The NEW Hybrid Workforce
Thinking About Remote Work and How Teams Can Optimize
The COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally changed the way we work. For many American workers, particularly white-collar workers, the past year and a half of remote working have been characterized by Zoom calls, emails, and some working in their pajamas.
For some of these workers, returning to office life and pre-pandemic 9-to-5 routines would be a welcome return to normal. However, many workers, managers, and even executives have discovered the benefits of working remotely and want to continue to do so either full-time or part of the time.
A Hybrid Workforce
According to a survey by global workplace design firm Gensler, most employees want a so-called hybrid model moving forward. With a hybrid workforce, some employees may work from home some of the time, depending on their needs and the needs of their project teams.
For example, a project team’s members might come into the office one or two days a week to meet, collaborate, and align their goals and priorities. Then, for the remaining days of the week, the team might work individually and remotely, which research shows can have enormous productivity benefits.
With a hybrid model workplace model, the office becomes more of a shared resource and tool available and accessible for workers at any time, but not mandatory.
A Hybrid Workforce
The pandemic highlighted the need to accommodate a wider range of working styles and questioned old axioms about the best work methods. But, by all measures, the old work rules simply no longer apply in the post-pandemic workplace.
Old truisms, such as the idea that productive spontaneous collaboration can only occur in the office, have been proven false. Take a walk through any pre-pandemic open office, and you will find that most people are working with their headphones in and totally tuned out from what is happening around them. Furthermore, so-called “watercooler talk” is more often than not cited as a workplace distraction rather than an opportunity for productive collaboration and culture-building.
Structured Work Environments
Remote work in the era of COVID-19 has revealed the deeply biased hierarchies of structured work environments, which favor some personalities and working styles over others.
According to Gensler, those already in a hybrid work model report positive benefits to creativity, problem-solving, and team relationships.
5 Rules for An Effective Hybrid Workforce
1. Equalize remote and in-office workers through technology
People are the core of any business. Whether they are executives, managers, or employees, good people have various personalities, working styles, and preferences.
The pandemic revealed just how biased traditional office setups are towards a specific set of skills, personality traits, and biases. According to CIO, office inclusion can be tricky due to many conscious or unconscious biases. For example, studies show that taller people are generally favored in office environments.
Introverts and heads-down workers who produce enormous value are overlooked.
Women are 33% more likely to be interrupted in in-person meetings.
A haphazard hybrid working model might only compound these issues by layering on the added difficulty of integrating in-office personnel and virtual attendees.
To break down the barrier between in-office workers and remote workers, it is crucial to implement technologies and policies that make remote collaboration as seamless as being there in person.
For example, many offices employ seamlessly integrated video conferencing cameras in their conference rooms so that remote attendees can see everyone in the room. Likewise, remote attendees may be projected on a digital screen at the head of the table so that in-office workers can both see and hear the people on the other side of the line. But, again, being able to read facial expressions and body language is key.
One bold policy designed to build a hybrid culture is to mandate virtual meetings for meetings where attendees, even just a single person, are remote. Unilever is just one such company that has adopted this radical approach to hybrid working.
2. Make it easy
The rise and success of Zoom, and other technologies popularized by the pandemic, have everything to do with ease of use and a seamless experience. Click a button, and your face, and the faces of your colleagues, appear right before your eyes or on a screen far away.
For hybrid working to work effectively, every piece of technology the average employee will encounter needs to be that easy. From logging on to secure servers to sending emails, sharing files, and filling out a timesheet, every day-to-day activity should be simple, easy to use, and seamlessly integrated.
For CIO’s and IT professionals, this is no small task. Yet, the technologies to accomplish this seemingly Herculean task are widely employed and available today.
Many businesses have already implemented single-sign-on security protocols that reduce the number of credentialing challenges to just one per session. In addition, many businesses have already pushed most or some of their IT and remote working infrastructure into the cloud. However, to optimize a hybrid team, team members must be able to easily and seamlessly communicate and collaborate with each other without abandoning secure networking.
3. Use hybrid work to break old inefficiencies
Before the pandemic, employees regularly cited ‘pointless meetings’ as one of the chief complaints about working in a physical office (alongside office drama and office politics). The truth is, even before the pandemic forced companies to develop robust remote working plans, many offices suffered from so-called bad habits. With workers returning to physical desks and conference rooms, companies must use this opportunity to break old inefficiencies such as mundane and boring group meetings. Make your meetings have a purpose, not be a dread to the attendees.
One way to optimize your project team is to bring back the remote-working mentality of only scheduling meetings when they are needed back into an office environment.
4. Develop remote-first managers and management skills
Research shows that many managers and senior leaders are eager to draw their workforces back. In addition, many managers enjoy the immediacy of being able to tap subordinates on the shoulder for impromptu check-ins and meetings.
However, managing in a decentralized environment requires a different set of skills than managing a centralized, office-bound workforce.
Managers who will help their organizations succeed with a hybrid workforce will know how to get the best efforts from each team member regardless of their work location. More importantly, effective hybrid team managers will know how to create a sense of belonging. They will lead with empathy, provide clarity, empower team members, and provide opportunities to all team members to succeed in the new hybrid normal.
The time for trial and error is over. Please don’t rely on managers and team leaders to figure it out on their own. For managers to lead effective hybrid teams, they need to have the tools, training, and know-how to do so.
Every manager and team leader should be able to answer the following three fundamental questions about hybrid working:
- How will they manage disparate team member’s working circumstances while treating everyone equally and fairly?
- What plan or protocols do they have for ensuring maximum transparency and clearly laying out who will be responsible for each task or decision?
- How will they enforce participation in collaborative exercises?
5. Make the physical and virtual office fun again
If there is any opportunity in the hybrid return to the office, it is the possibility of rethinking the office experience for users and make it better for everyone.
Before the pandemic, the office had to be everything to everyone during working hours. It had to accommodate both collaborative work and individual activity. It needed to be comfortable yet encourage productivity. It had to be engaging yet undistracting.
We know this one-size-fits-all approach wasn’t working even before COVID-19 forced the greatest remote working experiment in human history. So now, with workers anxiously and cautiously stepping back into offices, it’s time to make the office enjoyable again.
Many employees miss the camaraderie, collaborative spirit, and in-person contact of physical offices yet desperately want the flexibility and comfort of their own individual spaces.
Give employees the freedom to take individual work and focused activity to the places they know will work best for them, such as the home or a coffee shop. In a hybrid workforce, the office is just one of many places productive work can happen.
The office should be a place where both physical and virtual meetings can happen seamlessly, where shared resources are readily accessible, and yes, a place for fun parties and gatherings. Instead of imposing a single address on workers, it’s important to tailor the official office towards meeting the needs and goals of a hybrid team.
Rather than centralizing work around a single location, push virtual spaces out to each team member in the form of digital groups, chat rooms, and work channels. Then, bring people back together with big office calls and in-person meetups in revamped office spaces designed for group collaboration and socialization.
Ultimately, the office as a concept isn’t a building. Instead, the office is anywhere and everywhere an employee happens to be, whether at home, in a coffee shop, or a proper office space.