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Seven Hybrid Working Challenges and How You Can Address Them

Hybrid working can benefit from the best of remote and office working. But, without understanding the challenges of a hybrid model and mitigating the risks, the benefits may never be realised.

With Covid vaccinations now underway, countries are beginning to map out their roadmap out of lockdown. But when restrictions are lifted, how will organisations choose to return to work?

They have three choices.

  1. Office: Encourage everyone to return to the office and be a predominantly office-based organisation. This is Goldman Sachs’ plan. [1]
  2. Remote: Remain a fully remote company and remove the office presence. Although several companies are moving to ‘remote-first’, few are removing an office presence. GitHub, a subsidiary of Microsoft, is one of the few that will remain fully remote.
  3. Hybrid: Allow employees to work remotely or in the office as and when they wish. Novartis [2], Microsoft [3] and Deutsche Bank AG [4] are just a few companies that have announced this is how they plan to work in the future.

Most organisations recognise the benefits of remote working, such as, reducing their carbon footprint [5] and having more productive staff [6]. Employees also recognise the benefits, including reduced stress levels and better work life balances [7]. It is no surprise fewer than four in ten workers want to return to the office full time [8].

Despite that, employees find it harder to stay focused [9], feel more disconnected to the workplace (this disproportionately affects women and those under 30 [10]), and miss seeing their colleagues face-to-face [11].

To get the best of both worlds, many organisations are likely to apply the hybrid model of working. But a hybrid model has its own challenges. Organisations that do not address these challenges risk creating a two-tier workforce and losing top talent to those that have actively embraced the challenges and mitigated their risks. So, how can you ensure your hybrid model will be a success? Here are seven challenges that you must address.

1. Unconscious bias: ensuring remote employees are treated the same as those in the office

Hybrid working challenge: Research by MIT indicates that “remote workers may end up getting lower performance evaluations, smaller raises and fewer promotions than their colleagues in the office” due to ‘passive facetime’ (i.e., remote workers will suffer simply because they are not seen) [12]. On the contrary, those that are seen in the office working outside regular hours are considered to be more committed, even though those outside the office may be working just as long.

Opportunity: Managers must be given the tools and structures to ensure equality between remote and in-person performance management. Without equality, the hybrid model will start to erode as employees recognise the link between being in the office and their own professional success.

2. Dilution of culture: the impact on culture as the workforce becomes dispersed

Hybrid working challenge: In a hybrid model, there are risks the culture becomes diluted (one of Google’s concerns [13]) and employees become disillusioned with the organisation, or the ‘office life’ becomes the sole focus of the corporate culture. The target culture must be clearly defined and embedded. Yet culture is difficult to reinforce in the office (60% of employees cannot fully agree on what their company stands for) and even more difficult to reinforce in a remote environment (remote workers are less likely to see their connection to the mission of the company) [14].

Opportunity: This is a unique time for hybrid organisations to review and adapt their target culture. The meaning of work has changed for people since becoming remote. Organisations must evaluate which aspects of their culture they want to nurture and protect, and which they can potentially let go. This is not a small task. A specific team should be established to define the target state and set out a roadmap to achieve it. The roadmap must consciously consider various use-cases within the organisation, including both office-based and remote workers.

3. Seamless connectivity: connecting those that are remote with those in the office

Hybrid working challenge: If those working remotely are not effortlessly connected with those in the office, there will inevitably be disparities, silos, and knowledge loss. There should be few events employees must attend in-person. For other events, creating a quality connection between office-based and remote workers is essential. Today, that typically looks like videoconferencing; in the near future, that might be virtual reality conferencing.

Opportunity: Investing in technology is essential. With technology rapidly changing, utilising the right technology for your organisation is imperative to maintain productivity. Some specific examples of how organisations can support seamless connectivity include:

  • Ensure all meeting rooms are connected to the organisation’s video conferencing software. This enables those working remotely to see and engage with everyone in the room, not just one person behind a laptop.
  • Make it mandatory for all meetings to include a video conferencing link. Always prepare for at least one attendee to be working remotely. This creates inclusivity and does not set expectations for a predominantly in-person meeting.
  • Give employees guidance on how to design meetings and events for both remote and in-person attendees. This includes using digital tools to support meetings and create seamless experiences for both those in person and remote.

4. Transparency: the importance of open communication

Hybrid working challenge: Transparent communication practices help ensure remote and office-based employees remain equal. A lack of open and honest communication has the greatest negative impact to employee morale [15]. Yet nearly 60% of remote workers miss out on important information because it was communicated in person [16].

Opportunity: Organisations must put in place processes and procedures to ensure the actions and outcomes of informal, in-person communication are shared with others, when relevant. Where possible, all formal communication should be written or recorded so all employees can receive the messages.

When the right channels and structures are established, communication is never disruptive. Employees and organisations should be encouraged to communicate as much as possible to prevent silos forming between teams or between remote and in-office workers.

5. Deep engagement: the value of close working relationships

Hybrid working challenge: Good working relationships are necessary for employees to build engagement and be productive at work. People who have a best friend at work are seven times more likely to be engaged in their jobs [17]. The physical separation of staff in hybrid models can make forming these working relationships difficult.

Opportunity: One way to foster these connections is through away days. Away days can create serendipitous moments and employee bonds that cannot be achieved without co-locating employees away from their usual working location and schedule.

Fully remote companies have long understood the benefits of in-person meet-ups. At GitHub, all employees meet for twice-yearly summits. Co-founder and former CEO Chris Wanstrath says, “I think you have a better context of where someone’s coming from that you interact with through text or chat once you meet them in person. Someone that you might find abrasive because of the way they text, when you meet them, you might be like, ‘Oh, he’s just very serious all the time. He’s not angry.’” [18]

6. Employee wellbeing: maintaining the focus on mental and physical health

Hybrid working challenge: 80% of UK workers feel working from home has had a negative impact on their mental health [19]. In response, most organisations have increased focus and investment in employees’ physical and mental health during the pandemic. Organisations with a hybrid model must continue this focus on wellbeing to ensure individuals remain supported.

Opportunity: One of the core benefits of hybrid working is allowing employees to work wherever best suits their needs. This must be continually promoted.

A third of employees said they would like to discuss their health and wellbeing during check-ins with their manager. Managers must create opportunities to engage equally with those team members they see through a screen as those they may see in-person. Organisations must ensure managers are continually provided with the skills needed to identify and support individuals struggling with mental health. Managers should not feel like they are responsible for their team’s mental health (that’s for individual team members), but it is critical managers know how to spot issues and what to say.

7. The physical office: a hybrid model will affect who uses the office and how

Hybrid working challenge: With staff working in the office fewer days per week, organisations must reconsider how they treat their office space. Deloitte and BP are two examples of companies that are reducing their office space in the UK. Hybrid organisations must ensure that whatever office space they retain gives them the greatest return on investment. Collaboration is frequently one of the top challenges cited with remote working, and a lack of collaboration is seen as a major contributor to workplace failures.

Opportunity: Hybrid organisations must design their offices to support their desired ways of working. Offices with well-designed project spaces, social hubs, and work zones can foster and even boost collaboration. Other configurations, such as study booths and quiet zones, can provide staff alternative options for individual productivity. Hybrid organisations must first understand how and why they want to use their office space, and only then begin reconfiguring it. Failure to design office spaces around ways of working and staff needs misses an opportunity to boost productivity and risks office space not being used at all.

Organisations are beginning to realise the unexpected challenges the hybrid model presents. These challenges are mostly borne of the need to ensure a consistent experience for all employees, regardless of whether they work in the office or remotely. We have been working with clients to identify and address these challenges, so that their own transitions to hybrid working are successful. Get in touch if you want to better understand how to address your organisation-specific challenges.

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