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Hybrid is here to stay but leaders need a wake-up call

Organisations across the world are lining up to announce that they are embracing a hybrid working model. It’s just as well, because studies confirm that employees want the best of both worlds – and are prepared to go elsewhere if you don’t offer it

Hybrid is here to stay but leaders need a wake-up call

The data’s clear. Extreme flexibility and hybrid work are inevitable in the post-pandemic workplace.

So says a survey of more than 30,000 people in 31 countries and an analysis of trillions of emails, messages, Teams meetings and other activities across Microsoft 365 and LinkedIn.

Computer giant Microsoft’s first Work Trends Index finds that we are on the brink of a disruption as big as 2020’s overnight move to remote work: a shift to hybrid work, the blended model where some employees return to the workplace all or some of the time, and others continue to work from home, again all or some of the time.

Technical difficulties can be very exclusionary. If you can’t hear them and they can’t hear you, people can’t contribute

According to its research, 73% of workers want flexible remote work options to continue, while 67% crave more in-person time with their teams. Two thirds of business decision-makers are now considering redesigning their physical spaces to better accommodate hybrid work environments.

The index comes as more and more companies announce plans to enable employees to work from home after the pandemic ends.

In March alone British Airways said it will let staff split their working lives between its head office and home, US automobile giant Ford announced a new flexible, hybrid work model and informed 30,000 white-collar office workers that they could continue to work from home ‘indefinitely’ and have ‘flexible hours approved by their managers” while it was revealed that most office-based staff at BP would be asked to work from home 40% of the time, or two days a week for full-time employees.

Meanwhile the world’s largest flexible office company IWG signed a deal with Japanese telecoms group Nippon Telegraph and Telephone to provide access to its global network of offices for the firm’s 300,000 employees. These staff members will be able to choose where to work from more than 3,300 offices. The deal comes hot on the heels of another signed with Standard Chartered to give the bank’s 95,000 staff access to its offices in a 12-month trial.

And Microsoft itself is evolving its own hybrid work strategy for its 160,000 plus employees around the world. But, warns the company, leaders need a wake-up call when it comes to hybrid working.

They may be too narrowly focused on where to invest. More than four in 10 (42%) of workers say they lack essential office supplies at home and one in 10 doesn’t have an adequate internet connection to do the job. And 46% say their employer does not help them with remote work expenses. This is a cause for concern for, as Microsoft’s principal researcher focused on socially intelligent meetings Sean Rintel says: “Technical difficulties can be very exclusionary. If you can’t hear them and they can’t hear you, people can’t contribute.”

Interestingly, in areas ahead of the return-to-work curve, the support is higher. Some 78% of workers in China, for example, say their employer helps with remote work expenses.

Meanwhile, one in five global survey respondents say their employer doesn’t care about their work-life balance. Some 54% feel overworked while 39% feel exhausted. And it’s no wonder. Digital overwhelm is real. Between February 2020 and 2021 time spent in Microsoft Teams meetings has more than doubled globally and continues to climb. The average meeting is 10 minutes longer, increasing from 35 to 45 minutes. The average user is sending 45% more chats per week and 42% more chats per person after hours, with chats per week still on the rise. The number of emails delivered to commercial and education customers is up by 40.6 billion in February 2021 compared to the same month in 2020. And the barrage of communications is unstructured and mostly unplanned, with 62% of calls and meetings unscheduled or conducted ad hoc.

Workers, says Microsoft, are feeling the pressure to keep up. Despite meeting and chat overload, 50% of people respond to Teams chats within five minutes or less, a response time that has not changed year-over-year. And Gen Z (those between 18-25) appears to be suffering the most, with 60% saying they are merely surviving or flat-out struggling right now.

Organisations need to rethink their operating models if they are to shift successfully to hybrid work. For shift they will want to, as 41% of employees are considering leaving their current employer this year and 46% say they’re likely to move because they can now work remotely.

Microsoft suggests five strategies for success:

1. Create a plan to empower people for extreme flexibility

Every organisation will need a plan that encompasses policy, physical space, and technology. It starts with answering critical questions: How are people doing and what do they need? Who will be able to work remotely, and who might have to come in? How often? Codify the answers to these questions to formulate a plan to empower people for extreme flexibility, then provide guidance to employees as you experiment and learn

2. Invest in space and technology to bridge the physical and digital worlds

Consider how to equip all workers with the tools they need to contribute — whether they’re working from home, the factory floor, in the office or on the go. Physical office space must be compelling enough to entice workers to commute in, and include a mix of collaboration and focus areas. Meeting rooms and team culture will need to evolve to ensure all voices are heard

3. Combat digital exhaustion from the top

Addressing digital exhaustion must be a priority for leaders everywhere. Consider how to reduce employee workloads, embrace a balance of synchronous and asynchronous collaboration, and create a culture where breaks are encouraged and respected

4. Prioritise rebuilding social capital and culture

Reframe network-building from a passive effort to a proactive one, encourage and reward managers to prioritise building social capital at work, and seek to create a culture where social support thrives

5. Rethink employee experience to compete for the best and most diverse talent

Empathise with the unique needs of each group in the organisation and see remote work as a lever to attract the best and most diverse talent.

Published 24 March 2021
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