How to design for the realities of hybrid work

5 minute read

Employees want it. Chief financial officers want it. Yes, hybrid work is coming to a business near you. But if you think this means taking the best of in-office and the best of remote work and that's your hybrid work strategy, then be prepared for failure. It's all about designing a human-centric hybrid work strategy, says Gartner

Sian Harrington

How to design for the realities of hybrid work

Imagine today is day one of designing work and you’ve been given the task to design it. Would you build a plan around a 9-5 working day because your people have to do their jobs during natural daylight? Would you create a culture of meetings because that is the most productive way of getting the job done? Would you budget for expensive offices that mean you limit the number and diversity of people you can attract to work for you – and that those who are able have to spend hours getting to that office as they cannot afford to live close by?

Of course you wouldn’t. But that is exactly what work has come to mean for most employees over the past 100 years or so. A work designed for people at the factory belt who needed that natural daylight. A work designed when women’s role was primarily that of homemaker. A work created before Tim Berners-Lee was even born, let alone thinking up the internet. This work was outdated pre COVID and will be even more outdated post pandemic.

And yet, finds research from Gartner, while the pandemic has shone the spotlight on alternative ways of working, the reality is that most organisations are not rethinking how they work. As Gartner research director Alexia Cambon says, we default to the office-centric model of work. Even the word ‘remote’ means away from the main place where work gets done. So is it any surprise that today’s ‘new way of working’ has tended to be the virtualisation of existing office-centric practice?

This is about to become a major issue as, despite some high-profile companies saying they want everyone back in the workplace, the research finds some 95% of companies are planning some sort of hybrid model. Not a surprise when you consider that, as a rough rule of thumb, an additional 30% or so of compensation costs are required to support someone’s in-office presence, according to Gartner’s chief of HR research Brian Kropp.

Duplicating office design not good for hybrid environment

The problem is that businesses are viewing remote and hybrid work through the lens of three core assumptions that need to be unlearned:

Assumption one: Consistency is the key ingredient of equity
According to Gartner, 84% of HR leaders have introduced new tools for virtual meetings, thus virtualising onsite practices. The assumption is that equality of experience is the key to workplace equity. In the hybrid world thinking needs to shift to flexible work experience where equality of opportunity enables equity.

Assumption two: Serendipity is the key ingredient of innovation
The research finds that 83% of HR leaders have increased meetings through encouraging frequent virtual interactions between teams. The assumption is that innovation happens by chance, and by not having those in-person opportunistic meetings by the water cooler, for example, innovation will just not happen. In the hybrid world the answer is intentional collaboration, creating innovation by design not chance. This requires enabling a range of collaboration options that suit different employee populations. This could be physical brainstorming for extroverts, in-office presence to allow junior colleagues to observe interactions, synchronous remote work for those who work better that way and asynchronous work for introverts. According to Gartner’s work, asynchronous work is just as important to innovation as synchronous work.

Assumption three: Visibility is the key ingredient to performance
Some 77% of HR leaders have added monitoring systems to recreate visibility – such as frequent manager-employee check-ins. The assumption is presenteeism and performance by input when, in hybrid work, this needs to move to empathy-based management and performance by outcome. See the person as an individual not an employee. When employees have high empathy-based management they are 2.77 times more likely to have high levels of organisational trust.

The result of the current strategy of duplication of office-centric design is that people are burning out. In the UK, for example, employees who work remotely have been 62% more likely to see an increase in the length of their day than UK onsite employees, and 42% feel emotionally drained from their work.

How current strategies are adding to employee fatigue

“A lot of what we are seeing in this narrative is that remote work is unhealthy for employees and that is not true. The difficulty is that many organisations we found in our research are not actually rethinking how they work and this is driving fatigue,” explains Cambon.

“Let's say employees use a whiteboard a lot in the office. Organisations are then going to invest in a digital whiteboard. So when they work remotely, they can whiteboard virtually. Another one is that employees used to drop by each of those desks in the office all the time to chat. So now we're going to encourage them to add more video and virtual calls to their calendars. And how employees have worked for decades has been organised around the location they worked in. So virtualising these office-centric practices made it possible for employees to stay productive during the pandemic. But when you take a work design that was created for a different environment and you virtualise it, you are essentially trying to fit a square peg in a round hole.”

To create a successful hybrid work strategy organisations must stop virtualising office-centric practices and think up new ones. This entails the move from an onsite model for an onsite world, where location is the stable pillar around which work is designed, to a human-centric hybrid model for a hybrid world, where the individual is the stable pillar around which work is designed.

Human centric design drives outcomes

But, says Gartner’s Brian Kropp, this comes with a warning. The very nature of a hybrid strategy is that it should be flexible. By defining a static set of policies organisations will lose the benefits of that flexibility. So, given where we are now, what steps can leaders take to design for a successful hybrid environment? Gartner suggests five:

1. Bring back people safely to your workplace
As organisations start to reopen their workplaces many are encouraging employees to get vaccinated. However, Gartner’s research finds fewer than 10% plan to require proof of vaccination before their employees return to the workplace. With about 70% of organisations planning to reopen their workplaces in Q3 and 4 this year, your workplace will have a mix of vaccinated people and non-vaccinated people. So, in the short term you will have to maintain a lot of the social distancing measures and masks just to maintain safety. But note, Gartner’s research also finds 60% of employees believe that in the workplace they are going back to everyone else will be vaccinated. So managing this will be a big challenge.

2. Determine what the purpose is of your workplace
Do you still need hundreds of employees sitting together typing on keyboards or talking to customers? Or is the workplace somewhere for collaboration? Or for building your culture? Or how about where you engage with customers? What job is your workplace going to do for you? Only then can you redesign it to achieve success for its intended purpose.

3. Determine your set of philosophies and beliefs
Should managers decide what flexibility looks like: who can work remotely full time, who must be on-site full time, who can do both, what those hours look like and so on? Or do you allow employees to make those decisions with managers needing to adjust to them? Understanding your overall philosophy about hybrid work as a business is a vital first step.

4. Clarity of communication with employees
It’s critical to be clear about what work needs to be done from the workplace, what tasks can be done from home, when you need people to be together for effective work and so on. People need to be clear about when they need to be in the office.

5. It’s all about empathy
The pandemic has exposed people’s homes, their children, their pets, their health situation, what they juggle with…and shown them up as individuals not just employees. Organisations will need to re-examine and re-imagine the role of managers and leaders in this context. Gartner research finds that empathy is going to be the key characteristic that defines the most successful managers in the hybrid world. Managers will need to shift from an exclusively coaching approach where they can fix problems they visibly see to leading with empathy. In a hybrid approach it is likely that roughly 75% of the time either the manager, employee or both will be working remotely.

By failing to rethink work but instead continuing to duplicate in-office practices virtually leaders will find they quickly lose the productivity and retention gains promised by this new way of working. There is no quick fix. HR leaders should expect a period of experimentation to find the model that works right for their organisation. For, as Kropp says, the key question now is not whether you should embark on the hybrid journey but how you do so in a way that works for both employer and employee.

Three options for HR leaders facing a hybrid future


Published 20 May 2021
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