At the beginning of the pandemic, there were predictions that this was the end of office working. Instead, we would all be working remotely and flexibly, all the time. These predictions have not come to pass—not least because many people do not want to work remotely all the time.
However, we have certainly seen a huge rise in the proportion of hybrid workplaces: offices and other workplaces that combine remote and in-office working. This culture has very much taken off, often as a compromise that suits everyone. It allows people to work remotely if they wish, but retains the everyday contact that oils the wheels of relationships and keeps organisations running smoothly.
Understanding hybrid workplaces
Hybrid workplaces can take several forms—and often do. In any hybrid office, you may find some people who mostly work remotely, but visit the office occasionally. You will also see some who prefer to be in the office most of the time, but want the flexibility to work remotely from time to time. The final group is those who split their time between the two each week, doing a few days remote and a few days in the office. This mix of working styles sounds reasonable, but managing a hybrid workplace is turning out to be quite a challenge for many organisations.
In work and discussions with thought leaders across various sectors and geographies, we have identified some key challenges in building and managing hybrid workplaces. These include:
Changing how we communicate—but thoughtfully and carefully
A hybrid workplace requires a change in how we communicate. Those in the workplace will always have informal chats together. However, something is needed to enable those informal chats between remote and in-person workers, because much breakthrough innovation depends on serendipity and casual connections. Some companies have focused on ensuring that everything is written down. Others have provided collaboration tools such as Slack. However, they warn that it is important to define the purpose of each means of communication, and limit the number of tools in use to avoid confusion.
Recognising and managing the limitations of technology
Remote working is often hampered by problems with connectivity or other issues in the home environment such as lack of privacy. This was excusable during the pandemic, but is harder to manage when remote working becomes expected. Companies that have successfully moved to a hybrid environment have often provided tangible support for their employees, such as paying for better broadband services, or supplying the necessary high-quality hardware.
Avoiding a creation of a split (them/us) culture between remote and in-person workers
When some workers are ‘usually’ present in an office or workplace, and others ‘usually’ work remotely, it is easy for a ‘them and us’ culture to build up. The workers in the office share jokes and build a very different type of rapport. Without even meaning to do so, they can start to exclude remote colleagues. This is not easy to manage, because it is not deliberate, but simply the result of normal human interactions. However, it can lead to remote workers feeling alienated.
Creating clear working norms that underpin the desired culture
A shift in working patterns like this requires the creation of strong workplace norms about communication, and building shared trust. It may also need new rituals and events that bring people together in person relatively often. These are not always easy to develop, and need time and energy to embed. However, they are crucial to developing a sense of belonging and trust among all workers, especially those working remotely.
Developing different skills and approaches to work
Embracing hybrid working means letting go of tight oversight of workers. When people are working remotely, even if only part-time, it is impossible to supervise them closely. Instead, you have to create a culture of trust, where the measures relate to productivity rather than time or presence. This can be hard for managers. However, it is often equally hard for employees, who need to develop new skills of self-motivation and self-management.
Creating a compromise
Perhaps the final challenge is that employees and employers alike recognise the need for change in how we work. However, there is much less agreement on what everyone wants. Flexibility is valued—but in what form? It is hard to please everyone, and hybrid working of any kind is often seen as a compromise at best. The challenges of creating a hybrid culture that works for everyone should not be underestimated.