How tech can make human-centred workplaces a reality

Businesses that intend to adopt a hybrid working model need to conduct a critical review of their operations and, if necessary, reject conventional wisdom about how work should be organised 


Woman in an office, on a video call with collegues

Experts in organisational design believe that a company’s success in the new world of hybrid working will hinge on whether it can redesign its operations according to how people prefer to work. This includes devising an appropriately supportive tech strategy.

Their key contention here is that, despite a strong tendency among employers to manage their knowledge workers with a one-size-fits-all approach, doing so is rarely the way to get the best from them. 

Alexia Cambon, a research director at Gartner, believes that the time is right for employers to “stop and think about assumptions that are primarily inherited”. Many of these centre on “archaic work design structures” based on office life, such as the linear 9am-to-5pm working day and the “meeting culture” of the 1950s, she explains. 

Stop reading every white paper out there and ask your audience what they care about so you can learn together

“We have an opportunity to move away from designing work around location and to design it around humans instead,” Cambon says. “Things weren’t working that well even before the pandemic, so it’s time to stop making existing processes virtual. We need to think up new ones.”

She cites the example of employers that have tracked their remote workers’ activities digitally by, for instance, counting their keystrokes, rather than trusting them and focusing on output rather than input. Consequently, those under surveillance felt obliged to work longer hours, creating a presenteeism problem that’s been detrimental to their wellbeing.

Emma Parry, professor of HR management at Cranfield School of Management, agrees that it will be important for employers to show their people more trust and grant them greater autonomy. But she also advises firms to weigh up their needs carefully against what their employees want.

“For enterprises to do this well, it’s about returning to organisational design principles – for example, by asking themselves: ‘What tasks do we need to be in the office to perform?’ and setting parameters around those considerations,” Parry says. “This isn’t about preferences; it’s about need, although involving employees in decisions and giving them flexibility in how they work is also important.” 

Enabling a big shift in mindset and culture

Because getting the balance right will inevitably be “challenging”, according to Parry, it will require a “big shift in mindset”.

She explains: “Most knowledge workers were in the office before the pandemic, whereas most have been at home during the lockdowns – two very different propositions. Now we’re talking about a conflation of those ways of working, which presents a new challenge. It’s not simply a continuation of what we’re accustomed to, so it requires a new response.”

This response includes re-evaluating everything from organisational structure and culture to HR policies and the roles of business leaders. 

“There are many questions to consider, such as: do we have the right environment, technology and culture to do this inclusively, so as not to disadvantage people who aren’t as visible as those working in the office?” Parry says. “Some of it is about skills, but the rest of it is about changing attitudes and cultures.” 

Katie Burke, chief people officer at software company HubSpot, agrees. When reviewing how the company should operate in a hybrid working world, its leadership team added the “secret sauce” of asking staff for their input, she says. To this end, it created five advisory panels including employees at all levels, along with experts in diversity and inclusion; future, remote and hybrid working; and compensation and benefits.

“Our aim as a leadership team was to move away from viewing everything through its own lens when thinking about the future,” says Burke, who would advise any business leader in a similar position to “stop reading every white paper out there and ask your audience what they care about, so you can learn together”.

We have an opportunity now to move away from designing work around location and design it around humans

This activity led HubSpot to introduce three working options: @office, where employees come to the company’s premises for three or more days a week and work from a dedicated desk; @flex, where staff are office-based for two or fewer days a week with access to a hotdesk, but are also helped to set up a home office; and @home, where a dedicated remote working environment is the norm.

To support this shift, employees have been trained in how to use their software more effectively. The next couple of years will also see the roll-out of “location-agnostic benefits”, along with resources and courses for line managers, Burke says.

Using technology to improve the employee experience

On the technological side of things, Parry advises employers to take some time to reflect, having implemented systems at speed over the past 18 months.

“It’s now time to step back and review what you’ve done, perhaps by aligning your digital strategy with your broader HR and business strategy,” she says. “But it’s not just about reviewing the technology you’ve invested in and how you use it. This is also about understanding how your processes will need to change to accommodate hybrid working and what tech will be required to support them.”

Josh Bersin, dean of the Josh Bersin Academy for HR practitioners, recommends that companies “standardise their tools on to a few core platforms”, such as Microsoft Teams or Facebook Workplace, and integrate other applications as required. The aim here is to provide as seamless a user experience as possible. 

“Making the hybrid model work for all parties requires both trust and a much more integrated set of digital tools,” Bersin says. “Organisations are already building and implementing these – rapidly.” 

Another thing that moving to a hybrid working world will require is a healthy dose of diffidence, according to Burke.

“No one’s done this before, so you can’t say that you’re an expert and you’ve got it all figured out,” she says. “But everyone benefits from that kind of humility. If you’re honest, people are happier to give their input and also more willing to make mistakes, which means that we can all learn together.”