Optimism is growing that the post-pandemic era is imminent and that soon normal life will resume. Along with the relief that accompanies the prospect of an end to restrictions, there are questions about whether work culture will resemble what it was before 2020, or if some of the measures that helped people cope with the pandemic are here to stay.
Many companies found that the shift to remote work has proved to be more successful than they predicted and the positive outcome has business leaders planning to incorporate remote work options on a permanent basis. To that end, the hybrid model is gaining acceptance for many companies, that is, combining remote work and office-based work. On the surface, the hybrid work model seems to offer the opportunity to exploit the strengths of both work systems. In practice, it presents new challenges for the company that shouldn’t be overlooked.
Hybrid Work is the Future
Reviewing the situation
The global pandemic forced companies to temporarily restructure the workspace, with a sharp turn toward employees working remotely where the situation allowed, usually from home. Company executives were surprised and gratified to find employees rose to the occasion, adapting quickly to the new normal. Many companies discovered that productivity remained stable or increased, even while employees juggled a daunting set of family responsibilities or personal stresses along with their workload.
Remote work suited a slim majority of those employees, too. In response to a survey conducted in May 2020, 55 percent of US workers said they would like a mixture of working in an office and working at home, which is a promising signal that integrating remote work into the office environment will be readily accepted by the workforce.
With a hybrid office model, companies seek to retain the benefits that both remote and office-based work bring to productivity and worker satisfaction. It may also be perceived as easier than the more radical shift to an all-remote environment.
We interviewed 151 senior-level professionals about remote work during the pandemic. Here’s what they had to say about the work from anywhere economy.
Flexibility attracts top talent
Attracting talent is a major focus for most companies. Extending options for remote work to employees allows companies to reach beyond the geographic range of the office when seeking skilled employees. Reducing on-site staff also means cost savings for the company, for office space and related expenses.
For many employees, remote work offers flexible hours, freedom from long commutes, and a less distracting environment, resulting in increased productivity. Many employees reported improvements in work-life balance since the pandemic compelled them to work remotely. The level of employee satisfaction with remote work indicates that accommodating remote work will encourage employee retention.
Avoid hybrid pitfalls
Accommodating remote staff and office-based staff creates two different employee experiences and that raises red flags for managers. The primary concern is that the company may inadvertently construct a two-tier system with inequities between employees.
As COVID-19 becomes less urgent, management may devolve to old ways of viewing employees, even as the company moves forward to flexible work situations. That could include an unintended bias toward office-based staff, who have the advantage of being both visible and easily accessible, while remote workers are unconsciously judged as being less committed, in keeping with pre-pandemic views. The remote employee may even be perceived as “privileged” and exempt from mundane routines, incurring resentment from the office contingent. There may be tension between factions of the company that fully incorporate the hybrid model into the workflow and others that find it more challenging.
Being “seen” to be making valuable contributions could lead the office-based employee to being offered career-boosting opportunities, while the achievements of his or her peer who is working remotely are overlooked. That situation creates a dynamic that has employees feeling either on the inside or on the outside. Cultural disparities could also intensify, when one group communicates digitally and the other face-to-face, where people tend to express themselves more carefully.
Persistent differences between the two groups in communication, social interactions, and opportunities, will impact on morale, leading eventually to issues with employee retention. That’s not a desirable result; companies seek to attract employees, not discourage them, when offering a flexible work model.
Making It Work
Measures that promote equality need to be integrated into the hybrid work model from the beginning to encourage cohesion between team members.
The “us-and-them” dynamic can be averted with planning that promotes opportunities for employees from both sectors to share the same space on a regular basis. For example, certain days or weeks can be designated as in-office for the whole team, with social events, team-building exercises, and group work integrated into the schedule.
When it’s necessary to conduct virtual meetings between the office and remote workers, all participants should be on their own devices, including company executives. When the office-based people are in the same room, there is a tendency for side conversations and signals that exclude the remote workers, who are on isolated screens.
A Remote-First Approach
Executives at GitLab, an all-remote code-collaboration company, suggest that hybrid models might work best if they adopt an all-remote mindset. That means that business continues even if the entire workforce chooses to work remotely on the same day. To achieve that level of workflow requires instilling processes that are consistent across the board, with the aim of maintaining transparent communication with all employees.
For example, remote workers are accustomed to documenting all their work. Documentation should be required from all team members, to ensure everyone is working with the same information. Impromptu meetings in the office that result in movement on a project can lead to misunderstandings and exclusion, if remote team members are unaware that an ad hoc encounter impacted something they are working on.
Social events are keenly appreciated by employees, whether remote or not, and that could be especially true in the post-pandemic period. Company culture is fostered with casual, social interactions and will be an essential component in maintaining a strong connection between employees and the company. Every effort should be made to include all members of the team in social breaks, whether it’s a virtual coffee chat, or a weekend retreat.