When the Great Resignation and the scramble to hire talent was on, remote work was a great benefit to sway talent. By the fall of 2021, Gallup reported that working remotely was likely here to stay, with nine out of 10 remote employees wanting to keep working from home to some degree.
Now, as we’re watching the power shift in the market from employees with multiple choices to those facing layoffs, employers once again have more say in how — and where — people work. Headlines are filled with large organizations issuing mandates to return to the office — at least part time.
While executives argue for office work because they believe it increases productivity and collaboration, workers aren’t entirely convinced. And yet 54 percent of employees who worked remotely at least part time said they would ideally like a hybrid arrangement of home and office in that same Gallup poll.
The challenge now is designing a workforce model that is beneficial for both employees and employers.
“The answer to the future of work is not black and white,” said Eightfold AI CEO and Co-founder Ashutosh Garg. “There are clear advantages and disadvantages to both on-site and remote. I empathize with business leaders who crave a more connected workforce. But I also understand the perspective of employees reluctant to give up their flexibility.”
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The benefits of remote and hybrid work
When employees work entirely remote or in a hybrid arrangement, organizations and employees alike see benefits, including:
- Expanded talent pool: With no geographic limitations, organizations have access to more talent, which typically means shorter time to hire and increased access to innovation.
- Increased retention: Many employees are prioritizing flexibility in their career decisions — and simply have more options to do so. Accenture found that 68 percent of high-growth organizations have work-from-anywhere models, up from 63 percent in 2021.
- Improved inclusion: By providing more flexibility, organizations are more inclusive for working parents and people with disabilities. By opening themselves up to a more diverse talent pool, they welcome and incorporate different perspectives, which improves innovation.
But remote work also has downsides…
Remote work adds new challenges, including:
- Lost social connections: Watercooler chats. Ad hoc learning among desk mates. Impromptu inquiries of the department head to get a quick take on a project. All these interactions create connections, which improve engagement and collaboration.
- Potential for lower employee morale, engagement, trust/loyalty, and retention: Hybrid is not an easy model. When poorly managed, hybrid work can have big consequences on the team, including less collaboration, lower innovation, and even more employees leaving the organization.
- Loss of company culture: Without regular gatherings at a central location, building a company culture is extremely challenging.
- Collaboration challenges: With Zoom fatigue, distractions, and more multitasking, many teams struggle to collaborate. A Berkeley research study of 60,000 Microsoft employees found that cross-team collaboration decreased by 25 percent during remote work among Microsoft employees.
How do we solve for both?
The answer isn’t easy, and it will — and should — differ for every organization. But digging deep to design the workplace model that works for your employees, organization, and culture is well worth the effort.
“Companies first need to determine how to keep employees engaged while working hybrid,” Garg said. “Next, you need to ensure that everyone is woven into the fabric of the company. Finally, you must figure out how to give your employees the flexibility that they want without losing the social bond with coworkers.”
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9 best practices for hybrid work
Here’s how organizations can go the extra mile to recover and build trust and loyalty in a time of hybrid work.
1. Listen to employees.
Instead of leaders deciding what employees need, ask them what they prefer and put their suggestions into action whenever possible. When Salesforce surveyed its workforce, 80 percent of employees wanted to “maintain a connection to a physical space.”
2. Prioritize social engagements.
Connections with co-workers are key to engagement and company culture. With all employees on-site, interactions naturally occur. Leaders in a hybrid model should proactively look for ways to provide face-to-face interactions between employees in a way that fits their needs. Consider providing remote employees with a budget to travel to the office once a month or quarter, and look for ways to combine business with fun. For the next company all-hands or a quarterly business review, plan a party after the meeting to give people social opportunities to connect.
3. Invest in the right tech.
At this point, everyone is over the typical video meeting. Having more meetings online doesn’t solve the social or collaboration challenges. But there are many new products and tools that can help improve collaboration. Instead of allowing those joining meetings remotely “listen in” on the session, you need to create an environment of inclusion.
4. Design office spaces for collaboration.
In a remote model, employees often come into the office for collaboration. But the cube-and-desk model doesn’t create the ideal environment for working together. Some organizations have already moved to eliminate assigned seating and move to a hot-desk model in which employees “reserve” a workspace for the day. Additionally, these organizations have set up more social spaces, including couches, and larger tables, to encourage socialization.
5. Managers must invest in direct reports.
Workers were unfairly blamed for the quiet-quitting phenomenon. When employees work in different locations, managers must take the extra step to check on employees and make sure they’re engaged. Many organizations are turning to AI-powered HR and talent management tools to help employees develop a career path and set learning goals more attuned to them.
6. Track touchpoints with your employee.
In the early days of hybrid work, organizations focused on control and surveillance, but that breeds mistrust and poor relationships. Instead, they should focus on building a relationship that helps keep employees engaged and opens lines of communication.
7. Foster a culture of recognition.
Everyone needs to feel valued and appreciated, as overlooked employees often become unengaged and can even leave the organization. However, this isn’t easy to achieve even if everyone is in a physical office. In a hybrid model, you lose the opportunity for the casual “thank you” in the hallway, making it even harder. Consider setting up formal recognition programs where employees can share positive things about others. Managers can open the floor at the end of team meetings for kudos. When the organization gets together for meetings, recognize employees who have gone above and beyond.
8. Set up a mentor program.
People new to an industry often struggle with remote or hybrid because there are more physical barriers to mirroring and learning from more experienced workers. PwC found that workers with under five years’ experience are more likely to want to be in the office. Additionally, employees want to be inspired. Those that feel that they are learning and motivated are more likely to stay.
9. Set clear boundaries between work and personal time.
The good thing about a hybrid model is the ability to blend work and personal life as needed — i.e. busy parents who need to leave early for school pickups or other errands have more flexibility. The bad thing is that when your office is in your home, work can easily go over into personal time. Employees need to know that they can turn off work and focus on their friends, family, and personal activities. Managers should encourage their team to set boundaries and then respect those boundaries.
The reality is for most of us hybrid work is here to stay. By taking a thoughtful and proactive approach, it is possible for organizations to improve employee engagement and morale, while also increasing productivity and saving money. Keep open communication and an open mind, and your organization will find the right fit.
Explore more about the future or work with an elastic talent strategy, one built with the flexibility and agility that moves people to the right roles based on their skills and potential.