COVID-19 has changed the way we work.
Even before the pandemic, the U.S. workforce increasingly relied on remote collaboration technologies like video conferencing and Slack. The global crisis has accelerated the adoption of these working tools and practices in an unprecedented way. By April 2020, about half of the companies said that more than 80% of their employees were working from home because of COVID-19.
This change was made possible by decades of research and then development of technologies that support remote working, but not everyone uses these technologies with the same ease. From 1987, revolutionary research identified some of the challenges facing women working from home using technology. This included childcare challenges, work-home separation, and employee growth opportunities.
Since that time, we learned a lot more on virtual collaboration. Inasmuch as associate professor of information systems, I’m interested in what can we expect as we look forward to a post-pandemic future. One thing stands out: Hybrid working arrangements – that is, employees doing some tasks in the office and others virtually – are clearly going to be a big part of the picture.
An April 2021 survey shows 99% of HR managers expect employees to work in some sort of hybrid arrangement in the future. Many have already started. For exemple, Dropbox, the file hosting service, made a permanent change during the pandemic, allowing employees to work from home and hold team meetings in the office.
The definition of “hybrid” varies in other organizations. Some workers may be in the office a few days a week or every other day. Other businesses may only need occasional face-to-face time, perhaps meeting in a centralized location once a quarter.
In both cases, research shows many companies fail in their implementation of a virtual workforce.
Remote work versus office
Office work promotes structure and transparency, which can increase trust between management and workers. Developing an organizational culture happens naturally. Casual office conversations – an employee walking down the hall for a quick, unplanned conversation with a coworker, for example – can lead to knowledge sharing and collaborative problem solving. This is difficult to replicate in a virtual environment, which often relies on advance planning for online meetings, although this is always possible with enough planning and communication.
But if you look at different metrics, working in the office loses out compared to working from home. My recent research found that remote workers report greater productivity and enjoy working from home due to the flexibility, the ability to wear casual clothes, and the short or no commute time. Remote work also saves money. There are significant cost savings for office space, one of the most important budget items for organizations.
Hybrid arrangements attempt to combine the best of both worlds.
It’s not perfect
It is true that hybrid working faces many of the same obstacles as working face to face. Poor planning and communication, ineffective or unnecessary meetings, and confusion over task responsibilities occur remotely as well as in person.
Perhaps the biggest problem when working from home: technology and security issues. Home networks, an easier target for cyber threats, are generally more vulnerable than office networks. Remote workers are also more likely to share computers with someone else outside of their organization. Hybrid organizations must invest upstream to solve these complex and often costly problems.
With hybrid work, managers cannot see the work in progress. This means that they must measure employee performance based on results with clear performance indicators rather than the traditional focus on employee behavior.
Another potential pitfall: fault lines can develop within hybrid teams, i.e. misunderstandings or poor communication between those in the office and those at home. These two groups can begin to divide, potentially resulting in tensions and conflicts between them – a us versus them scenario.
Setting up a hybrid environment
Many recommendations exist on the best way develop a hybrid model. Here are some of the best ideas.
To meet too often or with little purpose – that is, to meet for the sake of meeting – leads to fatigue and exhaustion. Not everyone needs to be present at every meeting, but management finesse is needed to make sure no one feels left out. And days without meeting can help productivity and allow employees an uninterrupted block of time to focus on complex projects.
Listening to employees is critical to make sure the hybrid environment is working. Continuously seek feedback, through one-on-one conversations, focus groups or human resource surveys, is also important. The same goes for recognizing and rewarding employees with in-person or virtual congratulations for their accomplishments. Performance incentives, such as financial rewards or tokens of appreciation, including food delivery, help develop a supportive culture that increases employee engagement.
Finally: managers and employees must be transparent in their communication and understanding of hybrid plans. Policies should be in place to define what tasks occur in the office and remotely. Access to reliable communications is essential, especially for remote work. All employees should receive the same information at the same time and in a timely manner. After all, whether in the office or online, employees don’t want to feel the last to know.