As vaccinations change the prospects for returning to the workplace for in-person work, two key, truly generational opportunities present themselves:
- Leaders have the chance to reinvent operating models with a hybrid mix of on-site and remote workers and a mix of core hours and flex hours.
- Employees have the chance to reinvent their careers in an environment that has never been more friendly to work-from-home (WFH).
These opportunities have the potential to create a truly empowered workforce. But they also have the potential to create deep tension between stakeholders when it comes time to establish the “new normal.”
And just what is this “new normal” that people talk about anyway? Therein lies the critical challenge facing businesses today—how are you going to change to meet this unprecedented moment? And what will that mean to your current workforce?
Organizing a hybrid workforce is about more than just where employees work.
At first, the challenge looks easy. Let those who want to return to work and let those who prefer WFH stay home and figure it out from there. But it’s not that easy. Because the one known variable in this equation is that the workforce will be more hybrid moving forward, with some employees working from the office, some working from home, and some splitting their time between the two workplaces. And any business that wants to retain their workforce and thrive will establish strategy around that—optimizing roles and communication and collaboration to create a new business model that performs even better than the one that got so rudely interrupted by COVID.
What seems to be a simple decision is actually quite complex, and it has the power to reshape your business, its dealings, and its operating model to the core. And it is not going to be fixed on the day everyone “returns to normal work.” That day, frankly, will never come anyway. Here are just a few of the complex and large-scale decisions we believe need to be addressed as we move forward:
Organization design. Perhaps the most crucial aspect of transitioning to a hybrid workforce and post-pandemic operating model is redefining who does what and from where. Which job roles are best suited to in-person and which are enhanced by a WFH/hybrid model? Does your company’s overall strategy have to be redefined to support a hybrid workforce? How do you calibrate a hybrid workforce to best serve your mission and your clients? And how do you then manage workflow between all the different job roles to work as a cohesive and agile whole?
Leadership. Leaders can’t lead a hybrid workforce the same way they lead an in-person one, nor can they do it the same way as managing a pandemic workforce. So, leaders need to be retrained to support hybrid teams and enable performance. Leaders and managers are figuring it out themselves while showing others how. That is a very complex role that many leaders are not prepared for. And if they lumber back into the office thinking they have all the answers, they will fail. Nobody has the answers yet, so leaders need to be open to experimentation and being responsive to dynamics as they arise. It is critical for organizations to invest in upskilling leaders so they are better able to address these challenges.
Culture shift. How does a hybrid model impact the perception of employability and promotability in the organization? How do you create cohesive hybrid teams? How do incidental conversations take place when there are no hallways to walk, offices to pass or watercoolers to visit? And how do you address resistance to change, both among your employees and among your clients? With a new normal in the workplace, organizations must also consider that their culture is changing and be deliberate about that change.
Performance. Some will thrive in a virtual or hybrid environment. Some won’t. Some are already deep into fatigue from the current virtual state. In fact, 40% of hybrid or remote employees1 have reported an increase in the length of their workday in the last 12 months. In addition, our definitions of the workday are changing. Starting the day sooner, taking more breaks, working longer to get work done comfortably. Where this was initially considered a positive, it’s shifting and resulting in fatigue. How can you shift your operating model and culture to make hybrid and WFH a more sustainable option?
Learning. Prior to COVID, learning trends were moving toward more digital delivery. During COVID, digital delivery was the only option. Consider how you will restructure your learning strategies to address a more distributed and hybrid workforce and how you might accommodate those who respond best to in-person learning.
Timing. While leaders are anxious to get back to in-person work and figure out their hybrid strategy, workers aren’t quite there yet. Moreover, employees are much more amenable to hybrid work structures than leaders are. There needs to be a deliberate accommodation of leaders’ desire to return and employees’ desire to remain virtual.
Retention. Recent surveys indicate that 26% of US workers are already preparing to look for new employment opportunities2 and 40% of workers globally are considering a move. Without a hybrid and future-looking strategy in place, how do you plan to attract and retain the best talent? What is your plan if returning to the workplace means you lose trusted employees and their institutional knowledge?
Technology. In March 2020, you scrambled to ensure employees had the laptops, devices, ring lights, and access to collaboration tools they needed. But as hybrid becomes more common and new technologies emerge to improve the virtual environment, how will you adjust? What kinds of technologies would make your workplace transition easier? And how has all this changed the course of our digital transformations?
Safety. COVID is, of course, a huge safety concern. But experts predict it won’t be our last pandemic. And the fact is, in an increasingly unstable world, anything could happen. After 9/11, GP Strategies helped countless organizations secure their physical and electronic infrastructure, create continuity of business plans, and prepare for any eventuality. What did that teach us about preparedness? What did COVID teach us about being agile? How will we handle workplace threats in the future? And how can we take those lessons and apply them to the future and our contingency plans?
Building a successful new strategy will take time.
As a consultancy where much of our work happens in clients’ offices, GP Strategies has lived the kind of change many companies are only just now facing. We have supported a hybrid and distributed workforce for over a decade. Based on job role, some employees have worked from home for years, only traveling to the office once a week or so for meetings. Others split their time between client offices and GP Strategies offices around the world. And some were here in our offices in Columbia, MD every day of the week prior to COVID.
One thing we can say for sure is this—it will take some time to build a new workplace strategy into a success. Even with our established experience in this, we have a lot of retooling to do after COVID. It’s not a matter of adjusting to the current climate. It’s about building a strategy for the future that can quickly and easily pivot to greet the unexpected, empower employees to work the way they work best, and rethink work for an era that today’s technology is capable of supporting.
The hybrid workforce is a natural stage in the evolution of the modern workplace. It’s time to start rethinking business. And if you need expert advice from a veteran in the world of hybrid work, GP Strategies is here to help.
1 2021, Gartner Webinars, “The 3 hybrid work challenges driving employee fatigue.”
2 July 9, 2021, McKinsey article “It’s time for leaders to get real about hybrid.”