Remember when employers thought the pandemic-accelerated work-from-home (WFH) phenomenon would leave their once bright and lively office buildings forever dark and empty? Well, it seems the demise of the office worker has been greatly exaggerated. Almost two-thirds (63 per cent) of Canadians in a recent KPMG survey say they want to return to their physical workplace. At the same time, the number of people satisfied with their current virtual WFH environment has dropped from 76 per cent to 66 per cent.
That's not to say working from home is winding down. Half of the survey's respondents (51 per cent) still feel more productive in a virtual work environment, and 71 per cent believe a hybrid workplace should be the new standard.
I'm with that latter group.
Remote work is here to stay, but it would be unwise to believe the office is permanently closed. I believe the future does indeed belong to hybrid workforces, whose employees will have more flexibility to stay at home or come into the office as required. It's uncharted territory for many, and organizations that want to remain competitive can't delay establishing the strategies, policies and skills necessary to maximize success.
Laying the groundwork for hybrid workplaces
Becoming a hybrid workplace is a choice. The ability to adopt hybrid models varies from one industry and function to the next. Teams that deal in information, for example, are more likely to adopt a hybrid model than those dependent on physical spaces and interactions. But all industries will likely take a serious look at hybrid working, at least for their office-based teams.
For teams that can enable it, flexible arrangements should help with talent attraction and retention, given that employees across all demographics are showing a preference for arrangements that include some degree of remote work.
Ready to face the future? I recommend starting with the following fundamentals.
Define your goals: Why are you embracing a hybrid model? Is it to create a better employee experience? Attract talent? Reduce your office space and save money? All of the above? Setting clear goals and expectations for your hybrid model will make it easier to make decisions about how it will work. For example, office space reduction may require prescriptive rules about when employees may work in the office.
Set expectations and boundaries: Policies and protocols should be established, if they don't yet exist, to give employees clear directions about remote work. These can include eligibility to work remotely, permissible locations, the hours they're expected to work, how they should be interacting with their managers, whether or when they're expected to come into the office, and other principles. Policies should also define whether and how WFH employees will be reimbursed for home office expenses. Setting clear expectations early will avoid confusion and conflict later.
Stay flexible: Employees will have different reasons for working from home. Some may be concerned about potentially lingering health concerns. Others may have personal circumstances that make working from home more appealing or effective. Surveying employees for their needs and preferences and applying an inclusion and diversity lens to policy decisions will help you anticipate a variety of circumstances.
Level-up capabilities in leadership and management: 81 per cent of KPMG survey participants want managers to be better trained to oversee hybrid workforces. Regarding leadership, this includes creating motivation, belonging and cohesion in a team that is physically dispersed. Regarding management, it includes making use of communication skills and technology to facilitate assignment and scheduling of work, team discussions, progress tracking and sharing of feedback.
It will be especially critical to avoid forming biases against those who choose to work from home, especially when you've given them the option. Nearly half (49 per cent) of survey respondents believe continuing to work from home could lead to discrimination or being overlooked for advancement. Just because they're not physically in your office doesn't mean they're any less valuable to your organization. Organizations can take a fresh look at how they make promotion and reward decisions—and create guardrails to mitigate bias.
Equip yourself: Technology offers ways to address the challenges that are created when some team members are on site and some are not. I expect videoconferencing will continue to be required for all meetings—participants in the office will bring their laptops into the meeting room and join online so that those working remotely can see everyone clearly. This may require upgrades to meeting room technology. Digital whiteboards can facilitate live brainstorming. Team scheduling and workflow software will help dispersed teams stay on track. And desk booking platforms (a.k.a. "hotelling") will allow remote employees to reserve a physical office space when they need to come in. Take stock of your tech and capabilities, and begin filling the gaps now.
Promote safe workplaces: Two out of five remote workers say they are still fearful of returning to the office. Mostly, they are concerned about being exposed to COVID-19, particularly in hotspots or in offices where colleagues haven't been vaccinated. Employers can ease these fears by taking a comprehensive, people-centric approach to reopening, including enhancing their office cleaning and hygiene programs, embedding rigorous health and safety protocols, and communicating these ongoing efforts clearly and consistently.
Mind your regulatory responsibilities: Operating a hybrid model may expose companies to situations they hadn't previously considered. For example, what if an employee based in Quebec decides to work near relatives in New Brunswick? What about an employee in Manitoba who wants to work from their cottage in Ontario over the summer? Hybrid teams with people working out-of-province or out-of-country can mean multiple tax and immigration considerations that would benefit from the counsel of tax and legal specialists.
Hybrid workplaces won't be a fit for all organizations; for some, they won't even be possible. But for those intent on giving it a go, the journey begins when executive leadership comes together to agree on principles to align employee needs with business needs through hybrid working. From there, the next steps are designing policies and regulatory frameworks to create the guard rails, and then supporting managers and staff with access to the right learning resources and tools.
Whatever your approach, remember that working models work best when employers and employees have considered each other's needs and co-create an atmosphere of engagement, equity and productivity.