Is the future of work hybrid?

We expect most businesses will support hybrid work – part remote, part in place models post-pandemic. Think tank Demos polled 20,000 UK citizens and found that 79% of people who were required to work from home want to continue doing so, while the Confederation of British Industry reported that three-quarters of companies expect flexible working to remain commonplace. “The rewards are clear; engaged and energized workforces contributing to rising productivity growth,” the CBI said.

“With a human-centric focus, companies need to rethink how they shape work patterns, while new ways of working will need to be adapted and reinvented to meet employee preferences,” writes the WeForum.

Many enterprises, including Ford, Microsoft, Citigroup and KPMG, say they will now adopt hybrid work models. Even U.S. retailer Target will let headquarters staff become remote, though Goldman Sachs boss David Solomon calls remote working an “aberration.” Unique hybrid work environments will coalesce around unique business needs. PwC staff will start and finish work when they like and work remotely if they choose because over half of its employees wanted to work remotely.

A place for space

Offices still have an important role to play in the future of work. JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon believes that in-person presence fosters skill development and company cohesion. Apple has always maintained a highly collaborative, presence-based business and seems likely to continue to do so, albeit with more remote support.

“Innovation isn’t always a planned activity,” said Apple CEO Tim Cook. “It’s bumping into each other over the course of the day and advancing an idea that you just had. And you really need to be together to do that.”

While each business must make its own decisions, Gartner believes support for remote working usually improves organizational culture and employee engagement.

Work is a social as well as an economic act. Workplaces will become social hubs designed to provide comfort, social interaction, collaboration and innovation.

This will change the architecture of cities. Demand for office space will decline, while services currently gathered near commercial districts will migrate to neighborhoods in which remote workers spend the majority of their time. In New York, a Partnership of New York study found that just 45% of employees will return to the office.

As offices become optional, what they provide will change. Offices will become resource centers, fully-equipped networking and collaboration hubs providing what employees need to do their best work, for instance, hybrid videoconferencing rooms to support present and remote team meetings.

Liquid workforces for urban transformation

“Work will not be somewhere you go, but something you do,” says the World Economic Forum, which predicts workplaces will be characterized by “a dispersed, digitally enabled, liquid workforce.”

Sridhar Iyengar, Managing Director, Zoho Europe & UK, believes employees will move to rural areas to work remotely, abandoning expensive, crowded cities. While bad for office rental businesses and high-street retail, this transition will deliver significant economic benefits to rural areas.

When work happens everywhere, you can expect a boom in satellite offices, co-working spaces and use of existing public facilities such as parks and libraries for work, says a WeWork/Workplace study.

Reducing the commute means those who do travel will experience less congested journeys, even if partially offset by an increase in car traffic as commuters avoid public transport.

Managing flexible workforces

Cloud-based infrastructure and use of managed mobile and video communication systems will encourage enterprises to scale up and scale down project teams swiftly. Tech challenges around endpoint security and employee security awareness emerged during the pandemic. IDC expects security spending will climb 20% in 2021 in consequence.

Silo-based management structures inhibit digital transformation. These fail to exploit the data sharing opportunities of digital and tend to nurture micro-management and invasive monitoring of homeworkers, which can be retrogressive.

Anita Keller, an assistant professor at the University of Groningen, Netherlands, warns: “When leaders start to monitor, employees are less motivated and feel less responsible for their work.” Keller argues that to unlock productive potential, teams must feel trusted, and management must ensure they are heard and supported when they become stressed or burned out.

Managers will nurture their own soft skills, such as communication and empathy, to build such high-trust, high-productivity working environments. Goal-based project management skills and the ability to curate distributed teams will be critical. “Successful transitions into new working patterns can only be shored up by a motivated workforce,” wrote Jane Parry and Michalis Veliziotis, Lecturer and Professor of Human Resource Management at the University of Southampton. Perhaps in recognition of this, Lockheed Martin recently put its managers through 20 hours of training to manage the new hybrid workforce.

Making remote work human

The pandemic has impacted the most marginalized populations. The UK Office of National Statistics claims women have experienced disproportionate problems. Young people working from home may lack privacy or suitable workspaces, experience anxiety around career progression and crave social connection. Many lack high-quality broadband. Workplaces with a culture of long working hours often translate into longer hours at home, threatening burnout and isolation.

Human resource departments recognize their duty of care to support employees at home. That means mental and physical health support, equipment provision, subsidized broadband and attempts to foster digital connectivity. Moving forward, hybrid working will be supported by high-quality team-building experiences, frequent contact and a focus on what workers need, to deliver optimal productivity and work/life balance.

PwC People & Organization Analyst, Bhushan Sethi describes this as a leadership challenge, telling the BBC: “Leaders need to make people feel included, make sure their ideas are heard and empathize when they’re stressed, anxious or burned out.”

Orange Business can support your employees to succeed in a hybrid work environment.

Jan Howells

Jan has been writing about technology for over 22 years for magazines and web sites, including ComputerActive, IQ magazine and Signum. She has been a business correspondent on ComputerWorld in Sydney and covered the channel for Ziff-Davis in New York.