Hybrid is the buzzword of the new year, with companies trying to combine remote and in-office working to create a model that preserves the best features of both and also helps them adhere to pandemic-imposed health and safety practices.
But if such a new—and for some, radical—workplace model is to see success, it will need considerable effort and support from organizational leadership. People Matters asked Toby Rakison, Managing Director for Asia, Unispace, for his perspective as a leader himself, and also someone whose firm specializes in workplace design, on what leaders have to do to make the model work. Here's what he suggested.
With the hybrid workplace projected to become the dominant model in the coming years, what do you foresee as the main challenge leaders and managers will face in 2021?
Across much of 2020, businesses and organizations across the globe grappled with understanding the extent and impact of COVID-19, and implementing sufficient measures to stem the spread of the virus. Now, with vaccines on the way, we do expect them to shift their focus towards economic recovery in the new year, though these will not come without reassurances around health and hygiene standards.
Leaders across all levels will have to look at ways of introducing hybrid working arrangements in a careful and controlled manner, that ensures business continuity while still safeguarding the health and safety of their employees.
First and foremost, as hybrid working takes center stage, we predict that a further 10-30 percent of office desk spaces will sit vacant on top of the average 30-40 percent that was unoccupied pre-COVID. These idle sections of real estate present a challenge to managers as costs and profits will be impacted.
Even with smaller in-office capacities, there will be immediate challenges around maintaining adequate social distancing and instituting sufficient cleaning and disinfection measures. In the longer term, leaders will also have to consider broader implications such as managing a fragmented workforce and sustaining productivity. With human capital proving to be one of the most important business assets to nurture in today’s economy, leaders will need to find new and innovative ways of maintaining an engaged workforce, whilst juggling their many other priorities.
How can they turn this challenge into an opportunity for themselves and their teams? Could you share some effective practices you've seen your clients adopt?
As businesses and their leaders navigate the post-pandemic era, present challenges can also offer significant opportunities for companies to grow and empower their teams.
For example, according to a survey we conducted, 68 percent of respondents believe employees will continue to work from home two to three days a week post-pandemic. Yet, 63 percent saw the top internal-facing challenge of remote working to be socializing and creating meaningful connections. While this suggests that remote working may not be as beneficial for facilitating a sense of connectivity as it is for completing individual tasks, businesses can use this as an opportunity to adapt their physical workplaces to address their employees’ evolving emotional and psychological needs especially during this time.
We identified three areas where the workplace can create the kind of value that remote working cannot—namely, problem solving, where employees and partners are empowered to work together to create something more meaningful and innovative than what they could have achieved alone; innovation, fostering the exchange of ideas and concepts that drive transformation; and community building, committing to mentorship and camaraderie, with a collective sense that like-minded people are there to do great things together.
Based on these possibilities, we developed a workspace model, called Propeller, and successfully piloted this framework at one of our own offices in Auckland, New Zealand. We are now in conversation with clients to implement it.
The hybrid model won't succeed without active support from the top down. As a top-level leader yourself, what works to build the necessary mindsets among your team, and to get it down to the subsequent levels?
Though hybrid working is being increasingly normalized, a lot of work goes into ensuring its success and longevity.
For one, it is important for business leaders to define a common goal or objective that will unite all employees even as they continue to split their time between home and the office.
This way, regardless of their physical location, individuals will be able to see how their work is contributing towards a larger vision, and this will also help them value the work that others are doing to achieve the same end.
Leaders will also need to trust that their employees will be able to get work done, even when working from home. According to a recent study by Boston Consulting Group, two-thirds of employees would prefer a hybrid working model to continue, but the desire for this flexibility was not shared by all employers, as they had concerns around issues of productivity. Many felt that if they could not see their employees in person, then it would be impossible to know what they are doing. However there is no historical evidence that correlates time in the office and productivity, so it ultimately still boils down to trust.
Finally, leaders need to be able to communicate regularly and with empathy, and to provide their employees with the resources and guidance they need to succeed. Having avenues to connect with their team members can go a long way in making them feel heard and engaged, even as workforces continue to experience fragmentation during this prolonged period of uncertainty.
What do you see as the key skills and strategies leaders and managers need to have or to cultivate, in order to manage the kind of distributed workforce that will result from the hybrid model?
As more businesses begin to adopt flexible working arrangements, evolving organizations and day-to-day demands present new opportunities and challenges for business leaders and managers. However the key to effective management involves two primary skills: active listening and flexibility.
At a time where companies are still navigating this period of uncertainty, leaders will need to practice active listening and be more mindful of individual needs, in order to inspire professional development and overall performance.
Creating open and trustworthy relationships through active listening can also encourage stronger communications and build loyalty within the team.
Flexibility is also key in leading a fragmented workforce as having ready access to different ways of thinking can enable leaders to shift quickly and effectively as things change. As we have all seen, the last year alone has accelerated change by a great deal, especially in terms of digital adoption and ways of working, so having an adaptive cognitive approach can help companies not only survive, but thrive during this period of rapid change.
Do you think hybrid will turn out to be partly or mostly hype? After all the investment organizations are putting into it, which aspects of this working model might be most likely to last, and which ones might evolve or simply end up falling by the wayside?
Given the widely-differing needs of organizations across industries, it is difficult to say with absolute certainty whether hybrid working will become a permanent feature in society, but we are definitely seeing an uptick in longer-term adoption rates for specific sectors such as tech—especially with major companies like Google and Twitter leading the way forward.
One thing that I think will evolve with time is the mindset that the office is primarily a place for focus-based work.
As people continue to prove that productivity can be maintained or even improved while working from home, the office will eventually have a redefined purpose - to support collaboration and social interactions among employees.
Alongside this change, I believe we will also continue to see digitalization taking a front seat as businesses grow to meet evolving employee needs. After all, according to data by McKinsey, COVID-19 had already catapulted us five years forward in consumer and business digital adoption in a matter of just eight weeks, so I expect this to continue on its upward trajectory.