Hybrid work demands a fundamental change in management practices. The debate continues to swing like an out-of-control rollercoaster between the merits of being present in the office and the flexibility of working remotely. Much of this misses the point, and the opportunity, to reinvent the workplace experience so that it equitably optimises the performance and productivity of everyone. It should not matter where or when you work, as long as you are performing as expected.
However, there is a real and growing gravitational pull back to the command-and-control model of management, both from leaders wedded to traditional practices and the extensive social conditioning workers have assumed is “normal”. Due to proximity bias, 70% of UK city workers believe that being physically present in the office will increase their likelihood of promotion. But the old normal is just not fit for purpose in the exponential age we all now live in.
The pandemic has been an early warning of what’s to come, and business practices need to adapt.
Many people have embraced remote working as a result of the pandemic. There has been a rise in “digital nomads” who are choosing to work from any location in the world with more and more countries actively inviting remote workers to their shores. Even more people have decided to “up sticks” and relocate out of dense urban areas, breaking the proximity bias, continuing to work without the regular office commute. All told, there are real benefits to working physically with others, while retaining the flexibility to focus on work remotely and individually. Which is why up to 83% of workers want to go hybrid.
Not everyone works in a role (or has a home environment) where that is an option, though, and there are other forces at work, particularly automation, that are radically changing the jobs landscape and the skills people require to stay relevant. No one is immune to this trend; it affects lawyers, influencers, even coders, requiring all of us to become much more comfortable with working alongside intelligent technology.
There is growing pressure to rapidly reskill workers over the next decade, with the World Economic Forum (WEF) predicting that over one billion people will need retraining by 2030. At the same time, the education system is struggling to prepare young people entering the workforce. Sadly, the very skills that will be in the greatest demand, such as advanced cognitive skills, are not being prioritised, leading to actual skills deserts.
It’s clear that the talent war is intensifying, with all industry sectors grappling with a wave of resignations as people re-evaluate how they work and who they work for.
However, the “great resignation” is the outcome of a long term underlying “great discontent” – the highest quit rate is among disengaged workers. Employee engagement is very closely linked to workplace productivity. Consequently, a lack of engagement is very costly, with lost productivity equal to 18% of annual salary and replacement costs of one-half to two times the employee’s annual salary when they leave. It’s simply good business to offer the best possible employee experience to retain and maintain high-performing people. This does not mean focusing on rewards, perks and quirky workplace environments. In fact, recent research points to focusing on the basics of good management practice and respectful communication has the most impact on engagement, resilience, commitment and performance.
This acknowledges the deep links that exist between learning, engagement and performance management practices on the motivation levels of people at work. Organisations that persist with separate teams and siloes to deliver these support services undermine their own efforts. An integrated, aligned HR function that considers the actual everyday, individual experience they serve up to each employee, is better equipped to manage the transition to a balanced, hybrid work culture.
This also requires a reassessment of the technology infrastructure that people use to learn, communicate and collaborate on a daily basis. An integrated platform can unify and personalise the experience as part of their normal workflow. It also ensures the HR function operates congruently and can address skills gaps, proactively support career development and internal mobility, or scale access to new ideas and solutions to problems right across the business. HR moves from a tolerated support function to a strategic driver of business success.
We are now at an inflection point.
The binary choice of remote working versus bouncing back into the office is the wrong debate. Instead, we should see flexibility and adaptability as core characteristics of a successful organisation operating in a world of exponential change. Hybrid work embodies this when supported by the right technology and cultural practice.
As Lynda Gratton, LBS Professor, says, “We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to redesign work – and we must ensure our work remains meaningful and human, whilst putting productivity first.” As business leaders, it’s up to us to build the infrastructure and cultural practices that will take us there.