Lessons learned from a full year in hybrid workplaces
They say necessity is the mother of invention.
Accommodating the vast impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic has forced organisations the world over to create new models and collaboration methods that both facilitate their employees' needs for social isolation and meet employers’ needs to keep business running smoothly.
After a full year of such innovation at top companies like Google, Amazon, Salesforce, and Microsoft, what can we say about hybrid workspaces—where workers split time between home and the office? Read on to learn its benefits, downsides and how to make it work for you.
Hybrid workplace models
There’s no singular hybrid work model. Blending in-person and remote work environments is all about promoting flexibility. That said, one can break hybrid models down into the following three variations:
- At-will: Workers choosing the work arrangement best suited to their working style
- Split-week: Working from home two-to-three days; onsite for the rest
- Week-by-week: Alternating between in-person and WFH each week
Who is working remotely
Unsurprisingly, remote work has exploded since the beginning of the COVID 19 pandemic. In 2015, only 13% of working Australians had flexible work arrangements, but at the lockdown’s peak, 32% were working from home (WFH).
In a recent poll posted to LinkedIn by Victor Lang, COO and Co-Founder at gini, a full 68% of respondents have gone hybrid post COVID-19. Over half of those people spend more than 50% of their time at home.
Employers the world over adopted remote working strategies in the pandemic’s early days; many of which have become permanent. Reddit, for instance, announced a permanent shift to a hybrid workplace, Twitter extended its remote policy indefinitely, as did Coinbase.
As these names suggest, such work is concentrated in certain industries and roles. For Australians in finance and insurance, 58% worked from home, 51% for public administration, and 51% for communications. And it appears this group has a disproportionate impact; one US study found that at-home workers during lockdown made up more than two-thirds of economic activity.
At peak, 20% of workers across the world could work on a remote basis between three to five days a week, according to a McKinsey analysis estimated that approximately. This would represent three-to-four times growth over pre-pandemic figures.
What are the benefits to workers and employers
On the whole, hybrid workplaces are highly popular with workers. One survey revealed that a staggering 97% of employees prefer having flexibility in working remotely and at the office. In Australia, 74% of respondents to a PWC survey indicated that they prefer a synthesis of in-person and remote work.
It’s easy to see why. Flexible work arrangements allow workers to spend more time working near pets and family members, get fresh air while the sun is up, and enjoy a lifestyle that better integrates their work-life with their passions, pleasures, and social connections.
A study of 4,700 remote workers by Slack shows how well these benefits translate into positive outcomes:
- Productivity: 10.7% growth
- Satisfaction with working arrangement: 20.1% growth
- Managing work-related stress and anxiety: 17.3% growth
- Work-life balance: 25.7% growth
Remote work brings a slew of benefits for employers as well. On top of the productivity boost, employers who lose their regional focus get access to a far larger and more diverse talent pool and savings on real estate and associated expenses—staff retention may get a boost as well owing to more empowered workers.
How employers are handling challenges associated with hybrid workplaces
While it’s clear that remote work brings profound benefits in a wide range of positive markers, some kinks need to be ironed out.
Those challenges are well illustrated in Nicholas Bloom’s Stanford-published study of Ctrip, a Chinese travel company. They decided in 2015 to move its 250 employees from an office to remote work for nine months.
While Bloom initially noted ease and elation, he said he noticed a significant attitude change shortly after.
“For the first three months employees were happy — it was the euphoric honeymoon period. But by the time the experiment had run its full length, two-thirds of the employees requested to return to the office. They needed human company.”
In addition to the loneliness, Bloom noticed employees struggled with these three challenges the most:
- Keeping motivated at home
- Maintaining a sense of connectedness with the company and coworkers
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Bloom still approves of flexible work accommodations and recommends employers letting workers choose an arrangement that works for them, but within limits.
One to three days of remote work a week may be ideal to help maximise the benefits without suffering the negative impacts. Give them the freedom to change as they learn what’s best for them.
This appears consistent with research suggesting employee engagement is at its peak when employees spend 60% of their time remotely.
Of course, you can’t count on each employee to make the right choice. That’s why Bloom recommends employers establish an employee review system that evaluates based on work output. Those who remain productive can continue to WFH, while those who struggle may need to be roped back into the office.
Additional ways to strengthen hybrid work
On top of increasing accountability in employee reviews, experts recommend hybrid offices adopt the following best practices with their employees:
- Set weekly goals.
- Keep meetings succinct
- Have managers frequently touch base and focus on roadblocks and inefficiencies
- Allocate sufficient budget towards accommodating your work from home team (internet, hardware, home-cleaning)
Evidence also suggests that online social platforms strengthen workplace relationships. That same research has also shown that such platforms can help some workers play a more central role in workplace social networks.
What’s more, management may need to be reskilled as well. Interpersonal dynamics in hybrid work environments require managers to more deliberately establish a presence, a sense of compassion for the employee, which may even redefine how teams are structured.
“We've got to allow some trial and error,” said Lynne Cazaly, an author and speaker on the subject of improving engagement and productivity in the workplace. “Learning and iteration to let things evolve over time. Don’t expect – or demand – perfection or faultless experiences.”
One digital marketing agency in the UK, Glass Digital, took this one step further, giving their managers mental health training, and committing to making sure staff don't feel neglected through virtual lunches and other activities.
“We’ve invested in a weekly staff survey to ensure we can monitor morale and nip any issues in the bud.” - Craig Hall, Operations Director, Glass Digital
Be flexible with your flex work policies
While uninvited, COVID-19 has brought many overdue changes to modern workplaces. Whether it works for your organization depends on many factors—some out of your control and some well within. But if you’re willing to adjust how things are usually done, you may find benefits you don’t usually enjoy.