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How to avoid corrupting your hybrid work strategy

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

The pandemic brought on a huge shift in the workplace, with many businesses having to shut their doors for at least a few months. Throughout this turbulent time, organisations around the world had to introduce new rules and systems while digitally transforming their businesses. This was all going on while employees had to get used to a different way of carrying out their duties from home.

Although some businesses found it harder than others, many experienced great success during this shift, with most organisations agreeing across the board that they won't be able to return to previous working methods. Due to this, flexible working has taken a prominent place in plenty of vendors’ portfolios or marketing campaigns, including promises of lots of flexibility, empowerment, and trust. There is a chance, however, that ongoing hybrid work strategies might not live up to these ambitions, especially as concerns grow around employee surveillance and application overload.

The evolution of hybrid work

Hybrid work’s transformation began before the pandemic occurred. Many organisations embarked on a process of inherently changing how they use space, by putting in place new policies like breakout rooms, hot-desking, and collaboration spaces, as well as increasing their 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.  

Luckily when the pandemic unleashed itself upon the world, flexible working was becoming more accessible for many workers. Tech organisations saw how popular remote working was becoming and quickly attached themselves to this shift, ordering their product development teams to focus on 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.”

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Before the coronavirus pandemic, it was common for businesses to be unenthusiastic about adopting remote work. Back then, employees who were completely remote made up less than 5% of the global workforce, with this figure rising to 10% if you factor in workers who sometimes worked from home, according to figures from Gartner. Once the pandemic was in full swing, many countries implemented lockdowns leading to around 70% of the world’s knowledge workers completing their roles remotely. To many business leaders’ surprise, however, 75% of organisations reported that their productivity was the same as before, or even better.

Hybrid work – help or hindrance?

After realising that hybrid work wasn’t going to affect productivity in a negative way, many businesses have been keen to adopt various models, but unfortunately the combination of technologies and systems could be more oppressive than liberating.

When employees were forced to work from home, a number of businesses introduced tools to monitor their productivity, like webcam photography, keystroke tracking, web monitoring, and screen capture. This is arguably a fairly heavy-handed approach, and wasn’t suitable for every working environment, including roles that involve a lot of creativity or thinking time.

Maintaining an online presence actually became 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.”

How to craft a hybrid work 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.

This article was first published on 11/01/22 , and has since been updated

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