There's no denying that COVID-19 transformed the work world. Early lockdowns hastened what some experts predicted years ago: a shift towards mobile work with a greater share of employees choosing to log in from the comfort of home. Since then, employers have been surprised to discover that professionals can be just as productive from afar—and that communicating on a remote basis is not nearly as inconvenient as expected.
Remote work may be on the rise, but in-person arrangements remain valuable. Solutions such as Zoom bring a more personable feel to digital interactions, but sometimes, it's simply too difficult to recreate the magic of sharing ideas in person. What's more, many employees long for the face-to-face interactions that they enjoyed prior to the pandemic. Thankfully, a third option exists: hybrid work.
Today's employees clearly favor hybrid solutions, as seen in Gartner’s 2021 Hybrid Work Employee Survey. A mere 4 percent of remote-working respondents claimed that they wanted to return to the office on a full-time basis. Additional data from the Gartner Return to the Workplace Benchmarking Poll suggest that, already, 94 percent of organizations are granting workers more flexibility regarding how and where they work.
Hybrid work may be the way of the future, but it remains poorly understood at the management level. Keep reading to learn what, exactly, constitutes a hybrid workforce, why it's expected to take over, and how leaders can make the most of this transition.
What Is a Hybrid Workforce?
As its name implies, a hybrid workforce combines two decidedly different approaches to employment to form a middle ground that captures the best of both arrangements. Under a hybrid approach, employees sometimes meet in person and sometimes work from home. While they may operate under a loose schedule, their hours and meeting places are more flexible than ever before. When implemented properly, this setup can dramatically improve both productivity and employee satisfaction.
How to Manage a Hybrid Workforce
Management was complicated enough before remote solutions took over. Juggling deadlines, personality styles, and evolving technology has never been easy, but now leaders must also determine how to interact with people in various locations and on different platforms. Meanwhile, they must ensure that employees in all locations feel connected and appreciated. This can create significant challenges at the management level, but it also provides a powerful opportunity to boost outcomes while keeping employees happy.
Look to these best practices to ease the transition to the hybrid workforce of tomorrow:
1. Set Clear Expectations
Employees should know exactly what is expected of them for both at-home and in-person workdays. They should also understand how much flexibility they can expect regarding hours, locations, and deadlines. Specific tasks and projects must be clearly outlined so there is no confusion.
As Umbrex's Will Bachman explained in a TILTCO roundtable discussion, leaders need “to be very explicit on action items that are assigned in a remote environment—what is the delivery and when is it due."
2. Encourage Feedback
Hybrid employees are happier when they feel as if they have a voice. What's more, their insight is essential to understanding which hybrid work solutions are most effective—and which should be avoided.
Options abound for gathering detailed feedback from hybrid employees. At minimum, seek insight from anonymous surveys, which workers can answer without fear of repercussion.
Some employees may feel that they can better address their concerns with virtual or in-person discussions. These can take many forms. Already, a variety of companies have implemented regular roundtable discussions in which employees chat at the office, over Zoom, or even during offsite happy hour events.
No matter which feedback strategies are implemented, employees should feel confident that their insight actually makes a difference. Let them know how their ideas are being used to shape workplace initiatives. This will make them even more eager to provide useful feedback.
3. Focus on Outcomes
At one time, 'good' employees were defined based on how many hours they spent at the office or whether they consistently arrived on time. These considerations don't seem nearly as important these days with the COVID-19 economy having proven that employees can be just as productive when granted greater control over their schedules.
At the outset of the pandemic, many companies attempted to replicate traditional office practices on a remote basis. This held clearly negative implications for employee performance and wellbeing, as evidenced by the aforementioned Gartner study. Survey results revealed that intrusive options such as tracking systems and excessive virtual meetings led to overload—and even convinced some employees to pretend to work.
A better solution? An outcome-oriented approach in which employees are assessed based on the results they deliver rather than the methods they use (or how much time they take) to arrive at those results. Keep in mind that key performance indicators (KPIs) and employee review methods may need to be adjusted as hybrid work evolves.
4. Provide the Tools and Resources Required for Success
Remote employees are far more productive when they enjoy access to the high-quality equipment and software already found in the traditional workplace. Often, however, they're forced to make do with whatever is available at home. Lend a helping hand by providing resources that allow employees to produce stellar results in any environment.
Many companies started using video-chatting solutions such as Zoom or Google Meet at the outset of the pandemic in hopes of recreating the group meeting experience. Other communications may occur on Microsoft Teams or Slack. With these solutions, paid plans with extensive integrations provide an enhanced experience. Choose these systems carefully based on which features actually benefit employees.
Some employers provide employees with the actual devices they'll need, such as laptops, desktop computers, webcams, or even smartphones. Supportive equipment such as high-end speakers or quality lighting can also make a discernible difference.
5. Communication at the Forefront
Regardless of how employee hours are divided or which tools are used to keep them in the loop, open lines of communication will be critical during the transition to the hybrid workforce. Plan interactions with the understanding that they will be more asynchronous moving forward. As such, it will be important to keep a record of all decisions made during conversations, be they virtual or face-to-face.
Because so many options are available for communicating, employees need to know which approaches they should take in various situations. Financial services executive Rashay Jethalal recommends, "Define how technologies should be used to communicate on the team by cascading urgency by channel. For example, email if you need something innocuous, Slack if you need me within the day, or call if you need me right away."
6. Strive for Equality in Office Setups
Offices are about to get a major makeover as employees only occupy them a few days per week. This new approach will be driven not only by insights gained during the COVID-19 lockdown, but also, based on the drive for equity and inclusion following George Floyd's death.
As more organizations implement diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs, many are finding that physical space can have a huge impact on the employee experience. Hence, the growing popularity of a concept known as universal design. This goes beyond simple OSHA or ADA regulations to provide an environment that is genuinely adaptable.
Universal design can look different from one office to the next, but may incorporate:
- A combination of quiet rooms suited to introverts and open office areas in which extroverts can thrive
- Access to natural light for all employees, rather than limiting the most desirable window views to upper-level professionals
- Customizable workspaces featuring ergonomic furniture
- Personal control functions for lighting or temperature
7. Unite the Team
Digital divides can make it difficult for team members to build the deep, meaningful connections they enjoyed before the hybrid workforce took over. Still, this new setup delivers significant opportunities for interacting on a deeper level.
Some employees may actually find it easier to build strong relationships when they're freed of the hustle and bustle of the previous workplace. With fewer people around, they can focus on improving their connection with a few people at a time rather than being overwhelmed by large groups of workers.
Continue to encourage one-on-one interactions while also implementing strategies to make your entire team feel united. If full team gatherings are impossible, take advantage of the digital solutions that dominated during the height of COVID. Zoom happy hour, for example, has continued to prove popular among employees who are unable to attend conventional gatherings. These should be used on a limited basis to prevent virtual overload.
There is no one 'right' way to handle the transition to a hybrid workforce. Ultimately, all solutions will need to be tailored based on the unique needs and preferences of your employees, clients, and vendors. Once you've overcome a few early challenges, you just might find that you prefer the renewed enthusiasm and engagement that the hybrid approach promotes.
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