What a difference a year makes!
It’s been roughly a year since the entire world went into lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The success in remote working recorded by a lot of organizations during this period has made the subject of “hybrid working” (the blend of home (remote) and office working) topical. It is safe to say that this has come to stay.
When corporate offices were shuttered and employees were mandated to go and work from their homes, most folks assumed that it would just be a brief episode, and the sentiment did not seem too farfetched at the time. Hardly anyone could have predicted that a year afterward, some offices would remain closed!
Some employers were not prepared for remote work at the time, so the switch to remote work initially impacted work and productivity significantly. Employers that were partially prepared were able to immediately adjust – believing it was a temporary situation that would soon pass.
With my employer at the time, we had our Business Continuity Plan (BCP), which was immediately triggered. We also had a remote work policy that became quite handy even though it had not been fully implemented before that time. When we had first developed the remote work policy about six years ago, there were a few contentious points – concerns around how employees would be tracked, perceived potential negative impact on productivity and, questions on its fair and equitable implementation across the organization. These sticking points slowed down the rollout of the policy.
But, fast forward, today, the same organization has sustained work from home for employees for almost a year now with positive employee outcomes and increased productivity. This is just not my opinion, as it is backed by some internal corporate polling data that I have seen from some organizations. So, yes, this remote work life works. With necessary workplace adjustments, evolving policies/guidelines, and benefits considerations, amongst others, it can be sustained.
While COVID may have triggered the current situation, it has transcended COVID and opened unto us the realm of other possibilities. We have seen lots of technology tools and platforms that enhance remote work and online collaboration flourishing, making working from home seamless and sustainable. Therefore, we should accept the reality that while this COVID pandemic will surely pass away, the blend of home (remote) and office working, which we now known as “Hybrid Working” will not – it has come to stay. Employers need to start looking ahead and preparing for this emerging world of work as a Hybrid would likely become the norm rather than the exception, moreover, with the inherent benefits as experienced so far.
The emerging trend of hybrid working is the way the world is going, and, irrespective of the size of your organization, the location, or the nature of your business, you will NOT be immune from the trend. The companies that will become most competitive and profitable are the ones that fully embrace this trend and the technology solutions that support it.
Things to note as we journey into the emerging world of hybrid working:
Nature of Business: The nature of the business, how work is done, where work is done, and the internal and external interfaces required will determine the flexibilities and extent to which an organization can implement the hybrid model. These considerations will help the planning and implementation of hybrid to ensure positive employee experience and business outcomes. Employers need to identify activities that employees must do in the physical workplace and redesign work as necessary.
Policies/Guidelines: Clarity and trust are primary ingredients for success in a hybrid model. Hence, the need to have well-documented policies and guidelines communicated to employees. At the minimum, this should clarify expectations and address roles and responsibilities (for instance, who provides the infrastructure to support work from home for employees, who decides when and why an employee should work from home). Implementing hybrid working will have implications on the complete HR processes from talent acquisition to development and retention. So, employers must review their entire HR processes and policies to ensure consistency across the board.
Employment Contract: Employers need to review their employment contracts to ensure that the working conditions under a hybrid model are adequately covered to protect both the employer and employees. Where there is a conflict between agreements and practice, such should be addressed.
Talent Acquisition: The flexibility that hybrid working offers will broaden the pool of candidates available to employers as relocation (house move) considerations may become less of a barrier for some candidates. Recruiters will need to have a mindset change and relook at their recruitment strategy.
Benefits Plan: Employers should assess how implementing hybrid working will affect their benefits plan – for instance, benefit items like transportation or transportation allowance, provision of meals, insurance coverage, and others which some may view as not applicable when employees are working from home.
Safety and Health: Employers must review and address potential safety and health implications that may expose them to liabilities with employees working from home. There are already reported mental health issues and employees suffering from emotional challenges of isolation due to prolonged working from home. While this may have resulted from prolonged working from home due to the lockdown, it can serve as a data point amongst others for employers in considering the health implications while modeling hybrid working.
Labor Relations: For employers in a unionized industry, evaluate how implementing hybrid working will impact your labor relations environment and strategy. Proactively engage with your union to address areas of potential conflict.
Work-Life Balance: The line between personal time and work time becomes blurred due to working from home. So in implementing hybrid working, employers should be deliberate in putting in place tools and processes to ensure balance.
Diversity and Inclusion: Employers need to continue managing diversity and promoting an inclusive culture in a hybrid model. Some reports signal some concerns on hybrid working, potentially creating two tiers of employees within an organization and leading to declining participation by some employees due to remote work.
Corporate Culture: There are divergent views on the potential impact of hybrid working on corporate culture. Some leaders believe that hybrid working will impact corporate culture, while others think it will not since culture has to do with how things are done and not on location. Employers must interrogate the possible impact of the hybrid model on their corporate culture – will the existing culture stand, or is there a need to redefine and evolve a new culture? Whatever the case is, employers need to be deliberate in driving and sustaining the desired corporate culture in a hybrid working model.
Employees Preparedness: Employers should not fall for the temptation of assuming that since employees survived the past year, that means that they are prepared for hybrid working in the long term. Employers should conduct a postmortem review to catalog the lessons and gains of the past year, identify potential skills gap and upskill as necessary, and assess overall readiness to sustain hybrid working in the long term.
Managers Preparedness: Employers should ensure that managers have the right skills, emotional readiness, tools, and support required to manage a distributed workforce and sustain fair and equitable practices in the long term.
Performance Assessment: With the experience of working from home for the past year, we have seen changes to what is essential in performance, including new skillsets. Employers should review their performance dimensions and adjusting as required to ensure it is consistent with business strategy and objectives as they implement hybrid working.
Workplace Adjustments: Implementing a hybrid working model in the long term requires some workplace adjustments considering the potential changes to real estate requirements and work tools. Some companies have already started implementing these adjustments and reducing their real estate footprint. A recent PwC report revealed that 87% of executives surveyed indicated their readiness to make changes to their real estate strategy over the coming year.
Technology: Employers must invest in the right technology as technology is the backbone for a successful hybrid model.
Change Management: Implementing hybrid working is a huge change that involves both culture and operational changes. Employers must have a robust change management protocol and competence to pull this successfully.
HR Capabilities: Do you have the right HR capabilities to support your organization through this massive transition? Your HR team must be skilled and well-prepared to support the implementation of a hybrid working model.
In sum, while some of us may have been viewing the practice of hybrid working as an exception in our organizations, it will soon become the norm across all workplaces. This is not the time to attempt to resist what is already here. Organizations need to be flexible and ready to adapt – not to try to cling to what worked or what was the norm in the old world (the pre-COVID era) because things will NEVER be the same again. A new mindset is required. Concepts like micromanagement, the totally physical workplace, physical visibility/supervision, etc., are now becoming old-fashioned ideas that will soon become anachronistic.