So much has changed since COVID-19 struck in early 2020. Things we used to take for granted, like live theatre and musical performances, overseas travel and, of course, working in an office, have changed significantly. And while most of these will return to ‘normal’ at some point, one thing is certain – the way we work has changed forever.
The days of co-located teams, working in an office from nine to five is a thing of the past – the hybrid workforce is both our current and our future reality. In a hybrid workplace, some employees are based on site while others work remotely. Alternatively, employees have the option to split their time between the office and a remote workspace.
While the modern workforce has been moving towards a hybrid model for years, COVID-19 accelerated the trend and made the distant dream of WFH the new normal and both employers and employees are embracing it. According to FlexJobs, 76% of workers would be more willing to stay with their current employer if they could work flexible hours. Another recent survey in Australia of 10,000 workers by the Australian Council of Trade Unions found that 81% want to continue working from home provided they are given adequate support. Companies are listening.
Instead of worrying about how to get back to the office, many business leaders have decided to use the disruption caused by the pandemic as an opportunity to create a new work model that benefits both employers and employees.
One good thing about 2020 is that companies were compelled to road-test the hybrid model, allowing employees to prove that they can be as productive, if not more productive, when working remotely. Increased efficiency may be due to reduced workplace distractions or the flexibility to work at a time that suits the individual – when they are most productive or while juggling childcare and other family responsibilities. Working from home also liberated employees from the daily commute, adding an hour or more free time to their day and contributing to a better work-life balance.
Even before the pandemic hit, recruitment firms were advising employers to offer workplace flexibility if they wanted to attract top talent. Another benefit of the hybrid model is that it enables companies to recruit from a global talent pool, as prospective employees don’t have to live locally if they’re able to work remotely.
As hybrid teams become the norm, traditional offices will be transformed into collaborative spaces designed for hosting meetings and training sessions. Businesses will be able to downsize to smaller premises, lowering the cost of rent, utilities and office supplies, and reducing the company’s carbon footprint.
However, moving to a hybrid model on a permanent basis does pose some problems, beyond whether or not to ditch the workplace dress code. In addition to the obvious risks associated with cybersecurity and client confidentiality, there’s the danger of creating a divide between office-based employees and those working remotely. “There’s consistent evidence to show that in-group and out-group dynamics reduce collaboration and increase conflict,” says Marco Minervini, an organisational design researcher at INSEAD business school in Singapore.
Those with experience of leading hybrid teams in pre-pandemic times believe we need to prioritise remote workers, who can become isolated and demoralised if they’re not managed effectively. According to insights published by management consulting firm McKinsey, there’s a real risk of losing the sense of belonging, common purpose and shared identity that inspires employees to do their best work. Feelings of isolation can have a negative impact on performance, and may also affect workers’ mental health and wellbeing.
To ensure the long-term success of a hybrid workplace, companies need a plan. Start by clearly understanding how hybrid team structures look like and reviewing your workplace communication and engagement tools. Step up investment in IT and HR. Cybersecurity software and training, remote IT support, and collaboration tools such as Zoom, Slack and Microsoft Teams are all essential. Meanwhile, HR departments will have to play a greater role when it comes to fostering employee engagement, supporting remote workers and onboarding new hires.
Employees are missing organic, not forced interactions that help them build rapport.
So how do you nurture a common culture and cultivate relationships if face-to-face social interactions like water-cooler chats and after-work drinks are not possible?
Swap awkward team-building exercises for virtual activities and online games, such as trivia and bingo, which are designed to help employees unwind, have fun and build connections. Find other things to celebrate besides birthdays, Christmas and company milestones, so that hybrid teams have the opportunity to socialise more often. And make sure everyone is included by scheduling activities and experiences online. On top of games and activities, platforms like Remote Social offer fully curated hosted experiences with a wide appeal – think cooking classes, fitness sessions, wine or cheese tastings, and inspiring talks delivered by industry leaders.
When it comes to work, there’s no doubt that we won’t go back to the way things were in pre-pandemic times. And, as hybrid teams become the norm, virtual experiences that bring employees together to socialise will play an important role in creating a happier, healthier and more productive workforce.