Commentary: The new frontier of hybrid work is taking shape
The post-pandemic way of working is going to be just as hard for businesses as it will be for workers to navigate, says the Financial Times’ Emma Jacobs.
LONDON: After more than a year of remote work, the future looks hybrid - a mix of office and home-based working.
The hope in many companies is that this sort of working pattern will allow employees to do focused work at home, reduce commutes and enable them to better balance professional and personal lives.
In turn, offices will become a destination for innovation, collaboration, networking, coaching and socialising.
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THE OFFICE IS CHANGING
To this end, HSBC has announced that it is scrapping executive offices to make space for hot-desking and communal spaces.
Noel Quinn, its chief executive, said: “I won’t be in the office five days a week … It’s the new reality of life.”
Sarah Willett, chief people officer at The Very Group, operator of Very.co.uk and Littlewoods.com, the online retailers, says feedback from engagement surveys has been that employees want to retain elements of remote working when the UK reopens. .
“We’ll move to a hybrid working model comprising time at home and time in the office. We want our colleagues to be productive at home and collaborative in the office,” she says.
Recent research by Microsoft among 30,000 employees across the world found that “70 per cent of workers want flexible remote work options to continue [and] 66 per cent of business decision makers are considering redesigning physical spaces to better accommodate hybrid work”.
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As a result, many employers anticipate cutting floorspace. Jamie Dimon, JPMorgan Chase’s chief executive, recently outlined hybrid plans for some employees: “As a result, for every 100 employees, we may need seats for only 60 on average. This will significantly reduce our need for real estate.” Lloyds Banking Group and HSBC have said their office space will shrink by 20 per cent and 40 per cent respectively.
The risks from hybrid working include teams and processes disintegrating as workers set their own timetables, or the creation of in-office cliques where people who work at home are left out of decision-making and informal conversations.
Kristi Woolsey, an associate director at Boston Consulting Group, says: “A lot of people assume that because we know how to work together (in the office), we know how to work apart, then we can do hybrid. But hybrid is a third way. It’s incredibly difficult to do. This is the problem everyone will have to solve post COVID-19. It’s going to be hard and it’s going to be different.”
CLEARER GUIDANCE NEEDED
Organisations that tell employees to work anywhere and in any way are unhelpful, says Danny Harmer, chief people officer at Aviva, the UK insurer.
“People need to do their work in the place that produces the best outcome for the organisation, for the customer and the employee,” she says. If companies don’t issue clear guidance, she worries that it will lead to presenteeism in the office.
While some companies are specifying the number of days that people will spend in the workplace and at home, in practice it will be a complex interplay of their role and home environment, together with the ebb and flow of work demands.
Many employers are likely to vary work patterns according to roles. Aviva, for example, is considering creating five working profiles that dictate the time spent at home and the office.
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If the office becomes the venue for collaboration rather than solitary work, then synchronising schedules within teams will be a priority. Apps will help align schedules and enable workers to book desk space.
For some, collaboration across different settings will demand enhanced videoconferencing equipment.
For meetings with workers who are split between home and the office, Quora, the question-and-answer service which announced a “remote-first” strategy, is recommending that everyone joins meetings from their own laptop.
Adam D’Angelo, Quora’s CEO, says it “is a much better experience for everyone in the meeting since they can see everyone’s face clearly, ensures everyone is on a level playing field … and prevents the side conversations and crosstalk that make remote employees feel excluded when half the team is joining from an office video conferencing room”.
Technology can enable homeworkers to drop in on casual conversations in informal meeting areas by having a videoconferencing camera streaming a kitchen area, for example.
Listen to EngageRocket CEO Leong Chee Tung and HR strategist Adrian Tan debate the merits of returning to the office on CNA's Heart of the Matter podcast:
A TIME TO EXPERIMENT
Hybrid working will involve a lot of experimentation. Anne-Laure Fayard, an associate professor at the department of technology management and innovation, NYU Tandon School of Engineering, says that patience will be required to create new habits. “There will be some need to design and engineer serendipity at the start. It will take time and evolve.”
Sonja Gittens Ottley, head of diversity and inclusion at Asana, the collaboration software platform, says businesses must monitor the impact of hybrid work.
“Regular employee surveys and assessment of workloads will be key to understanding whether prioritising employee flexibility is coming at the cost of clarity, productivity and employee happiness,” she explains.
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FOUR KINDS OF WORKERS
According to Kristi Woolsey, an associate director at Boston Consulting Group, the types of workers vary across sectors but broadly divide into four main groups.
The anchored operator (with zero to 20 per cent remote work) needs to be physically present to do their job. Examples include a scientist in a laboratory or a janitor pushing a broom.
The creative collaborator (20 to 50 per cent remote) takes on new work and develops initiatives. Includes marketing executives launching a new campaign.
The focused contributor (50 to 80 per cent remote) is someone whose primary work requires individual focus. This could be a finance worker who closes the books every month. Some teams may prefer to either work remotely two days every week, or spend one week a month at home.
The pattern specialist (80 to 100 per cent remote) is someone whose work follows a regular process and a defined pattern, such as a call centre worker with a script. They are not responsible for any process improvement and have a clear pattern to follow for delivery.
Some companies might use technology that monitors use of the office space. Workers have previously expressed concerns about surveillance.
CHANGED OFFICE LAYOUT
Hybrid working requires changes to office space. Previously people were sitting in open-plan offices to focus and meeting rooms to collaborate, says Janet Pogue McLaurin, global workplace leader at Gensler, a design company.
“We need to design more open or semi-enclosed spaces to collaborate and [use] more private spaces for more private work — the exact opposite to how we were thinking about it.”
At Lloyds, as well as increasing collaboration spaces and setting up apps to book them, the bank will look at using surplus space in branches so that workers can go to local meeting rooms, collaboration zones and hot-desking facilities as well as travelling to main hubs.
WeTransfer, a cloud software business providing collaborative tools, has removed half the desks in its offices and built meeting spaces, workshop rooms and recording studios.
Dropbox, the cloud storage and collaboration platform, is becoming remote-first and wants its employees to use the office for collaboration, not solo work.
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Sonya Simmons, head of workplace design and build at Spotify, says office spaces are being overhauled to create more “collaboration areas and focus areas — including quiet rooms — where more heads-down, noise and distraction-free work can be conducted, (as well as) adding more phone booths, designed for one or two people to hop in [and] out of for a quick call or huddle.”
MANAGERS’ NEW ROLES
Hybrid work will require managers to be clear on teams’ objectives, align everyone’s schedules and ensure that meetings are inclusive. In a blog post, Dropbox reports that it has asked managers to regularly evaluate whether they have assigned tasks fairly.
Much of this will require training: Aviva, for example, says it will provide support and guidance on running virtual and hybrid meetings, as well as on shaping team schedules.
Managers have a role to play in leading by example. “The one piece that will make a difference is role modelling,” says Fayard of NYU Tandon. People need to feel that it is acceptable to work from home and “if they go into the office it’s about meeting co-workers rather than being seen by management”.