How to avoid corrupting your hybrid work strategy

Promises of flexibility and empowerment risk being undercut with increased monitoring and control over workers

With businesses forced to close their offices for months on end, we’ve witnessed one of the greatest working arrangement shakeups in history. Companies implemented new systems and policies while embarking on digitally transform projects, as workers had to adapt to a completely new way of working. 

While many thrived, others struggled, and almost everyone agrees the old ways won’t work any longer. As such, hybrid work has become a central tenant in the marketing campaigns and portfolios of countless vendors, with promises of trust, empowerment and flexibility rampant. With several concerns mounting, though, especially around application overload and employee monitoring, there’s a risk the reality of hybrid work won't match these early ambitions.

The evolution of hybrid work

The evolution of hybrid work started before the pandemic, with forward-thinking businesses fundamentally changing how they use space – introducing hot-desking, breakout rooms and collaboration spaces, alongside increased digitisation.

“This was well underway before the pandemic, with progressive organisations embracing a plethora of digital tools from virtual work environments like Slack and Microsoft Teams to shared cloud storage and SharePoint sites,” says Matt Hancocks, senior director at Gartner.  

When the pandemic hit, remote working was becoming more accessible, and many tech companies were quick to jump on this trend, directing their product development to further amplify it. 

“Since many tech companies had been quick to adapt, there’d also been a gravitation towards using the company’s products to support their own hybrid set-ups,” adds Alok Alstrom, founder of the Future of Work Institute. “Instead of developing products for ‘someone else’, they viewed themselves as the first users of their products.”

Most organisations were reluctant to embrace remote working prior to COVID-19. Fully remote employees comprised less than 5% of the global workforce, rising to 10% if you included employees who occasionally worked from home, Gartner figures show. When lockdowns led to approximately 70% of the world’s knowledge workers working remotely, however, 75% of businesses discovered that productivity was the same, if not better.

Hybrid work – help or hindrance?

Now many organisations see hybrid work wasn’t a barrier to productivity, they’ve been happy to embrace various models, but the explosion of technologies and systems might actually be more oppressive than liberating.

When governments mandated working from home, for instance, many organisations implemented new tools to monitor employee productivity, including screen capture, measuring keystrokes, webcam photography and web monitoring. This was considered heavy-handed by many, and not suitable for all work environments, such as those roles revolving around thinking time and creativity. 

Maintaining an online presence actually become the main source of stress for employees, according to IDC’s Meike Escherich, associate research director – future of work. Both Escherich and Hancocks agree the solution lies with moving away from measuring productivity by output, and towards focusing on business outcomes. Organisations that implement this mentality shift will sustain greater benefits from today’s hybrid working world, whereas businesses that focus on monitoring their employees risk alienating workers.

Digital fatigue is another concern, Al Fox, Director and head of HR at B2B marketing firm Fox Agency, tells IT Pro. “We’ve always avoided micromanagement and surveillance, but digital fatigue is an issue when working online all day,” he says. “Creatives love working together in an office where they can share or draw ideas on paper or board, and that doesn’t work quite as well virtually. 

“For this reason, they try and meet in person when they can. For others, a day filled with Teams or Zoom meetings can be extremely tiring and lack the spontaneity of real-life meetings. The convenience of video meetings is amazing, but there are always downsides, it would be foolish to pretend there aren’t.”

Crafting a hybrid model for 2022

As the world reopens, hybrid work is being driven by employees’ desire to maintain the flexibility and empowerment remote working provided. Autonomy over one’s working day has become more important than remuneration to many, which has led to what’s become known as ‘The Great Resignation’. 

Roughly 65% of employees are prepared to quit and seek employment elsewhere if their company isn’t prepared to offer a degree of flexibility and remote working, Gartner figures show. With UK vacancies reaching an all-time high, therefore, businesses must consider genuine hybrid working options as a key tool in retaining talent.

Employers are also benefiting from workers realising they’re no longer tied to their location. “People in York or Inverness can now work for a London-based company or even one in San Francisco,” says Fox. “That’s a big change and one that’s worked for us as it’s opened the talent pool right up.”

Going forward, the most successful work strategies will be human-centric, Hancocks says, and organisations should rethink their relationships with employees. This journey is underway for many organisations, with businesses reducing how many days employees must be office-based. Others, meanwhile, are taking a more radical approach. 

“Virgin Money announced a new employee deal, consisting of several initiatives closely co-developed with employees,” he adds. “The main one is around a completely remote work offering, that allows employees to work remotely anywhere in the UK. It includes enhanced holiday leave and six welfare days. This exemplifies the emergence of the new employee value proposition we’re likely to start seeing from many organisations.”

Dropbox, meanwhile, is making a distinction between synchronous versus asynchronous work; when are people required to work together and when are they able to work alone? To do this, the firm uses blocks of time in calendars to distinguish between availability for either type of work. 

“Examples of work design are even emerging in the quite mundane, such as the PowerPoint presentation,” Hancocks continues. “Using tools like PowerPoint 365, people can record their presentation, upload it to a suitable site and make it available for colleagues to view at a time that suits them.”

There’s no silver bullet to designing the perfect hybrid work strategy. What’s certain, though, is that the businesses set to thrive are those that are agile, adaptive and use technology to empower employees, rather than monitor and control them.

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