constant but rather constantly changing and the cultural values of resilient organisations will go beyond the physical location of its employees. The hybrid model puts forward an opportunity for leaders to change their own perceptions and promote values to empower employees to work from anywhere, using new ideas and technology that are a boost to top level business outcomes when there is an option to do so and lifting the burden on HR by sharing the responsibility of improving employee experiences, wellbeing and operational efficiency.
The feelings of disconnection associated with remote work are generating concerns that initiatives aiming to creating better diversity, equality and inclusion will be undermined by the hybrid model, which by definition physically separates the workforce. These types of initiatives and strategies aim to develop an engaged workforce that is free from unconscious (and conscious) bias in recruitment, management processes and throughout to make an organisation that appeals to new, diverse talent and inspires the loyalty.
Regardless of whether a hybrid model is in place or not, successful and sustainable DEI strategies can lead to increasing on-the-job effort from employees and an overall boost to performance by making each employee voice heard, giving more meaning to their work and creating a greater sense of one-team and one-mission. In the context of the hybrid model the businesses that are able to assess the experiences, wellbeing, digital equality of remote and on-site employees will be able use this data to focus their IT and HR resource to maintain an inclusive and productive workforce.
In an environment where employees can expect the same level of inclusion and support with their work regardless of their physical location and without fear of productivity loss, the talent pool available to organisations infinitely increases and becomes more diverse as previously restrictive geographical barriers are removed by the ability to work remotely.
Leaders should focus therefore on implementing methods that facilitate an assessment of their employees working environments at scale - ensuring that regardless of physical location, the organisations’ digital business is not inhibiting their DEI strategy.
Recreating reliable and efficient digital experiences for remote employees like those delivered on site will underpin the future of work under the hybrid model. But there is a conflict between the enterprise’s focus on speed and agility and infrastructural requirements of reliability that is putting organisations at odds with their own infrastructure and operations employees.
The belief is that a dispersed workforce under the hybrid model will incur blanket spending in order to replicate the underlying infrastructure of the office to remote locations, essentially assuming that all employees have identical requirements and therefore attempting to roll-out an over engineered network and not accounting for the different requirements of various roles and personas within the organisation. Maintaining an over engineered network drastically increases the burden for IT as the complexity of the underlying infrastructure can infringe the delivery of digital services, damaging efficiency.
The success of the hybrid model will rely upon the consistency of network experiences across the entire organisation. For businesses to begin planning and designing systems that facilitate the consistent delivery of digital tools and services, the first step will be to use data and insight to assess the working environments of both on site and remote employees at scale to answer the question “who needs what”? An assessment will identify the individuals whose experiences are being impacted by the organisations digital business and subsequently having a negative impact on productivity.
Identification of the individual IT requirements of employees will enable business leaders to prioritise how and where they focus finite resources, removing the risk of inefficient investment in the underlying infrastructure and creating the economic rationale to justify spending. Leaders can then act accordingly, confident in the return on their investment and sound in the knowledge that productivity within the hybrid model can be optimised and maintained. The process of assessment, reporting and action can then repeated across the organisation regularly to continuously improve operational efficiency and successfully manage the experiences of hundreds, if not thousands of home and corporate working environments.
There won’t be a return to pre-pandemic models of work for enterprises, catalysing the need to challenge long-standing misconceptions about the requirements of the workforce needed to perform optimally. Leadership must look openly towards the systems and services that will help them to build hybrid working models at scale if they are to be resilient in the face of uncertainty. The decisions they make must be innovative to capture cost savings and drive cultural changes needed to successfully implement hybrid work.