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Human Resources

Designing hybrid models that boost company performance

Published 21 January 2022 in Human Resources ‚ÄĘ 7 min read

Like it or not, the revolution in homeworking is here to stay. To reap benefits, managers must harmonize collaboration, foster inclusivity and beat staff burnout. 

 

It has been nearly two years since the first wave of COVID-19 forced organizations worldwide to rethink working practices and shift rapidly to homeworking. Yet as Omicron fears halt the reopening of offices, even among firms that make a virtue of in-person interactions, there is a lively debate over the future of the workplace.  

Many leaders remain resistant to remote work for reasons ranging from lack of trust that employees will be productive to the risk of deteriorating culture. For example, last summer, several major financial institutions, including Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan, asked most workers to return to the office, reflecting legitimate concerns that working from home could limit opportunities for spontaneous learning and creativity.  

But forcing everyone to come back to the office full-time is neither desirable nor smart. At a time when employees are leaving their jobs in record numbers, clever employers will recognize the need to offer flexible work options to retain key staff. Many employees are indeed rethinking their priorities after COVID and want a better work-life balance.  

The result is a growing tension between employee needs and business imperatives. This is particularly the case for organizations focusing primarily on capturing efficiency gains by reducing office space. This approach is at odds with the growing realization that certain types of impact are limited in virtual environments. It’s increasingly evident that collaboration, innovation, acculturation and dedication are unlikely to be achieved or sustained virtually.  

Face-to-face meeting, but forcing everyone to come back to the office full-time is neither desirable nor smart

Forward-thinking organizations have worked out what aspects of work warrant in-person interactions (such as purposeful focus, interpersonal bonding, deep learning, unencumbered experimentation and structured serendipity) and how to make the most of these precious moments. So the right working model will blend the efficiency of remote work and the benefits of bringing people together. Success in doing so will satisfy employees’ desire for flexibility and an improved work-life balance while maximizing workforce productivity.  

Yet,¬†although¬†most organizations see ‚Äúhybrid‚ÄĚ models as¬†the¬†inevitable compromise, there is still no consensus among leaders on the best way to make this work in¬†practice ‚ÄĒ¬†particularly¬†when it comes to collaboration¬†across a varied spectrum of hybrid models.¬†Further considerations¬†include: is it possible to create an inclusive culture when working from home?¬†And,¬†with burnout on the rise, how¬†should¬†workforce¬†policies adapt to ensure that everyone feels supported?¬†

 

Synchronize schedules to avoid fragmentation

Companies that mandate office returns risk an exodus of staff in a tighter labor market. But although employees want flexibility in where they work, this brings with it the risk of team fragmentation and incoherent and suboptimal cross-functional collaboration, as employees set their own schedules.  

Organizations cannot allow employees to work anywhere and in any way; they need to issue clear guidance. Working patterns will ultimately be determined by a complex mixture of the role, the home environment, and the variation of work demands.  

‚ÄĮWhat is essential is unity¬†and¬†frequency of interaction.¬†If physical work spaces become destinations for collaboration, innovation, dedication and acculturation, rather than individual work, then teams will need to synchronize schedules.¬†If, for example, the¬†policy is three days a week in the office, team members will need to be physically present on the same days. The degree of flexibility should be driven by the needs of¬†teams and not¬†individuals.¬†¬†

‚ÄĮIt will be impossible to coordinate or standardize workflow through centralized control. Why?¬†Because¬†teams¬†vary widely in terms of¬†the¬†extent they need to collaborate and innovate.¬†There is no ‚Äúone best way‚ÄĚ.¬†Individual team¬†leaders,¬†therefore,¬†need to be given¬†the power to make these calls.¬†

That said, organizations need to put guardrails¬†in place¬†to hedge against the risk of cultural disintegration¬†‚ÄĒ¬†say a company-wide policy to work a minimum of 50% of the time in the office ‚ÄĒ but individual work groups must be given the flexibility to set their own terms and, when appropriate, get exemptions to allow some employees to spend more time working remotely.¬†¬†

‚ÄĮIn order to¬†realize the benefits of this model, there must be high¬†level of¬†reciprocal trust between workers and¬†senior management.¬†One way is to¬†ensure¬†that¬†policies are being applied¬†equitably¬†across work¬†groups through monitoring and auditing.

‚ÄúOrganizations cannot¬†allow¬†employees to work anywhere and in any way; they need to issue clear guidance.¬†Working patterns will ultimately be determined by a complex mixture of the role, the home environment, and the variation of work demands‚ÄĚ

Foster workplace diversity and ensure equity  

In the new normal, leaders must ensure that equity and inclusion are real priorities. This is not just a hypothetical concern; in one study, workers were randomly assigned to work mostly from home or mostly in the office. After two years, those in the at-home group had a 50% lesser incidence of promotion compared to those who worked primarily in-office. Another study found that home and office workers were promoted at the same rates, but remote workers experienced lower salary growth than their office counterparts.  

This suggests that if employees are given the choice to work from home or the office, it is likely that, over time, there will be disparities in both representation in leadership ranks and compensation. Before the pandemic, workers who requested flexibility were routinely stigmatized, as their leaders were mainly in the office. Managers will need to track how working remotely correlates with promotion and pay increases and factor diversity and inclusion into their hybrid models.  

If¬†left to¬†individual¬†preferences, there is a high likelihood that¬†the¬†choice to work from home¬†is¬†a¬†function of¬†the employee‚Äôs¬†demographics. Many working parents, for¬†instance,¬†have enjoyed the newfound flexibility to fit childcare around work commitments. And for some people with disabilities or chronic health conditions, the option to work remotely has been desired for years.¬†Minority staff¬†want to¬†spend more time working remotely,¬†freeing¬†them from ‚Äúmicroaggressions‚ÄĚ and¬†enabling¬†them to be their authentic selves.¬†¬†

On the other hand, many younger employees find working from home isolating, and organizations often find it difficult to onboard new colleagues in a remote setting. This suggests that employers who want to build diverse and equitable workforces should be cautious about forcing people back to the office full-time. Leaders must also ensure that equal opportunities are upheld across demographic groups.   

‚ÄĮ¬†

Rethink office spaces to attract and retain talent  

If office time¬†is¬†reserved for more¬†teamwork, then the design of physical office space¬†will¬†have to change.¬†In the past,¬†some companies created¬†‚Äúopen-plan offices‚Ä̬†to enable people to¬†do their individual work,¬†and meeting rooms for collaboration.¬†¬†

This model¬†will likely¬†be reversed to facilitate hybrid working, with more open spaces for collaboration and private rooms for individual work.¬†Collaboration will demand¬†flexible¬†arrangements, whiteboards, and other collaboration tools as well as¬†enhanced videoconferencing equipment, especially for ‚Äúmulti-modal‚ÄĚ meetings, when some are at home and others in the office.¬†¬†

‚ÄĮ‚ÄĮ¬†

Establish boundaries and encourage employees to recharge 

If hybrid work is the future, companies must establish the right workforce policies to ensure that everyone feels supported. Many remote workers struggle with fatigue under heavy workloads, find they cannot switch off at home, and face uncertainty over their job or performance.  

‚ÄĮWhile¬†a perk for some¬†people, remote work¬†is¬†a¬†burden¬†for many¬†others.‚ÄĮTwo-thirds¬†of employees have¬†reported¬†experiencing¬†burnout symptoms while working remotely, with employees bound to endless Zoom calls and work emails.¬†¬†

‚ÄĮMore generally, the¬†pandemic has underscored the need for good¬†employee¬†wellbeing policies.¬†Some remote workers feel isolated and excluded, which can breed feelings of¬†disconnection,¬†erode engagement¬†and corrode culture. Others have thrived away from the distractions of open-plan offices, politicking, and micromanagement.¬†¬†

‚ÄĮIn response to these developments, many companies have hosted talks from wellbeing experts,¬†conducted¬†group meditation and mindfulness sessions,¬†and¬†provided¬†resilience coaching and virtual meetups.¬†Managers must be trained¬†to tune into¬†the energy level of their teams,¬†and respond to those needs to boost wellbeing levels in the workforce.¬†

Managers also need to encourage employees to recharge and lead by example in doing so themselves. This might include taking entire days off, having meeting-free days, or facilitating regular breaks to encourage staff to leave their homes and exercise in the daylight.  

 

Final thoughts

Finding the best way of working will take a great deal of experimentation. The right answers will vary depending on the specific context of each business unit and function. Organizations should monitor the impact of their policies through regular employee surveys and assessments of workloads to understand whether the implemented hybrid model is delivering productivity, wellbeing, and inclusion.  

Those leaders who succeed in establishing this sort of balanced and fair working pattern are likely to discover how beneficial an engaged, empowered, and fulfilled workforce can be as they emerge from the COVID crisis.  

 

Authors

Jennifer Jordan

Social psychologist and Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behaviour at IMD

Jennifer Jordan is a social psychologist and Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior at IMD. Professor Jordan’s teaching, research, and consulting focus on the areas of digital leadership, ethics, influence, and power. Professor Jordan has received specialized training and certifications in lie and truthfulness detection, as well as in conflict resolution within organizations. She is Program Director of the Leadership Skills for the Digital Age program, the Leadership Essentials Course, and the Leading in the Digital Age program.

Michael Watkins - IMD Professor

Michael D. Watkins

Professor of Leadership and Organizational Change at IMD

Michael D Watkins is author of The First 90 Days, Master Your Next Move, Predictable Surprises, and 11 other books on leadership and negotiation. A Thinkers 50-ranked management influencer and recognized expert in his field, his work features in HBR Guides and HBR’s 10 Must Reads on leadership, teams, strategic initiatives, and new managers. He taught at Harvard, where he gained his PhD in decision sciences, and INSEAD before joining IMD, where he directs The First 90 Days and Transition to Business Leadership programs.

Robert Hooijberg

Professor of Organizational Behaviour at IMD

Robert Hooijberg is Professor of Organizational Behavior at IMD. His areas of special interest are leadership, negotiations, team building, digital transformation, and organizational culture. Before joining IMD in September 2000, Professor Hooijberg taught at Rutgers University in their MBA and Executive MBA programs in New Jersey, Singapore, and Beijing. He is Program Director of the Breakthrough Program for Senior Executives and the Negotiating for Value Creation course.

Silke executive coach

Silke Mischke

IECC Co-Program Director and Senior Executive Coach

She works as a leadership lecturer and senior executive coach. She holds a doctorate in business administration and a master’s degree in Cognitive Psychology. Silke is licensed to administer and interpret several instruments to illuminate individual and group preferences and growth potential. Her coaching and teaching activities cover work with teams and individuals from international organizations.

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