By Wilhelm Crous
February 17, 2023
Most organisations were forced to pivot to a hybrid working model during the Covid-19 pandemic, with the majority of those having maintained or modified those arrangements in the past year. Employees have generally experienced this new work style favourably, as they appreciate the additional flexibility and autonomy, being judged on their output as opposed to other subjective criteria, and saving on traveling time and costs.
Yet despite these positive aspects, there is still a lot of uncertainty around what works best in a hybrid working environment. As Professor Lynda Gratton1 put it in the Harvard Business Review, “That’s because reimagining work is complicated”. She explained that most companies are still in a transition phase; according to a survey she conducted in November last year among 266 executives in 68 companies across 36 countries, only 42% had implemented a final hybrid work model, with the remainder still being in a transition period that will probably take years to finalise.
Gratton found that many workers enjoy their hybrid work arrangement, and are more likely to stay with their company given their hybrid system of work. In addition, these workers often deliver greater customer satisfaction and retention. Professor Peter Cappelli2 of the Wharton School of Business disagrees, however. He argues that, “The single most important factor holding people in organisations is social relationships. Social relationships weaken when we don’t see people. Other than the work we do and the money, little else holds us in place.”
Gratton’s research shows that collaboration networks become more static in hybrid work environments, i.e., when employees don’t work together in close quarters, they get less feedback and guidance from co-workers. Similarly, videoconferencing seems to have a negative effect on creativity as it narrows team members’ cognitive focus, which inhibits their ability to generate ideas that could result in innovation. Cappelli also stated that those working from home will have fewer opportunities for career advancement and are more likely to be laid off. In addition, there are also bigger demands on supervisors of remote/hybrid workers due to the complexity of the new work configuration.
It is thus evident that there are still many unknowns when it comes to hybrid work. Can culture be transmitted in a virtual environment? How well can employees learn their jobs and understand their culture if they rarely spend time in the office? If young employees early in their careers can’t cultivate relationships through face-to-face interactions, what will the long term consequences be?
Cappelli also pointed out that almost everything we know about remote work is based on employees who had been in the office and then transitioned to working remotely. We have very little idea of how employees who have never worked in an office will perform in a remote setting.
Unfortunately, leaders do not have the luxury of sitting and waiting until everything has been figured out – they need a strategy to guide them on this journey. Gratton proposed that every executive team ask four crucial questions as it thinks about how to deal with the ongoing transition to hybrid work:
- What are our overarching values and principles?
Although a familiar question, it must be answered before the next three. Make sure that all your answers align with the values and principles you’ve defined here.
- What is special about the people we employ, the jobs we do and the customers we serve?
This question gets at what makes your company unique. The decisions about your model of hybrid work will have to support the uniqueness of your company.
- What isn’t working and what are the problems we’re trying to solve?
This question forces you to shine a light on exactly what your company is struggling with so that you can better imagine work configurations that are uniquely suited to your needs. Employee surveys and focus groups can be useful in this regard.
- What experiments have we tried that we can share with others, and what are other companies doing that we can learn from?
This question forces leaders to think about collective learning both inside and outside the company. The approach taken is particularly important here in Southern Africa, where resources are scarcer than in the US or Europe. Organisations in South Africa can collaborate and share their learnings – what is working and where are the remaining challenges?
To help you make the most of this time of transition, KR invites you to join us at our upcoming HR Director Conference, which will offer an opportunity to network, share experiences and learn from various leading companies about how they are successfully navigating this new world of work.
For more information about the HR Director Conference and the topics CLICK HERE.
We also have the Annual KR Organisational Development Conference taking place on 27 February – 1 March. This go-to conference for OD professionals will explore the latest insights, challenges, and research in the OD field. Hear first-hand how organisations can create cultures that empower employees and promote company values; approach transformation and change; react to external change; and much more! CLICK HERE for more information.
- Gratton, L. (2023). Redesigning how we work. Harvard Business Review, March – April 2023.
- Cappelli, P. (2021). The future of the office: Work from home, remote work, and the hard choices we all face. Wharton School Press.