Hybrid working is here to stay, but employers and employees must overcome a number of challenges for it to be effective.
Employers are challenged with creating hybrid working policies that are fair to everyone. To do so, they have to consider if their company culture is being damaged or if the business might be less productive and therefore less competitive as a result.
In a recent roundtable sponsored by RingCentral, workplace experts debated what needs to improve to make hybrid a long-term success.
Jennifer Sproul, chief executive at the Institute of Internal Communications (IoIC), says hybrid working is a learning curve for organisations. “Technology has been a great enabler, but it still comes down to fairness and what individuals would prefer to do,” she says. “There are challenges, including around learning and development where we see engagement in upskilling dropping. Hybrid working strategies must also acknowledge the importance of building personal relationships at work.”
Companies are making progress but Maura Jarvis, UK lead for workforce transformation at Mercer, is worried that the headway made on inclusivity and diversity could slow. This could result in less diversity of thought if there is too much siloed working.
Like Sproul, she is also worried about the potential impact on training and on career progression. “You cannot simply plug in a learning and development model that worked when everybody was in the building into a flexible working arrangement,” she says.
The skills gap
For businesses to remain competitive, it is important for employees to learn different skills, so they still deliver for their organisation.
El Iza Mohamedou, head of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation (OECD) Centre for Skills says employees need a different skillset. “The types of interaction people have when they are hybrid working means employees need to master the basics. In our last survey of adult workers, we found that 10% of adults in England reported no prior experience of digital skills,” she says.
Mohamedou adds that most employers need to improve their cybersecurity and data protection infrastructure and knowledge. Employees need to improve their softer skills because interpersonal communication is an essential component when trying to build trust in a hybrid world.
Wasim Mushtaq, transformation lead at Standard Chartered Bank, says he has had to change his negotiation skills. “A lot of the programmes I do require sign-off from five or more senior people,” he says. “When we were all in the office face-to-face it was easier to have those conversations and influence decision making because you could read people’s body language. I have had to adapt my style when doing so many meetings online.”
Hybrid working is successful when an organisation is clear about how exactly it expects its employees to behave in this new way of working. What is the company vision and purpose that everyone must buy into? Are new starters still being onboarded effectively?
“We do not always know what’s expected of us nowadays because we are not picking up all the nonverbal signals as we did before,” says Jane Sparrow, Founder and Author at The Culture Builders. “Organisations need new examples of what ‘good’ looks like.”
A company culture can certainly thrive with a hybrid approach, adds Sparrow, but individual workers must appreciate that some colleagues might prefer to work in a different way to them.
The role of tech
Many of the challenges that exist with hybrid working can and are being solved by technology. It is now easier for people to collaborate and communicate from wherever they are working, bridging the gap between remote workers in the process.
Severine Hierso, director of product marketing at RingCentral, says hybrid workers can find it stressful when many different tools are being used within the same organisation.
She says employees want a simple solution: “Organisations need a straightforward way for employees to collaborate that will support wellbeing and boost productivity.” RingCentral is one such app that incorporates team messaging, collaboration, file sharing, task management and calendar scheduling.
“Organisations require connected technology which allows the integration of third party software into their system. This will solve a lot of problems, including slowing the ‘great resignation’ where we see many people wanting to leave their jobs because they are not happy with the technology they have to work with,” Hierso says.
Productivity and wellbeing
In a bid to retain talent, many companies have used the move to hybrid working to enable their employees to adopt more flexible hours, with some introducing a four-day week.
However, Jarvis says that rather than improving wellbeing, working fewer days can have the reverse effect. “I worry we are setting ourselves up for disaster and might cause more burnout,” she says. “Our tracking reveals the UK has the lowest employee energy level, with 82% thinking they will have a breakdown or complete burnout within six months. You cannot deliver five days’ work in four without longer hours each day or changing the expectations of what people are supposed to deliver each week.”
There was agreement that companies should make more use of technology such as artificial intelligence (AI) so employees spend less time on mundane tasks and can focus on meaningful work.
Mohamedou says AI is one ingredient which can help employers plan for future radical changes in working patterns. “We need to redefine what we regard as high performance and how we judge productivity,” she says. “There needs to be a better understanding that the amount of work you do is not always an indication of higher productivity.”
Mushtaq adds there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to hybrid working, instead it is a spectrum on which employers and workers decide how much of a hybrid approach they take. This should be based on what people want and need to do at particular times to work more effectively for them, while still able to meet deadlines and service customers.
“Hybrid working and fairness for me is about understanding what objectives need to be met and then agreeing with your teams what’s the best way to deliver them,” he says.
Leadership and management
A lot of pressure is put on managers when it comes to making hybrid working a success. But Sproul says managers are facing their own burnout worries because they are charged with managing their teams’ emotional stress as well as ongoing economic uncertainty.
“We have a systemic problem around how organisations and the world of work is fundamentally designed,” she says. “Managers have responsibility for setting tasks but they are being asked to spend more time on managing individuals within their team, and need more communication skills and support.”
In many ways, hybrid working has to be embedded into a company’s culture so that everyone, whatever their seniority or role, feels respected, knows what is expected of them and is trusted to deliver.
Sparrow says people need to take more personal responsibility for how they choose to work. Organisations have the responsibility to help everyone feel connected by deploying the best technology to support collaboration and communication.
“As humans, we need to feel connected to other people. We need to know that what we are doing is making a difference, maybe financially to a business or socially,” says Sparrow. “If we are not seeing our colleagues every day then we need the tools to feel connected. Employers also need to create that space for those connections and that collaboration to happen.”
Giving employees the space to collaborate also fosters innovation, which in turn fuels an organisation’s long-term growth.
“If your way of hybrid working doesn’t work then tweak it and tweak it again until you get the balance right for the employer and the employee,” says Mushtaq. “Individuals know what works best for them to be productive, but are their leaders listening?”
Hybrid working is not likely to disappear anytime soon, but employees will require more guidance around the available technology to help them work productively without affecting their own wellbeing.