Hybrid work: Building an Operational Gestalt

March 22, 2024
Hybrid work: Building an Operational Gestalt

Part 1: What leaders can learn from a year of remote work as they prepare for hybrid workplaces.

It has been over a year since most organizations were forced to adopt remote work and change their way of working. It looks like work-from-anywhere is here to stay, albeit with some changes.

A study by Microsoft found that 70 percent of workers want the flexible remote work options to continue, while over 65 percent crave more in-person time with their teams. Hybrid work is a solution for this dual need that is emerging among employees. A recent study by ManpowerGroup found that most employees would prefer working two to three days in an office and working remotely the rest of the time.

To fully understand how a hybrid working world would look like, it is important to first understand what changes when an individual works remotely vis-à-vis in a co-located office environment. The fundamental changes in a remote working environment can be covered by analyzing three attributes – inclusion, well-being, and managerial effectiveness.

One of the biggest impact remote work has is on diversity and inclusion. Here is how it gets impacted:

“Remote work reduces networking across teams and impacts innovation”

  • Affects diversity of thought: Office work typically has a high frequency of unplanned interactions. On the contrary, meetings in remote work are typically planned. This can have a detrimental impact on the organization. While bonding within a team will be relatively unaffected, remote work reduces networking across teams. It can lead to team-level silos being unintentionally built, potentially leading to groupthink, and ultimately reducing innovation and organizational cohesion.
  • Exacerbates systemic inequity: With remote work, it is inevitable that some employees will simply have better working conditions at home than others – more spacious rooms, better internet connectivity, fewer distractions, better support systems, etc. This gives a significant advantage to the affluent and has consequences on aspects such as organizational culture and performance management.
  • Improves inclusion of remote offices: Previously, those who worked in the Head Office or closer to the power center were likely to be more networked with the senior leadership. Everyone on the internet is an equal participant in a remote meeting. This takes away the inherent advantage of physical proximity.
  • Makes networking harder for some: The chance watercooler conversations, cafeteria interactions, and team activities play a crucial role in building organizational networks. Unless planned for, remote work can make it tougher to induct new hires into an organization’s work culture and it can hamper networking prospects of new hires.

It is fair to say that remote work has made the playing field much larger by giving organizations access to a larger talent pool. However, the playing conditions are not the same for everyone.

Well-being is another factor that exhibits high variance when work is done remotely.

  • Work-life integration: With the adoption of remote work, employees are no longer embarrassed when personal life crops up at the workplace. This makes it easier for them to bring their whole, authentic self to the workplace. It has led to a greater understanding of work-life integration rather than mere work-life balance.
  • Saves time: Remote work takes away the stress associated with commute and parking, not to mention the savings in time, energy, and cost. Remote work also allows people to be flexible with their work timings which further contributes to their well-being.

“People spent 48.5 more minutes at work every day since the start of remote work”

  • Always-ON: Employees averaged 48.5 more minutes of work every day since the start of remote work, contrary to the fear that employees might slack off if they worked from home. Some struggle to stop feeling guilty whenever they take any breaks and some struggle to switch off from work as there is no scheduled close of the working day. This leads to employees burning themselves out. 
  • Vulnerable Gen Z: Working conditions at home and meaningful social connections play a huge part in mental and physical well-being. Apart from the poorer sections of society, GenZ employees who are typically single, early in their careers, and without strong networks are particularly vulnerable.

The issues discussed so far are mostly from an employee perspective. The most important aspect determining the effectiveness of remote work would be the management style.

“More than 40% managers express low confidence in their ability to manage and motivate remote workers.”

Managers are impacted by remote work in the following ways:

  • The issue of trust deficit: Many leaders believe productivity levels have declined while most surveys indicate that self-reported measures of productivity levels may have actually improved. This could be due to apprehension whether their employees are indeed working. Managers with trust deficit often resort to micro-management, particularly in roles like sales. There is consensus among scholars that constant monitoring is counter-productive during remote work and leads to anxiety.
  • Empowered employees: Remote work requires managers to empowering their employees with greater autonomy over their work and discretion over their time. This involves trusting employees more, checking in with them to offer support, and respecting their personal life. When work gets done should not be a concern for managers, as long as it is delivered on time. This requires greater emphasis on management based on results.
  • Risk being out of sync with ground realities: Due to their inability to physically observe their teams and pick up cues, many managers find it tougher to understand the unstated concerns of their team members, and in some cases overestimate the extent to which they meet their team’s needs. Consequently, both managers and their team members end up being out of sync with each other. A study showed that while 74% of leaders believe that they are helping their employees learn the skills required to be effective at remote work, only 38% of employees believe they are equipped with it.
  • A glaring capability gap: According to research published in Harvard Business Review, more than 40% of managers expressed low confidence in their ability to manage and motivate remote workers. It was especially harder for managers below 30, many of whom were first-time managers. Managers need to be re-trained to better understand remote employee expectations, build cohesive remote teams, and manage them effectively.

These indicate that employees at all levels need to be trained to work effectively in a remote environment. For this, organizations need to invest in a continuous learning environment with a focus on learning by doing.

The learnings from a year of remote work shared above will help organizations as they prepare for a hybrid workplace.

Part 2: 3 conditions when remote work is not the most optimal.

While there are distinct pros and cons in working remote, there are definite situations when the concept of working remote is not the most optimal.

Read on to find out what these situations are and what drives them.

Organizations can adopt one of the three approaches for designing their work structure:

  • Office-work recommended: Remote work is not recommended, but it may be allowed on an exceptional basis. Consequently, the policies, practices, and workspaces are designed to facilitate full-time work from the office.
  • Remote recommended: Remote work is recommended on all days and for all roles. These organizations assume a 100% remote workforce in their policy and workspace designs.
  • Hybrid recommended: Recommending remote only for certain roles and/or recommending remote work only on certain days.

Among these, the design of a hybrid work environment is the most challenging one.

Hybrid work requires leaders to have a strong understanding of the dynamics of remote work, as illustrated in Part 1 of this series, and an acute awareness of three perspectives for the optimal design of hybrid conditions. Leaders must keep three crucial considerations in mind when designing a hybrid work environment:

I. Remote Work is not for all roles

When an organization plans for hybrid work, one of the first steps is mapping the activities that can be done remotely. The potential for remote work is mapped at an activity level and not at a role level because, under the same role, few activities can be done remotely and while few others require a physical presence in the office. 

While in few organizations like Gitlab, all roles can be performed remotely, in larger organizations across industries, 100% remote work is infeasible. McKinsey estimates that just about 20% of employees can do their work remotely without a drop in effectiveness. Studies indicate that the lower the skill level required for doing an activity, the lower is the likelihood of getting it done remotely. 

Although some interpersonal tasks such as coaching, onboarding, and building relationships can theoretically be done remotely, it is preferred to do these in person. Research by Gallup found that the degree to which an activity is well-defined and the extent of inter-dependence required for execution are crucial factors determining whether an activity can be performed remotely.

II. Everyone will not prefer remote work

The mere fact that an activity can be done remotely does not mean that the person in the role will function productively in a remote environment.

Behavioral traits play an important role in determining how employees cope with remote work. Those employees with traits like introversion and openness to change are likely to adapt to remote work faster and perform well at remote tasks.

Research indicates that it is easier for a team to shift to remote work than to form a new team virtually. Newly formed virtual teams will face relatively more teething problems resulting in frequent team conflict and limited knowledge sharing. 

Furthermore, some may prefer working out of the office due to personal preferences, lack of a conducive working atmosphere at home, and the potential for more meaningful in-person interactions in the office. Some managers may prefer having their teams in the office due to the nature of work done by the team.

III. Remote work is not recommended all the time

Firm-level productivity during continuous remote work follows an inverted U-curve. If all employees work remotely all the time, firm-level productivity, growth, and innovation will likely decline over time. As discussed in the previous article, this can cripple innovation and pose unique inclusion challenges. It is essential for organizations to occasionally bring together all their employees, including those working remotely, to re-energize and re-calibrate the organization. Such occasions serve as platforms to build more robust organizational networks and to foster higher engagement levels.

Leaders must be aware of these three considerations when they plan for a hybrid working future. 

Part 3: The three challenges leaders must manage to build an effective hybrid workforce.

Most studies on “Future of Work” suggest that over 90% of employees and 87% of organizations in India are considering a hybrid work model going forward. Organizations require thorough planning to design optimum hybrid work models to support both remote work and office work.

As noted in Part 1 of this series, remote work could adversely affect inclusion, well-being, and managerial effectiveness. On top of these challenges, a hybrid work model has its unique challenges as well. Some label hybrid work as the ‘best of both worlds’ while others consider it the ‘worst of both worlds.’ 

Before venturing into designing and implementing these models, leaders must develop a good understanding of the dynamics of a hybrid work environment, build awareness of the challenges they may offer, and equip their organization to deal with them. 

The unique dynamics of a hybrid workforce can be articulated by analyzing how it affects employee experience, relationships, and careers. Managing these three aspects will help organizations build and sustain a culture and climate that supports hybridity.

I. Experience Management

The biggest challenge in a hybrid work environment is ensuring consistency and equity in the employee experience of both on-site and off-site (remote) teams. In most traditional organizations, employee experience is heavily dependent on the location of work. 

To achieve parity, organizations must be cognizant of three critical features of experience management during hybrid work:

  • Remote employees start at a disadvantage in most hybrid models: In any hybrid work model, the design must acknowledge that remote employees tend to start at a disadvantage, especially when some members of the team choose to work from the office, and even more so when the leaders are operating from office.
  • An inclusive organizational design is key: Leaders must identify how the location of work influences employee experience. Ensuring parity in information dissemination, rewards & recognition, access to technology, inclusion in meetings and organizational events will help improve equity in working conditions. 
  • Managers play a significant role in defining employee experience: As discussed in Part 1 of this series, managers – especially those in sales roles – are prone to micro-managing remote employees, which hampers their productivity. Managers must be mindful of teams' well-being and inclusion-related challenges and maintain consistency in employees' experience across locations within the team.

Awareness of these perspectives will help leaders design inclusive hybrid work arrangements with equitable employee experience across locations.

II. Relationship Management

Hybrid work poses challenges in managing relationships with customers or partners, team members, and the larger organization and its leadership. When both parties are operating from different locations, or when few are on-site, and few are off-site, managing relationships across locations can be challenging.

Here are three crucial perspectives to keep in mind regarding relationship management during hybrid work:

  • Location affects relationship management: Psychologists consider proximity as one of the three biggest determinants of successful interpersonal relationships. It allows us to observe the body-language related cues in greater detail and provides familiarity. Proximity significantly impacts those professionals who need to manage a team (e.g., team managers) or an individual (e.g., sales professionals, coaches)
  • Forming new relationships will be challenging: This is perhaps the most difficult aspect of the hybrid work model. The relationship with a new client or vendor, between members of a newly formed team, and between a freshly joined employee and the rest of the organization will be affected in hybrid work. For instance, integrating a new employee into a team’s or organization’s culture will be more challenging with hybrid work.
  • Hybrid work affects networking between on-site and off-site talent: Small talk is the most effective way to network during an on-site meeting or event. But small talks rarely happen in virtual meetings. Lack of networking across teams is a recipe for disaster for any organization. The absence of spontaneous water-cooler conversations can adversely affect the level of networking across teams distributed in off-sites.

III. Career and Performance Management

Hybrid work arrangements have significant implications for employee careers, and the challenges manifest in areas including performance management. 

  • Location influences career prospects: Where an employee is located plays a huge role in the employee’s visibility and access to resources. These factors impact how fast an employee understands the culture of the organization and the team and the nature of projects an employee gets to work on. This could further affect the ability to perform and the rate at which the employee can move up the ladder

Part 4: A PRISM approach to designing an effective hybrid work environment.

The first three parts of this series introduced hybrid work and outlined the challenges for leaders in designing and implementing a hybrid work model. A carefully planned design, keeping in mind the interests of both on-site and off-site employees, and meticulous implementation are necessary to mitigate the challenges associated with a hybrid model. Organizations must not fall into the trap of assuming that things will fall in place naturally. 

Image Source: https://vanrijmenam.nl/3-concepts-that-define-future-of-work/

Leaders can adopt a PRISM approach to designing an effective hybrid organization.

I. Policies

Hybrid work arrangements require policies to be rewritten to cater to the new normal. These organization-wide policies should achieve three things: 

  • Communicate the organization’s philosophy: Policies should go beyond merely allowing or supporting hybrid work. The policies should convey the larger philosophy of the organization on hybrid work. This will enable employees to understand the organization’s goals and priorities within hybrid work and align themselves to these goals.
  • Provide clarity on operationalization: These policies should inform employees and team managers how hybrid work is envisaged in the organization.
  • Ensure equitable treatment of all employees: For any hybrid model to be effective, policies must be inclusive and ensure parity between on-site and off-site workforce. It should seek to provide equitable terms of work, working conditions and benefits. 

II. Routines

Each team or department should identify the routines, processes, or practices that will help them create an effective hybrid work culture in their teams. These should seek to achieve the following:

  • Achieve cohesiveness within teams: Teams should identify clear processes and routines which prevent any unconscious exclusion which can happen in areas such as information dissemination, decision-making, team meetings, and recognition. For instance, there must be an established routine for conducting any meeting with members present in the office and those working remotely.
  • Foster relationships: Given the inherent challenges to relationship building in a hybrid design, leaders must consciously identify routines that tackle these challenges. Regular virtual engagement activities and an occasional off-site can help build relationships across teams and within a team. There must also be an explicit process for onboarding new members, welcoming them into a team’s culture, and facilitating their networking. 
  • Manage flexibility: Remote work thrives on flexibility. However, balancing an individual’s need for flexibility with the team’s requirements for structure is essential in hybrid work. Teams can decide on a few hours every day when the entire team is working online. The processes for contingency management should be established. These routines must be considerate of the well-being related challenges of employees. 

III. Infrastructure

Necessary technological and physical infrastructure is vital for leaders and employees to perform effectively in a hybrid work environment. These include:

  • Collaborative digital platforms: Organizations should invest in appropriate technological infrastructure to facilitate better communication, coordination, and collaboration of both on-site and off-site workforce. It is crucial to ensure that off-site employees are not disadvantaged due to the technology at their disposal. Hybrid work arrangements will fail if employees become unproductive or are forced to work from the office due to the lack of suitable technology in their homes.
  • Quality meeting rooms: Organizations may have to invest in quality meeting rooms with video-conferencing facilities. Care must be taken to ensure that the meeting rooms and technology used has features like noise-cancellation, multi-channel dial-in options, and limited constraints on bandwidth.
  • Re-imagine office spaces: Similarly, open office space designs instead of designated office spaces may be considered to facilitate hybrid work models. Companies like HSBC estimate that their office space will shrink by 40%. JP Morgan anticipates that they may need only 60 seats for every 100 employees.

IV. Skill 

Employees' skill level or capability to adapt to a hybrid model of work is of utmost importance. Providing training on the following three aspects will help employees and managers build a thriving hybrid work environment:

  • Build a conscious organization: Organizations must ensure that their workforce understands the nuances of hybrid work. It is vital to create awareness of the unique challenges associated with hybrid work. Employees at all levels must fully comprehend the requirements related to inclusion, relationship management, and performance management in a hybrid model. As discussed in Part 3 of this series, leaders must be aware of how their decision on ‘where to work from’ would influence their teams' choices and acceptance of hybrid work.
  • Train managers to lead hybrid teams: Hybrid work often requires managers to change their management philosophy and approach. Managers must learn management by outcome, build psychological safety, and drive inclusion in their teams. Most managers do not feel confident in their ability to manage hybrid teams. Simulation-based trainings, self-reflection sessions, and experience-sharing forums with other managers can be beneficial in anticipating challenges and tackling them.
  • Train employees to operate in a hybrid environment: Employees must be trained to perform in a hybrid environment. This involves giving lessons on technology platforms, enabling them to work in hybrid teams, and providing them functional training. For instance, a sales professional should be provided training on managing clients in a remote environment.

V. Monitor

Organizations must devise mechanisms to monitor relevant data to evaluate the effectiveness of the hybrid work model implemented and to identify any concerns on the model.

  • Collect relevant data: As the maxim goes, one cannot manage something that is not measured. Appropriate data points on performance and engagement at organizational, functional, team, manager, and employee levels can help identify gaps and improvement areas.
  • Capture stakeholder voice: It is important to have forums or surveys on hybrid work that capture the inputs of managers, employees, process designers, and other stakeholders. These inputs should be analyzed, and appropriate action steps designed to address the gaps.
  • Track progress: Action steps designed as part of the hybrid model design or addressing gaps identified in forums and surveys must be tracked diligently by a responsible team/official designated for collecting and tracking relevant data. This will serve as additional input for managers and leaders to help them take timely actions.

For an effective hybrid work model, organizations must design their policies clearly articulating their philosophy and guidelines. Teams must adopt routines to build a hybrid work culture. Suitable technological and physical infrastructure should be provided, and employees at all levels need to be skilled to work in a hybrid environment. Organizations must constantly monitor the effectiveness of their approach to hybrid work by collecting relevant data points and capturing inputs from all stakeholders.

Creating a holistic design to facilitate hybrid work keeping the PRISM model, will help organizations prepare for the new normal. 

At Enparadigm, we believe hybrid work will lead to a seismic shift in the way we define and deal with workplace expectations, relationships and productivity. Among our other solutions, Catalyx is a self-learn simulation platform that helps address and solve current and emerging challenges at the workplace. Synerge, a module on remote people management is one of our more recent additions to the Catalyx portfolio and is designed to help managers work more effectively with their remote team members.

To know more, write to talktous@enparadigm.com

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