Businesses should refresh both how compliance training is provided and the syllabus itself....
It has been nearly two years since the first wave of COVID-19 forced organizations worldwide to rethink working practices and shift rapidly to homeworking. Yet as Omicron fears halt the reopening of offices, even among firms that make a virtue of in-person interactions, there is a lively debate over the future of the workplace.
Many leaders remain resistant to remote work for reasons ranging from lack of trust that employees will be productive to the risk of deteriorating culture. For example, last summer, several major financial institutions, including Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan, asked most workers to return to the office, reflecting legitimate concerns that working from home could limit opportunities for spontaneous learning and creativity.
But forcing everyone to come back to the office full-time is neither desirable nor smart. At a time when employees are leaving their jobs in record numbers, clever employers will recognize the need to offer flexible work options to retain key staff. Many employees are indeed rethinking their priorities after COVID and want a better work-life balance.
The result is a growing tension between employee needs and business imperatives. This is particularly the case for organizations focusing primarily on capturing efficiency gains by reducing office space. This approach is at odds with the growing realization that certain types of impact are limited in virtual environments. It’s increasingly evident that collaboration, innovation, acculturation and dedication are unlikely to be achieved or sustained virtually.
Forward-thinking organizations have worked out what aspects of work warrant in-person interactions (such as purposeful focus, interpersonal bonding, deep learning, unencumbered experimentation and structured serendipity) and how to make the most of these precious moments. So the right working model will blend the efficiency of remote work and the benefits of bringing people together. Success in doing so will satisfy employees’ desire for flexibility and an improved work-life balance while maximizing workforce productivity.
Yet, although most organizations see “hybrid” models as the inevitable compromise, there is still no consensus among leaders on the best way to make this work in practice — particularly when it comes to collaboration across a varied spectrum of hybrid models. Further considerations include: is it possible to create an inclusive culture when working from home? And, with burnout on the rise, how should workforce policies adapt to ensure that everyone feels supported?
Companies that mandate office returns risk an exodus of staff in a tighter labor market. But although employees want flexibility in where they work, this brings with it the risk of team fragmentation and incoherent and suboptimal cross-functional collaboration, as employees set their own schedules.
Organizations cannot allow employees to work anywhere and in any way; they need to issue clear guidance. Working patterns will ultimately be determined by a complex mixture of the role, the home environment, and the variation of work demands.
What is essential is unity and frequency of interaction. If physical work spaces become destinations for collaboration, innovation, dedication and acculturation, rather than individual work, then teams will need to synchronize schedules. If, for example, the policy is three days a week in the office, team members will need to be physically present on the same days. The degree of flexibility should be driven by the needs of teams and not individuals.
It will be impossible to coordinate or standardize workflow through centralized control. Why? Because teams vary widely in terms of the extent they need to collaborate and innovate. There is no “one best way”. Individual team leaders, therefore, need to be given the power to make these calls.
That said, organizations need to put guardrails in place to hedge against the risk of cultural disintegration — say a company-wide policy to work a minimum of 50% of the time in the office — but individual work groups must be given the flexibility to set their own terms and, when appropriate, get exemptions to allow some employees to spend more time working remotely.
In order to realize the benefits of this model, there must be high level of reciprocal trust between workers and senior management. One way is to ensure that policies are being applied equitably across work groups through monitoring and auditing.
“Organizations cannot allow employees to work anywhere and in any way; they need to issue clear guidance. Working patterns will ultimately be determined by a complex mixture of the role, the home environment, and the variation of work demands”
In the new normal, leaders must ensure that equity and inclusion are real priorities. This is not just a hypothetical concern; in one study, workers were randomly assigned to work mostly from home or mostly in the office. After two years, those in the at-home group had a 50% lesser incidence of promotion compared to those who worked primarily in-office. Another study found that home and office workers were promoted at the same rates, but remote workers experienced lower salary growth than their office counterparts.
This suggests that if employees are given the choice to work from home or the office, it is likely that, over time, there will be disparities in both representation in leadership ranks and compensation. Before the pandemic, workers who requested flexibility were routinely stigmatized, as their leaders were mainly in the office. Managers will need to track how working remotely correlates with promotion and pay increases and factor diversity and inclusion into their hybrid models.
If left to individual preferences, there is a high likelihood that the choice to work from home is a function of the employee’s demographics. Many working parents, for instance, have enjoyed the newfound flexibility to fit childcare around work commitments. And for some people with disabilities or chronic health conditions, the option to work remotely has been desired for years. Minority staff want to spend more time working remotely, freeing them from “microaggressions” and enabling them to be their authentic selves.
On the other hand, many younger employees find working from home isolating, and organizations often find it difficult to onboard new colleagues in a remote setting. This suggests that employers who want to build diverse and equitable workforces should be cautious about forcing people back to the office full-time. Leaders must also ensure that equal opportunities are upheld across demographic groups.
If office time is reserved for more teamwork, then the design of physical office space will have to change. In the past, some companies created “open-plan offices” to enable people to do their individual work, and meeting rooms for collaboration.
This model will likely be reversed to facilitate hybrid working, with more open spaces for collaboration and private rooms for individual work. Collaboration will demand flexible arrangements, whiteboards, and other collaboration tools as well as enhanced videoconferencing equipment, especially for “multi-modal” meetings, when some are at home and others in the office.
If hybrid work is the future, companies must establish the right workforce policies to ensure that everyone feels supported. Many remote workers struggle with fatigue under heavy workloads, find they cannot switch off at home, and face uncertainty over their job or performance.
While a perk for some people, remote work is a burden for many others. Two-thirds of employees have reported experiencing burnout symptoms while working remotely, with employees bound to endless Zoom calls and work emails.
More generally, the pandemic has underscored the need for good employee wellbeing policies. Some remote workers feel isolated and excluded, which can breed feelings of disconnection, erode engagement and corrode culture. Others have thrived away from the distractions of open-plan offices, politicking, and micromanagement.
In response to these developments, many companies have hosted talks from wellbeing experts, conducted group meditation and mindfulness sessions, and provided resilience coaching and virtual meetups. Managers must be trained to tune into the energy level of their teams, and respond to those needs to boost wellbeing levels in the workforce.
Managers also need to encourage employees to recharge and lead by example in doing so themselves. This might include taking entire days off, having meeting-free days, or facilitating regular breaks to encourage staff to leave their homes and exercise in the daylight.
Finding the best way of working will take a great deal of experimentation. The right answers will vary depending on the specific context of each business unit and function. Organizations should monitor the impact of their policies through regular employee surveys and assessments of workloads to understand whether the implemented hybrid model is delivering productivity, wellbeing, and inclusion.
Those leaders who succeed in establishing this sort of balanced and fair working pattern are likely to discover how beneficial an engaged, empowered, and fulfilled workforce can be as they emerge from the COVID crisis.
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