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When the pandemic hit, Pat got anxious about the idea of working from home. But after several months of the remote experience — including a month spent in Byron Bay on a “workcation”, Pat is now loathing the return to the physical and far less flexible work environment.
Jan, on the other hand, is more than ready to return to her Sydney CBD workplace.
Months of isolation — despite what seemed like non-stop Zoom meetings — has diminished Jan’s productivity and interest in work. Jan craves in-person interactions with colleagues, casual gatherings in the hallway, lunches, and happy hours.
Pat and Jan represent the polar opposite feelings that employees have about remote work.
Those feelings run the gamut from “loving it” to “hating it”, making it challenging for organisations to decide on how exactly their work environment will look like post-pandemic.
While telecommuting has been in place for decades, prior to the pandemic it was generally considered a last resort — certainly not a go-to model for workplace staffing.
That has changed dramatically over the past several months, as employers of all sizes were forced to switch to a fully remote – or partially remote (hybrid) – work environment.
They discovered en masse that not only was it possible for technical, management and executive roles to be performed remotely, but that in many respects it was even preferable.
Hybrid Workplace Is Here To Stay.
In fact, experts predict that long past the time when the pandemic is no longer a significant health concern, many employers and employees will continue to use some form of hybrid work model.
That’s true even for national security workers, according to the Government Executive.
McKinsey research based on input from C-suite executives indicates that about three-quarters believe employees will return to the physical workplace at least three days a week leaving a hybrid model firmly in place.
Layer onto this an emerging sentiment among employees indicating they by and large do not wish to return to their physical work settings, and would even leave an employer if that was required, and chances are the prevalence of hybrid work is likely to be even greater than currently believed.
This combination of on- and off-site work for some or all of the time is referred to as hybrid work.
What Is Hybrid Work?
Hybrid work, simply, is work that is done in some combination of in the actual work setting and in a remote setting, generally from an employee’s home.
In practice, though, the concept is far from simple and is varied:
- In some companies all employees work remotely.
- In some companies some employees work remotely some of the time, others all of the time, others never.
- In some companies all employees work remotely some of the time and on-site some of the time.
How these work arrangements are determined also vary widely and will likely continue to as both employers and employees gain more experience with the hybrid model.
As many organisations are beginning to welcome employees back to the workplace, some are drawing a hard line, while others are remaining extremely flexible in their approach.
Both employers and employees have experienced benefits from the forced hybrid work experiment.
Benefits Of Hybrid Work Arrangements.
With several months of experience behind them, employers and employees have learned a lot about working remotely during the pandemic.
There have been some bumps (more about this later) but there have also been some big benefits:
- Many employees, including management employees, discovered that they liked the freedom and flexibility of remote work.
- A number of reports emerged indicating that, contrary to concerns of employees slacking off when not under the watchful eye of their supervisors, many were actually more productive when working remotely.
- Employers began to find that they could save money—sometimes significant amounts of money—on facility-related costs.
- Employers also found that if employees can work remotely, they can work from anywhere, meaning employers could hire them from anywhere. That significantly expands the talent pool for all types of positions.
But managing in a remote or hybrid environment isn’t without its challenges.
(Related: How To 10X Your Strategic Leadership Skills).
The Hybrid Work Model Is Flawed.
Managers have long been averse to the idea of having their employees be “out of sight, out of mind.” That’s largely why remote or hybrid work was rather rare prior to the pandemic. They quickly found, though, that even jobs they felt could never be performed remotely could be.
Prior to the pandemic, while higher educational institutions largely offered online courses, they were largely unheard of at the K12 level.
In healthcare, while telemedicine existed it had restrictions in terms of how/where it could be offered and how physicians could charge. Those restrictions have lifted and telehealth is proving to be a very viable option both for health systems and patients. Other industries have been similarly impacted.
But, along the way, those forced into hybrid work situations have faced some challenges.
With millions of employees being sent to work from home, one challenge employers immediately faced was connectivity.
Not all employees were equally equipped with sufficient technology to perform their work duties from home. Not all had ample bandwidth or internet access. Closely connected to the connectivity issue were concerns about security.
With employees working from home settings, many along with their partners and with children learning from home at the same time, security issues were top of mind for most companies.
Companies are tackling security issues by issuing equipment to employees, requiring them to work in a private in-home setting, and having them access the work environment through a secure portal or VPN.
Outside of computer and connectivity-related issues, communication looms large as a big challenge in hybrid work environments.
(Related: The Current State Of Cybersecurity In Australia).
Communication has always been a top management challenge, even in in-person settings. In hybrid settings, of course, those challenges become even greater.
Hybrid work environments require a very mindful approach to communication with specific times and types of communication required, as well as specific rules for engagement.
When using Zoom, or other video-enabled communication tools, many organisations require employees to keep their cameras on, for instance.
4. Managing Productivity.
While there are many reports of higher levels of productivity from employees during the pandemic, management concerns remain; companies want to ensure they’re getting value form their investment in human resources.
Some have implemented various types of monitoring to track that investment. That’s an approach that Harvard Business School professor Prithwiraj (Raj) Choudhury vigorously opposes, according to a CNBC report, calling it an “Orwellian idea” that pits companies against presumed “slackers.”
5. Inclusion And Belonging.
Inclusion and belonging are issues of concern for organisations of all kinds, and were well before the pandemic. With remote and hybrid work, though, these issues become more predominant for many.
In a remote setting, supervisors and managers are most likely to proactively engage with the people they feel most comfortable with—generally, people like them.
This puts marginalised employees increasingly at risk of being overlooked for plum assignments and promotions, especially if they aren’t comfortable reaching out to their supervisors and managers proactively.
Managers should be mindful of these potential tendencies and explicitly take steps to ensure they are connecting with all of their staff members equally.
McKinsey and others have recognised this is a critical issue facing organisations in a remote world. McKinsey points out that “an inclusive environment is created in equal part by the behaviour of individuals (leaders and peers), who make conscious inclusion a daily practice.”
It is not something, they say, that can “be achieved solely through systemic efforts, such as identifying and addressing unconscious bias and unintended consequences in formal processes.”
But, while these and other challenges exist, it is clear that the future of work is hybrid. There will be no return to “normal” or the “way things used to be.”
Instead, individual organisations will need to wade through and weigh the pros and cons of remote or hybrid work and make decisions and policies in the best interest of their organisation, its employees, its customers, and other key stakeholders.