Navigating the challenges of connecting in new workplace models .
The Covid-19 pandemic distilled how suboptimal it is for organisations when their people cannot easily connect. Or, when they have to radically change the way they connect.
“Work is a thing you do, not a place you go,” said the economist and former UK Cabinet Secretary Sir Gus O’Donnell – in 2008. If that’s surprisingly long ago, consider that in 1989 the legendary business consultant Peter Drucker declared that “commuting to office work is obsolete.”
It’s taken the world 30 years to see Drucker’s point, namely that travelling to work is pointless.
Or is it?
Famously, Marissa Mayer, then CEO of Yahoo, caused a stir in 2013 when she insisted everyone had to work fulltime at the company’s offices. She justified the policy by asserting that “some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people and impromptu team meetings.” In the years following her proclamation all the world’s leading technology companies started creating campuses with lavish facilities. The intention: to incentivise their employees to spend more time at their workplace. Feasibly, even today, most business leaders and team managers would agree with Mayer’s rationale, although other outweighing factors in favour of a different conclusion have emerged in the subsequent decade.
Indeed, in the context of societal changes and the transformed paradigm of work – including gig-economy employment – compromises are necessary. A model of hybrid working arrangements is increasingly being adopted because in many respects it benefits both employers and employees.
What exactly is hybrid work?
Hybrid work is when some employees work operate remote from the office, while others are based at the organisation’s physical premises. The term has also broadened to include flexible work: structures whereby an employee has at least some degree of choice in splitting their working week between remote and on-premise, or staggering their time rather than being dedicated to and available for work in 8-hour blocks every day.
Full-scale hybrid models blend virtual, co-located and flexible work. This garners the benefits of all: lower overheads and a diverse, worldwide recruitment net for the virtual component of the team; face-to-face collaboration between people at the office; improved satisfaction levels of those employees choosing to alternate between the two.
Certainly, flexibility is hugely valued by employees. A 2022 ADP Research Institute survey of 32,000 workers in 17 countries revealed that 52% would take a pay-cut in order to have more flexibility at work. In some sectors expectations have changed, massively. A few months ago Google implemented a hybrid work policy which required U.S. employees to go into the office at least three days a week. According to a sample survey of over a thousand Google professionals, this caused dissatisfaction among two-thirds of the conglomerate’s employees, and a third are actively seeking or open to alternative employment because of the partial return-to-office (RTO) mandate.
How culture influences the call
These two accounts illustrate why hybrid or hybrid-flexible work is a sensitive issue, one that needs to be carefully considered and even more carefully implemented. Hybrid isn’t a smart talent strategy for all companies. AB InBev, the world’s largest brewer, always saw Covid-enforced remote work as a temporary necessity. Worldwide, AB InBev’s leadership has been transparent in wanting to bring all employees back to their desks as soon as possible. The company’s culture demands wholehearted commitment to a pressure-driven work environment where co-located teams push one another to perform. The business also requires a near-constant rotation of in-person visits to retailers and on-consumption outlets, which has become even more important as the hospitality industry rebuilds post-pandemic.
In contrast, technology and knowledge-based service enterprises have largely switched to fully remote work. Certainly, this may be less attributable to the company’s culture and more to their business model. One of South Africa’s largest internet service providers, Webafrica, formally announced a full work-from-home (WFH) policy, closing its Cape Town branch in April 2022 and scheduling the closure of its Johannesburg offices for early next year. A year into the pandemic Facebook decided it would allow employees to operate away from their offices on a long term basis. The company, now called Meta, realising that some people preferred returning to the office, has now shifted to a ‘work from anywhere’ policy. “The past few years have brought new possibilities around the ways we connect and work,” summarised its spokesperson in a clear reference to a hybrid model which gives employment arrangement flexibility.
‘Work from anywhere’ underscores a crucial context: the core issue is not about where employees prefer to work, but rather what work means to people, and how this is evolving. Images of people with their laptops on a beach or swinging in a hammock miss the point: people want to work meaningfully. They know that work is not leisure, but they believe flexibility will enable them to do their best work.
These are powerful sentiments. So much so that a ‘Great Resignation’ is under way in certain industries as millions of professionals seek an improved work-life balance.
In strategising a response to these interrelated issues and trends, employers should ponder how they envisage the future of work. The idea that “work is broken” hyperbolises challenges that have been bubbling for a few decades, and which have combined to stagnate productivity growth in many of the world’s leading economies. Indeed, even before Covid broke, in the introduction to its 2019 Global Competitiveness Report the World Economic Forum noted that “ten years on from the [2008-9] global financial crisis, the world economy remains locked in a cycle of low or flat productivity growth.” Purpose-driven work remains a necessity and a foundation for human contentedness, but fundamental changes are happening which require business leaders to digest the impacts of automation and digitisation, Generation Z’s specific workplace expectations, and the general trend towards balancing corporate goals with the health and wellbeing of people.
To have a strong likelihood of success, a hybrid work policy must address certain key challenges.
Employee engagement, a critical productivity driver, is at all-time lows in some countries and 20-year lows in others. Gallup’s 2017 State of the Global Workplace research reported a 9% active engagement level among South Africa’s workforce. This can only have worsened since given the pandemic and the country’s alarmingly high unemployment levels.
Towards a solution:
Multiple factors are at play: people’s sense of belonging at work, their buy-in to a clear and meritorious company purpose, their belief in support structures which will allow them to grow. Strategising a hybrid employment model must simultaneously address these bigger-picture issues.
Skills and technologies. Hybrid work comes with the potential hazard of uneven skills progression and technology adoption. Instead of improving, performance and productivity may regress if teams have unsynchronised capabilities and technology tools.
Towards a solution:
Refine the Learning and Development (L&D) strategy and programmes to align with how and where people will be working. Consider hybrid’s different team dynamics, and the need this brings for varying skillsets. Standardise the company’s use of digital tools and applications.
Cohesion. There is a practical risk of dividing or fragmenting the workforce when, to do their core function, some people, or full teams, must be in the office whilst others have the option. In addition, an April-May 2020 Harvard Business Review survey of 215 global managers or supervisors found that 40% agreed or strongly agreed with the statement ‘The performance of remote workers is usually lower than of people who work in an office setting.’ A further 22% were unsure, implying that they partially held the statement to be true. This is strong evidence that the majority of managers are concerned about performance when they are unable to observe their direct reports. Impliedly, this is a trust issue – fundamental to effective hybrid teams.
Towards a solution:
Understanding that opaque processes damage trust and cohesion, adopt protocols and behaviours which promote transparency within and between teams, and the organisation at large. Check in, but don’t check up: empower employees to determine and agree specific ways-of-working, but ensure the appropriate balance between autonomy and supervision, and trust and accountability.
Communication is trickier when employees are dispersed. It is the lifeblood of effective teamwork, but two-thirds of human communication is non-verbal, and this is compromised – if not entirely lost – in hybrid teams.
Towards a solution:
Formalise communication intervals and formats. These should be non-negotiable for key, agreed goal milestones. As part of L&D initiatives, raise senior employees’ communication skills in areas such as conflict management, cultural diversity awareness, and voice-finding.
Culture is of paramount importance. Remote and hybrid models test the strength of the organisation’s culture. Leaders should regularly and proactively monitor the culture pulse. They will also need to harness qualities of empathy and authenticity to foster stickier connections within hybrid teams and throughout the organisation, safeguarding alignment with the company’s goals.
And remember that hybrid work is a spin-off from the Industry 4.0 digital revolution, now hurtling towards Industry 5.0. Make sure neither the company’s hybrid model implementation nor its digital transformation are compromised by the complexities involved in both.
The way forward
Looking ahead, despite its challenges, most organisations will migrate to some version of hybrid work arrangements where the nature of their industries is conducive. This projection is confirmed by leading global consultants such as Gartner and Korn Ferry. And in our own recent DigitalCampus poll, although 26% of respondents said they would prefer full remote work, a 54% majority opted for a hybrid model.
The transition is under way. Companies across the world, whatever their size, are grappling with what works for their unique circumstances and cultures. People, too, are starting to better understand the advantages – and disadvantages – of hybrid work. The experience of flexibility is, as yet, new. Employers and employees alike should expect a phase of adaptation and further adjustment.
Through all this WFH-RTO-Hybrid policy debate and uncertainty, and the overall complexities of managing talent in general, one universal truth applies: any organisation is about people. In whichever way people work, optimum outcomes occur through connections.
How are you connecting with your people, and helping them connect with others?
‘People at Work 2022: A Global Workforce View’, ADP Research Institute, 2022
‘Collaboration in the Cloud,’ (podcast), CNBC / Andrea Gallego, Chris Wright, 19 June 2020
‘Is the future of work remote? Developing a successful virtual engagement framework’, Deloitte Consulting LLP, May 2020
‘Managing A Hybrid Workforce’, entrepeneur.com, 19 February 2019
‘Evolve Leadership and Culture for the Hybrid Workplace’, Gartner, 2022
‘The Hybrid Future of Work Today’, Gtmhub, 2022
‘Remote Managers are having Trust Issues’, Harvard Business Review, June 2020
‘The future of work trends 2022: a new era of humanity’, Korn Ferry, 2021
‘Five Ways Leaders Can Support Remote Work’, MIT-Sloan Management Review, 3 June 2020
‘The Hybrid Workforce Is Coming. Here’s How to Become an Early Leader’, recruiter.com, 15 April 2020
Senior Partner and Managing Executive
In partnership with Dave Gorin