Shifting Not Drifting Into Hybrid Working

Thousands of emails have been flying across organisation intranets this week: “We’d like you to work three days in the office at a minimum.” After 12 months of remote working, how did so many different Boards arrive at this consensus? What were their criteria?

Future Forum, the Remote Employee Experience Index across the US, UK France Germany, Japan and Australia agree that 63% of people favour a flexible hybrid model of work, with 20% generally younger and with less tenure favouring full time remote working. But it would be unwise to forget that there were gains made during remote working that will be easy to lose if we don’t develop hybrid working in a considered manner.

Their research shows that productivity still increased from Q3 to Q4 of 2020 remotely despite pandemic fatigue. Remote workers were more satisfied than office-based staff with the amount of work they accomplished, felt their workload was more manageable and said they were less likely to feel burned out. Critically, organisations that allowed flexibility on when employees worked as well as where had the highest uplift in productivity.

We all know that social bonding is foundational to organisational success and is an important reason to have a hybrid model, but interestingly where organisations invested in building team cohesion remotely, a third of employees felt that remote working was better for their sense of belonging than working in the office and were slightly more likely to agree that they felt they belonged to their company.

Is there an assumption out there that we will not need to maintain quite this kind of effort for productivity, satisfaction and belonging because it will happen osmotically when everyone is together again? In reality we don’t know how hybrid working will affect the gains that have been made working remotely but we should not just assume they will be maintained given that our fundamental assumptions about work are in the process of change. As a result, if leaders are to maintain credibility when staff are coming into the office, they need to be much clearer about purpose. You will no doubt have already heard people say “I could have done that at home”. What we value is in a state of flux. For example, Future Forum’s data shows that organisations which are seen as technological laggards by their employees are seeing declines in sense of belonging, productivity and work-life balance despite being at home.

How do we interpret all this information? To find some answers it makes sense to look at some of the data that has been stable around organisational behaviour over the years. One of the most requested articles from Harvard Business Review is still Herzberg’s work on job enrichment from the 1960s. His work showed that the factors that cause job satisfaction (motivators) are independent of those that cause job dissatisfaction and demotivate. The motivators are responsibility, growth, achievement, recognition, advancement and the nature of the work. The demotivators, if organisations don’t get them right are company policy, the quality of leadership, supervision, relationships, pay and work conditions.

It is no wonder then that productivity increased when employees took greater responsibility for themselves and their daily achievements working remotely. It is also no wonder that organisations with poor technology are seeing decreases in productivity and a sense of belonging when technology is one of the most significant contributors to work conditions in our age. We will be putting our gains at risk if we simply see this as just a work-life balance issue and revert to normal. An HBR report details that middle managers are having trust issues managing remotely, checking up rather than checking in on staff creating a downward spiral. While one could argue that this will settle when middle managers can see employees again, should an organisation be satisfied with that approach? In light of the correspondence between Herzberg’s research on what motivates us, and the improvements in productivity with the autonomy of remote working, there is work to do in upskilling middle management in managing by results, in delegating and empowering to provide the autonomy that motivates employees and maintains the gains.

Interestingly, when the Society for Industrial and Organisational Psychology studied what sets apart high performing remote workers from those who did not feel they were performing so well they discovered that working from home was not automatically more or less productive. It depended on four key factors, many to do with the importance of work conditions that align with Herzberg’s approach. It seems these helped hit Herzberg’s sweet spot of high motivation and few complaints. There needed to be good technology to support remote working and the guidance on how to use it. The technology needed to aid informal networking and the leadership needed to be of the quality that fostered opportunities for co-workers to meet informally and to reach out to each other for daily support. Best performers also took time to relax and re-energise, and so a leadership culture that encourages breaks during the day and turning off in the evening is important. Re motivators, the highest performing individuals took responsibility for creating their daily to do list and schedules to achieve goals. As this list generally aligns with our long understanding of organisational behaviour it suggests that these are factors that the leadership of organisations should attend to anyway, whether employees are in the office or working remotely.

To make wise decisions that maintain the gains going forward this research shows that we need to know what we are changing rather than just drift on the assumption that things will be better. Our organisational norms have altered consciously and unconsciously while we have worked remotely and we need to get a handle on what has changed and how to take advantage of the best of those changes.

The following are some questions that leaders might like to consider to help them maintain the gains in hybrid working.

What did we consciously and unconsciously change during remote working?As a result what has worked well remotely that we wish to maintain?
What has worked well remotely that we wish to transfer to the office environment?
What has worked well remotely that we wish to transfer to the office environment?
What will be the advantages of working in the office and how will we measure them?
Within what operational requirements will we need to make our decisions?How will we notice we are developing the right balance and how will we measure it?

Research mentioned in this article:

Future Forum: Hybrid Rules: The Emerging Playbook For Flexible Work
Harvard Business Review: Remote Managers Are Having Trust Issues.
Society for Industrial and Organisational Psychology: Boosting Job Performance When Working From Home: Four Key Strategies

Carey Glass is an expert in change with ease. Her work is based on the simple reality that change happens all the time and is not new to organisations or their employees. She works with individuals, teams and organisations to harness their own capacity for change rather than impose change upon them. Releasing their skills and knowledge of what works when they are stuck or when they just want to progress quickly allows change to happen without major disruption or resistance. Her coaching has been cited by Harvard University’s Institute of Coaching and is particularly effective in limiting the number of sessions required. She is co-editor of the international journal InterAction, devoted to adaptable and flexible approaches to individual, team and organisational change in complex environments.

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Organisational Psychologist and Management Consultant. Helping organisations create change with ease for over 20 years across Australia and Europe.

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Carey Glass

Carey Glass

Organisational Psychologist and Management Consultant. Helping organisations create change with ease for over 20 years across Australia and Europe.

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