Embracing hybrid workstyles: Successful companies will recognise that ‘one size fits all’ no longer works

Before the pandemic, Americans spent 5% of working time at home. By spring 2020 the figure was 60%. Today, the average employee wants to work from home nearly half the time. Successful companies will adapt to this as an opportunity, not resist it as a threat.

A year ago, I wrote a blog arguing that, ‘the genie was out of the bottle’ and that things would never go back to normal once the world had overcome the worst impacts of the pandemic. While many parts of the world are still dealing with the COVID-19 crisis, there is growing evidence to suggest that my crystal ball was in decent working order.

The Economist reports that data for New Zealand, which has already returned to something like normal, shows that in the three months to December 2020, 27% of people in employment worked at home for some of the week – a ‘big increase’ over previous levels. Elsewhere, Salesforce has already announced that the ‘9-to-5 workday is dead’ and that employees can ‘work from anywhere’. In the Netherlands, Rabobank expects employees to work from home 40-50 percent of the time, while UK building society Nationwide is making permanent the teleworking facilities it introduced during the pandemic.

For a variety of reasons, some of which are discussed below, many people – particularly those with school-age children – have struggled with lockdown and are eagerly anticipating their return to the office. However, it is becoming clear that the change forced upon us by the lockdown is a watershed, not a blip.

A digital dividend

A big part of the motivation for supporting a hybrid work culture is financial. Research from McKinsey found that the COVID-19 crisis has ‘accelerated the digitization of their customer and supply-chain interactions and of their internal operations by three to four years’. These massive investments were made in the face of the worst global recession in 300 years – and that money needs to be recouped from somewhere.

These new, virtualized workplaces mean that fewer people need come to the office and can do so less frequently, so there are huge savings to be made by consolidating office space. In the middle of last year, Gartner reported that real estate budgets had already been cut by 7 per cent on average, with plans for an additional 8 per cent reduction over the course of the rest of the year; and that real estate was also the most targeted expense in 2021, with a 3.4 per cent reduction versus original budget plans.

Essentially, companies need a ‘digital dividend’ – an ongoing return on these huge IT infrastructure investments – and ‘sweating’ these expensively acquired new digital assets is certainly one way of doing that. (On a separate but related note, marketing is another area where organisations are looking to make savings after investing heavily in customer self-service capabilities: according to Forbes, CMOs can expect to start 2022 with 30% less marketing spend than they had at the end of 2019. So, if you work for a marketing services agency, you had better be able to help your clients do more with less!)

Connective or creative

For those of us able to enjoy this hybrid work culture, the extent to which we will want to take advantage of home working opportunities will increasingly be determined by the nature of the work we do, rather than by a corporate mandate to turn up to the office.

A few years ago, I wrote a White Paper that outlined two different work modes: creative and connective. Most value-creating employees – particularly knowledge workers – spend at least some of their time in each of these modes.

The creative mode is immersive Deep Work that can be described as “the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task” and as a “skill that allows people to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time. Creative work requires strong focus and is best carried out in whatever environment (usually not an open-plan office) that is most conducive to concentration.

Connective work is the corollary of creative work. If creative outputs are to have value, they need to be shared. Colleagues may need to provide input; calls may have to be convened to debate how best to move forward; these outputs may need to be shared internally or presented to clients before they are taken to market. In a hyper-connected workplace with multiple stakeholders in different offices – or even different time zones – these activities may be complex and time-consuming. Most people find that these connective behaviours are very suited to the highly networked environment of the typical office.

Both creative and connective work are necessary for a business to be productive. Focus too much on the creative and those great ideas will never be realised as marketable goods or services. Focus too much on the connective and you won’t produce enough ideas in the first place. It is important to find the balance between the two and to enable both to flourish.

The point is that this is not apples and apples. Creative and connective work are two very different modes of working, making very different demands upon those carrying them out – and best conducted in very different environments.

So, what does the new normal mean for you?

At the time I wrote the White Paper, working from home was a rarity and I tried to build the case for allowing people to do so. Today, after what has been a global, year-long experiment in workforce virtualization, that penny has finally dropped.

Homeworkers are broadly happier; while employers have found that their remote workforce are more productive and work longer hours than purely office-based workers. (I, for one, am happy to trade two hours commuting to and from the office for a little extra time at my desk).  So, with lockdown restrictions starting to lift in the UK (YMMV!), now is the time for each of us to assess the workstyles that work best for us.

On a personal level, the bulk of my core work – writing copy, developing messages – is in creative mode, and I have done this from home for all my professional life. So, I’ve never regarded the office – with its noise and distractions – as a place of work: if I need to ’get work done’, I do it at home. I therefore try to ensure that all connective tasks – calls, meetings, brainstorms, presentations – are scheduled for my office-based days so that the decks are clear to do that creative work from home in the other parts of the week.

So, my ideal hybrid workstyle would see me going to the office one day a week to catch up with the members of my team, introduce myself to new colleagues and take meetings with clients, but would largely continue to be home-based. However, one size does not fit all.

My account team colleagues whose roles are more connective and demand a higher degree of collaboration may feel that the bulk of their time is best spent in the close proximity to their teammates that the office provides. Equally, our Studio team (particularly our video services unit) – who are reliant on much larger and more cumbersome equipment than a laptop to do their jobs and are therefore inherently less itinerant that the rest of us – will have to come down firmly on one side of the fence over the other.  

How are you? No, really.

Those of us able to have worked virtually over the course of the various lockdowns must consider ourselves to be lucky indeed. Not only have we been able to retain our jobs at a time of rising unemployment, but we have done so in the safety of our own homes – and without the attendant health risks of using public transport or working in frontline health, transport and retail occupations. (We, of course, give our ongoing thanks to those who have faced up to the risks – and all too often suffered the consequences – of serving us all.)

However, even our somewhat gilded existence comes with its own risks. A colleague I had always considered to be highly committed and motivated recently revealed that she had, ‘completely lost her mojo’, under lockdown and had stopped caring about her work as much as she used to. That feeling quickly passed but it underlined the fact that excessive isolation can play tricks with the best of us.

She was not alone in suffering from such issues. In the UK, a study by the Institute for Employment Studies found that, ‘the new homeworking workforce… faces significant physical and mental wellbeing challenges’. A different survey found that almost half (46%) of UK workers have experienced loneliness during lockdown. This disproportionately affected women (50%) and younger workers – three quarters (74%) of whom said they have felt lonely during the UK lockdown.

The female colleague I referred to should be commended for feeling able to speak out about these issues. Most of us (and I include myself in this number) suffer in silence. Just 1 in 10 opened up to their colleagues about their feelings of loneliness, and even fewer (9%) did so to their manager – worrying figures, given the direct impact of our mental health and our productivity and enjoyment of work.

Lockdown is, admittedly, an extreme form of isolation, but enforced absence from colleagues is something that all of us find hard to deal with to some degree. So, as we contemplate a return to the physical workplace, the need for face-to-face contact will be the other determinant of the extent to which we choose to work remotely.

Many of us – particularly those working largely in creative mode – will choose to go to the office, not because it is a place of work (we can do that from home) but because it offers the opportunity of play. The office gives us access to the ‘water-cooler’ moments that have largely been denied to us over the past year – the chance to chat with colleagues, engage in office banter and have random conversations about television programs or sports events with people that are not part of our immediate household.

Re-engineering the office

For all the above reasons, the idea that most employees at most companies will retain their virtualised status is a nonsense. As the Economist concluded, ‘“Remote-only” companies will remain a small minority’. But the office must be re-imagined as a connective space with a higher focus on collaboration.

The financial need for office consolidation (compounded by the need to retain some form of social distancing) will result in significantly reduced office capacity. Different teams will visit the office on a rota basis. Very few people (other than the Studio teams I described above and their ilk) will have permanently assigned workspaces. Hot-desking will become the norm. A much larger proportion of office space will be given over to meeting rooms. Large-scale meeting spaces – which are rarely used – will simply be hired as required.    

I can also foresee the rise of satellite offices for staff that live in reasonable proximity to each other – but some distance from the main HQ. These would be small offices providing easy commutes to those using them, with staff going up to the main office only as required (or managers coming to visit them if that makes more sense).

The social dimensions of going to the office will assume a hitherto unseen importance.  A study by Microsoft found that homeworking employees are more likely to contact current team members but less likely to get in touch with new ones. So, effectively utilizing the social dimensions of office life will be essential for the integration of new employees as well as the overall wellbeing of their colleagues.

Being in the office will become more of an event. Employees will take greater delight in simply interacting with their colleagues. And employers will utilize the fact that employees are together as an opportunity to build cohesion. Team building exercises and group ‘evenings out’ will not be restricted to leaving dos and Christmas parties but will be woven into the fabric of the ‘office experience’. Organizing such events, normally a ‘blue-moon’ responsibility of the office manager or the HR person, may become a full-time job.

Not just a nice to have

At Just Global, we are in the serendipitous position of being able to approach our post-lockdown workstyles with something of a clean slate. Our two largest offices are in the San Francisco Bay Area in the USA and in the UK’s Thames Valley corridor – the lease for the former expired as lockdown began, and the latter is being demolished as part of a large-scale building project. We are therefore looking for new premises to house the majority of our workforce – and we can incorporate the thinking described above – along with the legislative requirements of the various states and countries in which we have offices – into our plans.

As lockdown restrictions lift and something like normal service is resumed, not everyone will have this degree of flexibility: many companies will be tied to leases that they cannot imminently walk away from, so they must ‘make do with and mend’ their existing premises. But, even in these cases, those with the influence and responsibility for shaping their office space should give proper thought to how it will be used – and how many people will be using it. Because the decisions made over the coming months will have a huge bearing on the success of the organisation over the next few years.

Where and how we work will increasingly be a choice based on individual circumstances, psychologies and preferences – and people should be supported and enabled in making that choice. This is not simply be a matter of being nice to employees: the talent all companies aspire to hire will cleave to companies that allow them to work in the way that suits them– and leave companies that do not.

So, retention and recruitment of high-calibre staff – a key component of competitive advantage for most companies – will increasingly be dependent upon the workstyle choices provided to their employees. This is therefore a strategic consideration; and while IT, HR and the CFO office have plenty of skin in this game, the choice of workstyles available to staff is something that will deserve attention at the highest levels of any organization.

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