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GETTING BACK TO THE OFFICE: How will hybrid work?

10 Aug 2021 // by Dave Hickey

Companies don’t know what comes next. Employees aren’t sure what they want. Experimentation is required.

The Disconnect

It would be nice if employees were jumping for joy at the prospect of a full return to the office. And it would be nice if the future turns out to be as glorious and stable as we sometimes imagine the past to have been. But those are fantasies built on nostalgia. They are anything but a solid foundation for building a future-ready business.

A recent international survey by McKinsey reports that over 75% of executives expected the typical “core” employee to be back in the office three or more days a week. While they realise that the great work-from-home experiment was surprisingly effective, they also believe that it hurt organisational culture and belonging.

However, over 75% of employees surveyed globally wanted to return to a hybrid working model.

In April this year, research of over 6,000 people in Ireland by the Whitaker Institute at NUI Galway revealed that 75% of over 2,000 people managers surveyed advised that their organisations had not decided on post-pandemic working arrangements while almost 80% of those which had, opted for a hybrid model.

That same report showed that 85% of employees would like to work remotely a few times a week (53%) or daily (32%) while only 5% favoured a full-time return to the workplace.

Finally, McKinsey reports further that when employers have small-group conversations to understand such survey results in greater detail, they discover that neither they nor large swathes of their workforces really know what employees want.

Why is there such a disconnect between what employees believe they want and what organisations think needs to be done?

Our need for ‘normality’

Many employers, keen to establish some sense of normalcy quickly, are focused on answering simple logistical questions that give them a sense of control. These questions typically focus on the number of days that employees will be in the office, collaboration tools they will use, policies on pay levels and norms for meeting behaviours. While the answers to them can help employees who are seeking a measure of pragmatism for what comes next, they are typically accompanied by a message that the “finish line” is in sight and that we will soon enter a period of normalcy that will be the standard for many years to come.

The truth is the finish line – at least for the next office ‘normal’ – is an illusion at this stage and by claiming it’s in sight businesses are in danger of underestimating employees’ needs and risk creating further challenges.

In the enthusiasm about the return from remote working, business leaders run the risk of actually increasing the disconnect between themselves and their people. The idea that we will cross a finish line and suddenly be done with all the hard stuff seems to exist only in the minds of senior leaders.

Asking the right questions

While research shows that employees want leaders to lead, it’s important now that executives make it clear that the return to the office, hybrid or full-time, will be the first step in determining the next normal for office working for their business but that they don’t have all the answers.

The question of how many days in office per week are best is the most obvious one to answer, but it isn’t the only question, and it may not even be the right one to answer first. There will likely be a bevy of questions to address: What work is better done in person than virtually, and vice versa? How will meetings work best? How can influence and experience be balanced between those who work on site and those who don’t? How can you avoid a two-tier system in which people working in the office are valued and rewarded more than are those working more from home? Should teams physically gather in a single place while tackling a project, and if so, how often? Can leadership communication to off-site workers be as effective as it is to workers in the office?

Experimentation will be required to find out what works best for each organisation. Large businesses will be different from smaller ones. Experimenting means reductions in efficiency in the short term but should lead to better employee engagement and retention, before ultimately increasing productivity again.

Denying the problem is no strategy. Accepting the fact that we don’t know how the future of hybrid working will evolve for the business and its people, is an essential first step in tackling the issue. The answer will evolve as we involve colleagues at all levels in the development process.  

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