For employers planning to adopt hybrid working after the pandemic, the cultural implications of operating with a distributed workforce are not to be taken lightly
The wholesale adoption of remote working by many firms over the past 18 months has required their employees to be ever present and always switched on, ready to respond to the next cascade of Slack messages before logging in for yet another Zoom meeting.
Companies have come to depend on the quality of their workers’ domestic internet connections, but fast broadband doth not a connected business make. Neither does simply enabling colleagues to stay in touch with the latest in communication and collaboration tech.
Video conferencing and messaging platforms have become fixtures in the new world of working and are likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. Even though some businesses are welcoming all their employees back to HQ full time, many more have opted for a hybrid working model. For this to be effective, they must adopt a new approach and corporate culture to support it.
Connect up the systems
The first thing businesses need to do is to invest in an online platform that can bring all their software, systems and data together in one place. This is because ‘digital fatigue’ has become a big problem for employees during the pandemic. Their increased screen time has been compounded by the fact the average worker has to access 41 different systems a month, according to Huler, a technology firm that has built a “human-experience platform”. The average employee also wastes 21 days a year dealing with IT problems such as outdated software.
Angela Ashenden is principal analyst at research provider CCS Insight, leading its work on the aspects of workplace transformation. She believes that using a one-stop shop of this type enables employees to focus their efforts on managing clients and customers, whose expectations will probably have changed since the start of the pandemic.
“We’ve all embraced online team meetings during the pandemic – and this technology will remain crucial as we shift to hybrid work,” she says. “But businesses need to consider how the impact of hybrid working will extend beyond internal operations to external relationships and processes too. They must start thinking strategically about how to take use digital solutions to augment customer relationships – to streamline processes and improve transparency and trust.”
Communication keeps employees connected
The sudden shift to remote working will have been a culture shock for many people. If businesses are going to adopt hybrid working permanently, then communicating changes to employees will be vital, especially to mobilise talent and keep clients and customers happy. This is the responsibility of the leadership team, according to Lara Owen, senior director of the global workplace experience at GitHub, an open-source software platform.
“Giving people the technology they need to work productively is the easy part of rolling out distributed work. Fully operationalising it requires going way beyond simply installing video conferencing software,” she says. “The real challenge is to ensure that the human connection is never lost. That requires an invested leadership team with a clear mission and purpose. When you have clarity about your cultural priorities, you make better decisions about tactical changes and investments.”
GitHub has encouraged distributed working for more than a decade. There is a fine, but important, difference between remote working and distributed working. The former is purely the act of working at any place that isn’t on the company’s premises. The latter refers to collaboration by teams whose members are in different locations.
Even though employees have embraced distributed working – only about 700 members of GitHub’s 2,000-strong workforce regularly work on its premises – Owen and her team go to great lengths to ensure that the human connection is never lost.
“We still find ourselves constantly innovating and trying new things to keep people happy and engaged – and, quite honestly, to add a little fun to their day,” she says.
During the pandemic, GitHub started a programme of events called Hubber Care. Its offerings ranged from mindfulness sessions to DJ sets over Zoom. Managers were even encouraged to start their video meetings off with a game of Pictionary.
A work in progress
Lisa Finnegan, vice-president of international HR business partnering at LinkedIn acknowledges that the hybrid working model poses challenges for employers when it comes to maintaining a sense of community and helping employees to develop meaningful relationships.
“To ensure that you stay connected, it’s important to take a regular ‘pulse check’ of your employees to understand how they’re feeling,” she advises.
Implementing a successful hybrid working culture that keeps employees connected won’t happen overnight, though. “Positive cultures evolve. Creating it right is part strategy, part trial and error. It means being prepared to fail sometimes,” says Owen, citing one example when this happened. During the height of the pandemic, GitHub trialled a movie night, but it didn’t attract a big attendance.
“We subsequently discovered that employees felt a little burnt out from video conferencing to participate,” she explains. “We learnt from that and adjusted our programme accordingly. Listening to feedback is critical.”