From once a luxury, COVID-19 made work-from-home a necessity in 2020. Most organisations in India had not experimented with work-from-home until then. Naturally, concerns were high around overall effectiveness, logistics management, employee productivity, and information security. Since there wasn’t much of a choice, India Inc went with the flow, and surprisingly, after the initial hiccups, things started falling into place. Employees responded to the challenge by navigating personal circumstances and getting the job done. This led to a few realisations: 1) Employees were working hard even when no one was watching; 2) Most business travel was somewhat pointless; 3) Teams could collaborate virtually just as well, given the right tools in a trust-driven culture. Most pundits announced the death of the traditional “work-from-office” model soon after and some organisations even downsized their real-estate leases.
But headlines these days hum a different tune; more and more organisations are talking about returning to office. So, what really changed? As vaccinations picked up around the globe, COVID-19 cases started to dip, recoveries improved, the economy rebounded, malls breathed life again, hiring picked up, and attrition sky-rocketed. Deeper concerns of a primarily remote working model also came to light. The benefits of saving traffic-time got overshadowed by employee burnout and virtual fatigue. There was a growing sense of isolation and anxiousness; people issues became more apparent followed by a dip in employee well-being. Mental health concerns became an even bigger action point—for employees and world-class athletes alike. Something had to change and considering the “great resignation” that we’re in, organisations are starting to bring employees back to office.
Having seen employees go through the challenges of adjusting to a fully remote work arrangement and making it work, it was difficult for organisations to now claim that they would go back completely to a work-from-office model. Moreover, with COVID-19 and its lingering threat, companies chose not to go back to an only-office model, keeping social distancing norms in mind. Hence, a hybrid model (combining both work from office and home) emerged as the obvious alternative. According to Deloitte India’s Workforce and Increment Trends Survey 2021, 90% organisations have either adopted or are likely to opt for a hybrid model. This is where the clarity ends as firms struggle to define “their hybrid”. There are a few variants of this model: 1) A remote-first model, where working from office premises is the exception; 2) An office-first model, where work from home is an exception; 3) A mix of days in office and at home; 4) “No-model” where managers/employees decide what works for them; and finally 5) A model where certain roles are earmarked for only work-from-office, only remote work, and a combination of the two. A motley of too many choices!
The biggest risk with the hybrid model is if it is not implemented in its true spirit, it could lead to an undesirable work environment with loss of collaboration and culture dilution. There are other unanswered questions as well. Which type of hybrid model is right for what type of company? Does one company require multiple hybrid models depending on the number of employee personas? How many days should employees go to the office? Can they go whenever they want? Do all employees go to the office the same number of days and on the same days? Can they only go for a few hours a day to get critical in-person meetings done? Do they need to seek permission to work from home? Does each employee still have their own desk? There is no clear consensus here.
That said, there are a few easy wins when crafting your workplace strategy. Begin with asking your employees what they want instead of assuming. Our study found that only 25% of organisations have actually conducted an employee preference survey. The chosen strategy would be better accepted if it’s bottom-up rather than top-down. Second, own your hybrid—it's best to proclaim your preference, whether for an office-first model or otherwise. Avoid claims to provide flexibility to employees (as it’s a nicer thing to say) when your leaders might have an inherent preference towards work-from-office. Third, help leaders overcome their cognitive biases via training and coaching. Firms must also inculcate a culture of care and encourage regular personal attention by leaders. Most importantly, leaders must enforce clear guidelines on work limits and share lessons on time management and conducting effective meetings. Wellness and mental health awareness sessions will not amount to much if employees do not have the time to attend them.
Ultimately, a successful hybrid model will be based on the principles of flexibility and freedom of choice. A client asked us recently, “Why are bars full and offices empty in Indiranagar?” A lesson here on revealed preference.