Sam O’Brien of RingCentral introduces us to hybrid working and discusses why your business may want to consider moving to a hybrid working model.
Over the last few decades, we have seen dramatic changes in how our working time is structured. From the traditional 5-day 9-to-5 schedules, how we work and even where we work have evolved to suit both employees’ and consumers’ modern demands.
Terms such as flexi-time, ad hoc working, career breaks, and family-friendly have become more commonly used. More and more workers are looking to find the perfect work-life balance, and employers seek ways to help them achieve that.
But it is perhaps in the last ten to twenty years that we have seen the most dramatic changes of all. And those changes have often run parallel to the explosion in e-commerce we have witnessed since the turn of the century.
With the rise of the e-commerce giants, Amazon in the West and Alibaba in the East, has come a need for a major paradigm shift in many aspects of how we live, work, and consume.
The dominance of giants like Amazon and eBay owes a lot to their survival of the dotcom collapse in 2000 that saw many smaller companies go bankrupt.
But the changes in how we work, or how we want to work, are not just due to the rise of e-commerce. There have been massive changes in the last 50 years in family structures, moving away from traditional gender roles and a huge change in the number of one-parent families.
This has meant that parents have had to structure their working patterns around familial demands such as school and childcare.
A more recent term that is coming to prominence quickly is the idea of hybrid working. This especially gained traction through 2020 as many companies were forced to adopt alternative practices with offices and other workplaces closed for long periods due to the COVID pandemic.
Many people now see hybrid working and hybrid teams as the future of work for a large percentage of the workforce.
An overwhelming majority (77% of UK workers) see hybrid working as the way forward. The need for social distancing if working in an office has caused many issues, and organisations have switched to fully remote working or to a hybrid model, accelerating trends that were already in evidence.
But what exactly is hybrid working? Will it suit employers to integrate this type of working practice into their systems? And what are the advantages and disadvantages of doing so?
What Is Hybrid Working?
Hybrid itself refers to something that is made up of two different elements. Hybrid working is a working structure that is composed of two types of working practices. Or in this case, two working locations: home and office.
However, the home may be replaced by another non-office-based location in many circumstances.
Hybrid working is very much a term that came into our vocabulary over the course of 2020. Most people know the saying “necessity is the mother of invention”, and this saying exists in various formats all the way back to Plato who said, “our need will be the real creator”.
And with several enforced lockdown periods over 2020 due to the global coronavirus pandemic, business leaders had to find an alternative way of remaining in operation. And the surprising thing is, at least for many employers, that this new way of working has proven most successful.
That is not to say it has been an easy process to implement. Technology has had to play a major role in hybrid working and companies – and employees – have had to adapt to this new concept.
But, by and large, it has worked for most, and now many people question whether there is a need to return to the traditional way of working.
In fact, in a recent survey by Xerox, many employers have said they are now looking at investing in new or updated technology so that hybrid working – in some form – will become a permanent policy.
This digital transformation, brought about mainly by necessity, will be a major milestone in how humans work in today’s society. And this new working environment will need new ways of thinking.
How to Build a Hybrid Workforce
While most of 2020’s hybrid working was due to necessity, it’s become apparent that many employers may choose to integrate some level of hybrid working into their long-term plans. And it is also certain that many employees have enjoyed this new way of doing things, having found that it gives them a more positive work–life balance.
But it would be fair to say that some of the hybrid structures that have been set up have been far from perfect. They have often been executed in haste and have not always worked as well as employers may have hoped.
Some of this has been due to various technology elements involved, and there have also been questions around security and compliance.
If we are going to look at hybrid working as something permanent, how do we best achieve it while maintaining work rate and efficiency? How do we go about building a hybrid workforce for the future?
1. Top-Down: Start With Your Management
Before you consider how to structure hybrid working for your employees, you should first look at how your management will fit within this new model. Where will they be based? It’s probably a good idea that they spend at least a good percentage of their time office-based where possible.
Think of your organisation as an army at war, with the ‘generals’ mainly based at headquarters while the ‘troops’ are at various locations in the field. That is not to say that management cannot have some time working remotely, but there should be a significant time in the office. There are also co-working options which may make management tasks easier.
Of course, the degree to which you can include remote management of your hybrid teams will depend very much on the nature of your business. And this also applies to the employees. While a manufacturing business may have some office and administration staff working remotely, it is impossible to do the same for the actual production line staff.
So, before looking at your entire workforce, decide on how your management team will be integrated into any new structure. Will you impose a certain amount of office-based time to allow for joint working on management tasks? Is presenteeism an issue in your organisation? And will hybrid working reduce it?
How are your company and your workforce structured? How many employees do you have in total? If you are going to move to hybrid working, you need to differentiate between those who can work remotely – whether full-time or part-time – and those who can only work in situ.
As mentioned previously, the best example of a split workforce would be in manufacturing.
Production-line staff are a good example of employees who will not move to hybrid working. The same can be said of other working roles such as delivery drivers or order pickers in e-commerce giants such as Amazon.
Analyse and categorise your employees and teams according to who will work remotely and those who won’t. As well as the practical angles, there is also the question of security and compliance. If staff are handling or accessing sensitive data, it may not be practical for them to work remotely without major investment. And it may break compliance rules if they do.
Once you have identified those workers who can fit into a hybrid model, you can then look at the practicalities and needs of implementing a new structure.
The next consideration is an essential one: technology. How much technology will figure in your hybrid work model is again going to depend on your business’s nature. Will you need to look at purchasing new technology to allow remote working? Will that be hardware or software-based? And how do you ensure data security for staff working from home?
Most of the technology you may need is readily available already. And it is mostly software-based. You will need good video conferencing or calling software as one of your main priorities. With fewer office-based meetings, you need a way for the team members to meet virtually when needed.
And as well as team meetings, that also extends to one-to-one calls. Any software you use should have the ability to share or transfer files and other media securely. Your communication software must allow for contact between employees and customers, channel partners, suppliers, and more.
It may be the case that you also have to invest in hardware for any employees working remotely. They may not want to use personal computers or laptops for work-based activities, and you may want a standalone device that can travel with them from home to office, and to any other locations, they have to attend.
Your IT department will play a major role in this part of setting up a hybrid workforce. They will need some level of access to remote devices to manage installations and have some oversight in case of problems. Any software being used must be common to all members of your workforce.
4. Tasks and Productivity
It’s important to remember that homeworking may not have that same ‘work environment’ feel. There may be less structure to a remote worker’s day, which could potentially affect their productivity levels.
If you are managing a remote team, ensure that there is a good level of task allocation. This can include specific tasks, groups of tasks, or a certain volume of work. Deadlines can be crucial to maintaining productivity for all staff working from home.
With task allocation, you also have to be certain that new work and tasks are distributed evenly. If a manager is office-based, it could easily be the case that they allocate a new task or piece of work to someone who is also office-based on that day (or permanently). It would appear easier to cross the office and discuss than to video call the staff. Avoid this at all costs.
Favouritism is another negative workplace behaviour that occurs when workers are office-based, and it can extend to when workers are remote. In fact, it may be harder to spot this negative behaviour when working remotely as you are not there to witness it. It is imperative that you avoid this, and initiating new oversight procedures may help prevent it.
5. Work, Rest, and Play
One of the great attractions of remote working is that it allows you to put a different time structure in place, while still fulfilling your job requirements and working a certain number of hours.
But it is also important that you have a coherent structure that your staff, at least partly, adheres to. It may be the case that you need them online and available during certain periods of the day, and certainly at times when any video conference meetings are scheduled.
If possible, include physical team-building meetings to ensure that a sense of team is continually fostered. If physical meetups are not possible for whatever reason, then look at ways of conducting virtual team building that is fun and fosters a good team spirit.
Benefits of Hybrid Working
If you are contemplating making a move to some form of hybrid working, then one of the first things you will do is make a list of what benefits are achievable. But you must look at this from both perspectives – that of the employer and the employee.
We also need to recognise that the remote working thrust on us in 2020 is not a pattern that people necessarily want to see extended. Recent research shows that around 85% of the workforce wants to return to office-based work. Many of them miss the social aspect of working in a team, but would still like the benefits that remote work offers, which brings us nicely to the benefits of a combined, hybrid working approach.
1. Increased Productivity
While productivity could be a possible drawback, there is also the potential for hybrid working to increase your staff’s productivity levels. If you structure and streamline your system well, and ensure that the right technology and oversight are included, productivity can increase.
By allowing your staff to reach a better work–life balance, you are helping increase their levels of happiness and job satisfaction. If they are happier, they may work harder, be more productive, and be more loyal. All of this can benefit both their physical and mental health.
2. Decreased Costs
If your business adopts hybrid working as a long-term strategy, you can expect to see a decrease in some costs. Although there may be an initial spike in capital expenditure due to investment in new technology – hardware, software, etc. – you can look at downsizing your office space and see a decrease in such factors as utility bills.
As with other aspects, this may depend on the size and nature of your business. But if you are a 100% office-based company who can adopt hybrid working, these savings can be genuine.
For example, let’s say that you employ 350 staff in an office building in London (and acknowledging here that London office space is among the most expensive in the world). That workspace is perhaps costing you around £80,000 per month to lease. If you shift to a hybrid model where only one-third of your staff are in the office at one time, you could reduce that rent to around £27,000 per month.
And, of course, there are decreased costs for employees, too. The benefits of not commuting to the workplace every day can offer significant financial savings. On a side note, less commuting across the country as a whole also has environmental benefits.
3. Bigger Talent Pools
If your company operates hybrid working, you will be able to cast your talent net wider and attract people who may not have applied for a position with you if you operated a traditional model. This also means geographically, as someone who lives further away may want to work for you if they only have to be physically in the office one day per week or less.
A bigger talent pool means an improvement in your services. That is not to denigrate your current staff in any way, but for some positions, someone who is further away from any of your physical locations may be a better fit than someone closer.
4. Increased Collaboration
Purely remote work reduces the chances of efficient collaborative working. Collaboration is not always about what happens at your desk or in a meeting. It can also be informal: chats over coffee or lunch, networking at social events, etc.
If people are only working remotely, those opportunities are missed. But if they are operating under a hybrid model, then the chances are they may take more advantage of the times when they are in a face-to-face scenario. It can mean they are more focused on the personal sharing of ideas when the times to do so are less prevalent than under normal working conditions.
5. Better Work–Life Balance
Achieving a good work–life balance is much more than a convenient buzz term. It is very much a true goal of many people in the modern world. With it being the usual case that both partners (if in a relationship) are working, then the opportunities for interaction are lessened, especially when working hours may differ greatly.
And if there are children involved, then finding a quality time when all family members are free becomes increasingly difficult. By offering hybrid working, you are giving staff a chance to achieve that balance and showing concern for their wellbeing and investing in a positive culture within your organisation.
You could view it as giving your employees back greater ownership of their lives. In an era when financial and work demands are often greater than ever before, allowing more leeway in setting aside time for family and leisure activities is extremely valuable.
Disadvantages of Hybrid Working
Disadvantages of a hybrid model will vary according to the nature of your business and also its size. For some disadvantages, it can be fairly simple to develop coping strategies to reduce any negatives. For others, you may need to build new ways of doing things to offset the effects.
But as with anything to do with hybrid working, it is about identification and planning. Don’t just make a list of the benefits you may gain from a hybrid model. Try and identify the negatives, too, so that you have time and scope to find ways to reduce them.
1. Client Experience
Though technology has made virtual meetings and conferences far easier, there is perhaps still a long way to go until this is accepted across all forms of contact. There is still a certain expectation from many customers to meet with someone face to face.
Good examples of areas where this greater level of personal contact are still desired are banking or some legal services. There is a psychological advantage in reading a person’s eyes or body language that is not quite attained via a video call. While this may change with time, it is something businesses going hybrid should keep in mind for now.
Within a physical office, there is usually a sense of team spirit and camaraderie built up over time. The ability to shift focus to a conversation or joke to relieve the stress of a newly completed task (or an ongoing one) can make traditional working easier to cope with.
And that same team spirit and sense of sharing can help promote new ideas and suggestions. It is easier to bounce your idea off someone sitting a few feet away than to call them up and ask them via video or voice call. This isolation can lead to poor decisions and may be an area you have to focus on if implementing hybrid working.
3. Security and Cybersecurity
No matter what type of business you are in, there is a high likelihood that you use and store some sensitive data. This may be customers’ financial data or proprietary information relating to products or designs. No matter what type of data, you not only have a moral and ethical obligation to protect it but usually a legal one, too.
Most countries or regions have tight regulations and compliance requirements regarding the use, storing, or obtaining of sensitive personal data. The EU’s GDPR, in place since 2018, is now the toughest such policy in the world. Ensuring any of your data is 100% secure is perhaps the biggest challenge when it comes to implementing a hybrid model.
If that data is being accessed and used from multiple locations due to remote working, then the chances of some sort of breach increase exponentially. IT departments can address these issues by using VPNs and cloud-based computing for storage and transmission.
But it is also essential that the very best security measures, such as using a common server for all data, strong password authentication, and robust tools to prevent hackers from gaining access, are used. Strict guidelines and rules for anyone working from a home office are also necessary, as a home network will be far more vulnerable than the company one.
Security has to also extend to any communications being used in a hybrid model. If you share any sort of files or content via video conferencing, you need to be sure that this is secure and cannot be accessed by outside parties.
You will also want to look at the review and approval protocols you have in place for office working, and extend them to anyone working remotely. Because some of these protocols – and the tools being used – are mainly designed for office work, look at how any of these can be automated, thus removing the chance of human error.
If you move away from the traditional working model, there is a good chance that your staff are now operating flexible working, and are often on different time schedules. Some may choose to work the set amount of hours per day, while others may compartmentalise their working week over a series of split, smaller time periods.
This may work well in the general sense of tasks, deadlines, work needing doing, etc. But where it can cause an issue is when you need to coordinate everyone’s attention at a certain time. This may be for an important work meeting, a client conference, or even training sessions to introduce new skills or enhance old ones.
Giving advance notice of any such meeting should allow your employees time to make alternative arrangements if childcare is a factor. And for training, unless direct participation is crucial, look at using pre-recorded webinars and online tests to ensure it is carried out properly.
While perhaps less of an issue than other factors, there is a danger of a set hybrid working pattern creating workplace cliques. The office is, in effect, the centre of operations. If you have one group of people spending more time there, then camps may develop. And if you have staff working on a set schedule split between home and office, that same situation can happen.
Where possible, look at rotating how you set out your hybrid schedule. Just as many industries have rotations for different shift patterns, consider doing similar for your hybrid workers. This could mean setting different times for them to be in the office and mixing up the groups over time.
This is more of an employee-centric disadvantage. By moving staff to a certain amount of time home-working, we assume that they have the physical space to set up a home office. This may not always be the case, and an employer should investigate this with individual staff.
In reality, there may not be a lot an employer can practically do to help with this. But if an employee has a small amount of workspace, you can perhaps look at helping them by supplying any furniture or equipment that may help, such as a space-saving desk.
How to Keep Hybrid Workers Efficient & Happy
While remote work may have been the ‘new normal’ for much of 2020, the long-term future will more likely see a return to the traditional office-based system or a move to hybrid working. Hopefully, organisations have gained from the 2020s’ enforced changes a better understanding of the remote workers’ issues and how to better deal with them.
By having already experienced many difficulties, it should be easier to implement policies and strategies that negate any of those issues and lead to more efficient hybrid workers. But how best to maintain and even improve the efficiency of those workers on a hybrid model?
1. Ensure They Have the Right Tools
It doesn’t matter whether you are working in an office or from home. If you do not have the tools required, you will be unable to do the job to the best of your abilities. Your staff will likely need all the tools they would normally use when working in the office (design-specific programs etc.), but they will also need efficient and safe communication methods.
Supplying your hybrid workers with good VoIP software, and efficient communications platform for hybrid workplace discussions and the best in video calling or conferencing software will go a long way to helping them maintain efficiency. Virtual meeting rooms are part of the whole hybrid model, so the technology has to cope.
And tools should also include skills. If they lack the skill to work from home efficiently, find a way of providing them with it.
2. Don’t Micromanage or Overmanage
The potential for better productivity levels through hybrid working is obvious. Generally speaking, autonomy makes a worker feel more valued and trusted. An autonomous worker in the office is usually happier and more productive. And this extends to working from home, too.
Conversely, if a manager is constantly checking on a staff member working from home, then that employee will feel devalued. They will feel that their employer does not fully trust them or their work. While a certain amount of oversight is needed, especially when deadlines are looming, keep it as informal as possible rather than appearing as a challenge.
3. Award Achievement
If staff are doing a significant amount of work from home, do not treat them any differently than if in the office. In fact, look at improving recognition and rewards if you are moving to a hybrid model.
Rewards do not always have to be tangible, though staff will always appreciate things like bonuses, extra holidays, and ‘prizes’. Verbal recognition of a job well done at meetings, whether virtual or physical, will go a long way to improving morale. And incentivise special projects or tight timeframes with special awards, too.
4. Communications and Goal Setting
It could be all too easy to drop communication levels if you have moved to a hybrid model. That quick impromptu chat as you pass an employee’s desk may not happen if you are miles apart. Set out a fixed schedule of virtual meetings, both at the team level and one to one, if possible. And when staff are working on something important, try to schedule informal calls to see how they are doing.
Ensure that you continue to set goals just as you would if only working in a physical location. Having a clear idea of what needs doing and by when can help staff remain focused. Clearly set out goals and timelines, both of which are always conducive to good levels of efficiency.
5. Career Development
It is immaterial whether you are operating a hybrid or a traditional working model. Career development, advancement, and training will always be things that nearly all employees seek. But within the hybrid working, it may add an extra incentive for people to perform better.
Some of the training may be specific to the needs of working from home. Other training could be tied to a possible promotion. But it is worth having a specific meeting with workers on a semi-regular basis to see where both you and they see their career development going. A two-way conversation on this subject will make them feel valued and keener to work towards promotion.
6. Nurture and Maintain Trust
In effect, a hybrid worker is working alone. That in itself implies a high level of trust in them. But trust is a relationship that not only needs to be created, it also needs to be maintained and nurtured. And this ties in with the idea of good communications, too.
A good manager will look to speak to hybrid staff at least once per week. And that communication should be voice or video-based. An email is impersonal and contains no sense of tone. A voice call can be informal, friendly, and encouraging.
7. The Personal Touch
One feature of office life that many people enjoy is small talk. Football results, how someone’s child is doing at school, what movie a colleague saw at the weekend. While these may sound inane to a degree, they can be the basis for strong and collaborative interpersonal relationships.
It may be more difficult to have that same level of personal interaction if hybrid working, particularly if remote periods are longer. If you are holding a virtual team meeting with multiple staff, it will take ages for everyone to make their own contribution. But for one-to-one calls, try and maintain that personal touch and keep relationships strong.
Things to Consider When Implementing a Hybrid Work Model
The first question to ask yourself is why you want to implement hybrid working. Is it because enforced remote working has worked well, and now you want to move to a hybrid model? Is it something your employees want? And to what extent? If you consider adopting a hybrid model, be sure it suits everyone: you, your employees, and your customers.
To make hybrid working a success, there has to be a relationship based on mutual trust between the organisation and its employees. This is very much a two-way street. You need to trust your staff to carry out work and tasks efficiently. And they need to trust you to support and manage them adequately.
Good communication will be the foundation of making the hybrid model work for you. That is not only about giving your staff the tools required to achieve this. It is also about recognising that a certain degree of natural communication that would exist in an office setting has been lost. Regular meetings, calls, and even informal chats can offset this loss.
Hybrid working entails a higher degree of autonomy than may exist in the office. This strongly relates to the trust already discussed, but it also empowers your workers. With the correct structures in place, they can feel more confident, both in themselves and in the work they do.
Flexibility will always be a crucial factor, and it is another two-way street. You have to recognise that when working from home, staff may not be in that same work bubble that exists in the office.
There may well be interruptions and distractions from family, pets, visitors, etc. Recognising that, and being flexible to accommodate it, is important for both sides.
Future of Hybrid Work
It’s fair to say that hybrid working is not just some flash-in-the-pan trend. It is most definitely here to stay and is likely to grow exponentially over the coming years. Some estimates say that homeworking will more than double once the pandemic is over when compared to pre-2020 levels. But what sort of form could we see hybrid working develop into in the future?
We will likely see rapid development in technologies that are tailored to people working from home part of the time. We have seen a rapid rise in video conferencing in this last year. The video conferencing market was worth USD 3.85 billion in 2019 and is expected to see a compound annual growth rate of 9.9% between 2020 and 2027.
Companies are rising to the technological challenges posed by hybrid working. This includes AI software that reduces bandwidth use, mixed reality technology to make meetings seem more real, and better security solutions to reduce risk and maintain compliance. Having a high level of connectivity is another component in a good hybrid working model.
There have been some hints of negative technologies linked to hybrid working, though none have yet come to fruition. Suggestions of employee monitoring to ensure work is being done at set times and analytics that can read an employee’s body language and facial expressions are prime examples.
If those ideas sound like something out of science fiction, consider for a moment China’s use of behaviour monitoring and social credit scores. Given that we have highlighted a culture of trust as central to successful hybrid working, we hope these monitoring ideas do not become the norm.
While most discussions around 2020 focused on the negative effects, the idea and development of hybrid working as an alternative paradigm have been potentially positive. Given that there are significant benefits to both employer and employee, we stand at the doorstep of a major new era of how humans work daily.
Work–life balance has been a buzz phrase for so long that it has mostly seemed like a utopian ideal. With hybrid working now a genuine concept that is gradually being integrated into how many organisations operate, that phrase has now been given a new lease of life.
Technology will play a major part in how hybrid working moves forward, but the policies and systems that organisations put in place will be of almost equal importance. Employer–employee relationships will evolve into a new format, perhaps the most drastic change in such relationships since unions established workers’ rights.
The world of work is changing. While most people accept that the digital age began in the 1980s, 2020/2021 and the post-COVID years may be viewed in the future as the global great leap forward. This period of time may even become a central focus of learning in business school.