Before COVID-19 upended much of society as we know it, remote working was something of a niche activity.
Indeed, in 2019 official data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) suggested that around five per cent of UK employees worked primarily from home, with around 12 per cent doing so on a part-time basis. But by the height of the first lockdown in 2020, this had leapt to 25.9 per cent.
What's more, the ONS found that of these eight million or so people, 85 per cent would like to take advantage of a 'hybrid' approach that combined both home and office-based work in the future.
While this prompted many policymakers and commentators to ponder its impact on society more generally, and especially on the cities that had been the engines of our economy for so long, it also has significant implications for the workplace itself.
After all, despite the tremendous sense of disruption in the past 18 months, we still operate in a society in which traditional views dominate. Indeed, a recent report from Lancaster University's Work Foundation raised concerns that this traditional mindset would hamper any transition to the more hybrid workplace that so many seem to want.
“There is a real risk that ‘office culture’ is so ingrained that even organisations that pursue flexible or hybrid arrangements could end up introducing inequalities between those who primarily work on-site and those who work remotely," the authors say. "Doing so would jeopardise the opportunities that hybrid working could bring to so many -particularly parents, carers and disabled workers - who have benefited from increased flexibility since 2020.”
This was typified by the comments of Conservative Party Chairman Oliver Dowden, who told the party’s annual conference that “people need to get off their Pelotons and back to their desks," in an apparent jibe at senior civil servant Sarah Healey, who had remarked that the removal of her commute had enabled her to exercise more and adopt a healthier work-life balance.
As Florida Atlantic University's Michael Harari explained recently, however, job seekers increasingly have the upper hand in a market that has been chronicled as the 'great resignation', with organisations struggling to attract the talent they need to thrive. This has prompted considerable introspection by companies around just what kind of employee experience they want to offer and how to be as attractive as possible to people who increasingly have multiple options on the table.
This introspection will need to look at the employee experience from 'cradle to grave' of each individual. For instance, research from the Washington University in St. Louis illustrates how important it is to employees today that the values of their employer are aligned with their values as an individual.
Work isn’t seen as a standalone entity anymore, but rather an extension of who we are as people. As Yale’s Jeffrey Sonnenfeld recently argued, Milton Friedman’s famous speech about companies’ primary obligation being to their shareholders rather than society has been widely misinterpreted, so firms have no excuse not to look to be good corporate citizens.
This extends to a growing appreciation for the need to support employees across their entire lives. The pandemic has given us obvious glimpses into the pernicious impact grief can have on people, while also highlighting challenges in areas such as homeschooling children or caring for a relative (much of which still tends to rest on the shoulders of the women of the household).
What are the challenges of managing hybrid workers?
It’s perhaps no surprise, therefore, that workplace software firm OC Tanner’s Global Culture Report revealed that burnout had risen by 15 per cent during the pandemic.
As Robert Hooijberg and Michael Watkins explain in MIT Sloan Management Review, managing in a hybrid workplace requires very different skills and processes to those required in a traditional workplace. For instance, onboarding has been a much-cited challenge during the pandemic, not least due to the difficulties in imbuing new hires with the cultural aspects of their new workplace.
To remedy this challenge, a growing number of employers have begun to offer 'onboarding coaches' who can help the new hire to settle in, meet the people they need to meet, and understand how the organisation works. In developing that social glue, however, it's highly recommended that new hires spend time with their colleagues in a face-to-face environment to help them build meaningful relationships, even if research from Harvard Business School suggests that bonds can be formed in a purely virtual environment if the right approach is taken.
Research from Boston College reaffirms this hybrid approach, and argues that the key to successful virtual teamwork is to understand the "cadence" of the team. This describes our ability to understand who our colleagues are and how any interactions we have with them might unfold.
The researchers argue that these tasks are generally that bit easier in a face-to-face environment, and just as we're more accepting of telehealth consultations with doctors once we have established a rapport with them offline, this is also much the case in the workplace too.
Trust is fundamental to success with these hybrid relationships as remote workers have an almost unprecedented level of autonomy to work how, where, and often when they think they will deliver the best results. Various surveys during the pandemic have shown that this has tended to make people more productive, and this return of agency will hopefully endure in the post-COVID era.
This is key as there have been inevitable concerns that a fully remote working experience is not suitable for all, with younger employees particularly suffering from poor conditions at home and the lack of face-time with key employees in the office. An ideal outcome will be one in which options are given to employees and they are given the responsibility and agency to choose what works best for them.
For this to succeed will require a shift away from counting bums on seats towards measuring employees by what they produce. This extends to measurement and rewards in general, and should include elements such as the distribution of the most attractive projects and any promotions and pay rises that result.
The way that employers deal with this transitional period could define them as an organisation in terms of their competitiveness in the labour market.
If they can involve employees in figuring out the best approach for them while being open and transparent along the way, then they stand a good chance of creating an employee experience that can help them and their workforce thrive.
Bapuji, H., Patel, C., Ertug, G. and Allen, D. G. (2021) "COVID-19 is an opportunity to rethink I-O psychology, not for business as usual", Industrial and Organizational Psychology : Perspectives on Science and Practice, 14, 1-2, 50-54.
Hari, B., Patel, C., Ertug, G. and Allen, D. G. (2020) "Corona crisis and inequality: why management research needs a societal turn", Journal of Management, 46, 7, 1205-1222.
David Allen is WBS Distinguished Research Environment Professor at Warwick Business School and Associate Dean and Professor of Management and Leadership at TCU Neeley School of Business.
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