Ensuring hybrid work works in the new normal

The hybrid business is becoming a reality, but how can firms ensure a positive employee experience and learn how to identify and manage risks?

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The growing move to hybrid working will have a huge impact on the employee experience at all levels. But if the situation is not managed carefully, the danger is that it will lead to emotional disconnection and disengagement at a time of significant skills shortages and what US pundits have dubbed the “Great Resignation”.

A key challenge in this context, says Alexia Cambon, research director at Gartner’s HR practice, is simply the lack of consistency that a shift to more flexible working patterns entails. Whereas the employee experience and its rituals were broadly similar when everyone was in the office on a nine-to-five, five-days-a-week basis, this is no longer the case if they are working from different locations and at different times.

But this inconsistency of experience can lead to perceptions of unfairness and inequity, which is toxic in cultural terms. As an example of what this situation can mean in practice, Brian Kropp, Gartner distinguished vice-president of HR research, explains it in the context of support offered to staff during the pandemic.

In his keynote speech at the research and advisory firm’s ReimagineHR conference in September, Kropp indicated that while 64% of organisations believed they had invested in appropriate initiatives to help parents and care-givers, less than one-third of those employees said they actually felt supported – and that figure plummeted to 27% among non-care givers.

A key problem, according to psychologists, is that perceptions of unfairness are based not just on the actual levels of support, but even more on relative levels, said Kropp. “So part of the difference in perceptions regarding the extra flexibility and financial support given to parents was that non-parents asked themselves why they should have to pick up the slack when other people were getting the benefits. It’s about comparisons – and comparisons matter.”

While this does not mean that employees should all be treated the same, it does mean they should be given more information to help them understand decision-making rationales. It also means that fairness and equity must be hardwired into the company culture, so that such principles continually permeate “the whole employee experience” rather than just the “moments that matter” (see box below), although these are, of course, important too.

A changing cultural experience

Another important consideration is that company cultures, which were traditionally based on face-to-face interactions, are inevitably changing as colleagues spend less time together physically and more time together virtually – and this situation looks unlikely to change any time soon. In fact, market research firm CCS Insight predicts that, by 2025, organisations will have reduced their office space by an average of 25% because of hybrid working.

Angela Ashenden, the company’s principal analyst for workplace transformation, says: “Even pre-Covid, only 50-60% of desks were in use at any one time, which is surprisingly low when everyone was supposed to be in the office full-time. But those numbers will drop considerably, which will lead to a rationalisation as organisations attempt to cut costs.”

This move is already sparking an appetite for refurbishment, not least because of a growing shift towards activity-based working. Ashenden says that this concept, which has been around for about 15 years and is likely to become the standard way of working by 2024, involves providing staff with a range of workspace options to suit the kind of activity they want to undertake. For example, when brainstorming, they might choose an informal, open-plan setting, and for more focused work, a cubicle.

Related technological innovations in this context include the introduction of building management systems to monitor and optimise how much, when and how particular areas of the office are being used, not least in a hot-desking context. With hygiene in mind, voice-activated systems are also becoming more popular to enable staff to enter buildings, lifts and rooms without having to touch anything.

What is employee experience?

According to Gartner, employee experience is “the way in which employees internalise and interpret the interactions they have with their organisation, as well as the context that underlies those transactions”. In other words, it is about how the company’s day-to-day behaviour, culture and values translate into an individual staff member’s experience of working life and how they feel about it.

Within this concept is the notion of “moments that matter”, which are significant times within the employee lifecycle, such as their first day in the job or obtaining a pay rise or promotion. Although such moments vary from organisation to organisation depending on its focus and employee value proposition, they play an important role in how connected to, and engaged with, someone feels in relation to their employer.

But these shifts inevitably affect the overall cultural experience, too. For example, in a hybrid working world, spending less time together physically can damage loyalty and the extent to which employees feel connected to colleagues and the company.

Such cultural dislocation may also be reinforced by hybrid workers spending less time in “employer-controlled” office spaces as they are “much less exposed to the corporate cultural identity piece”, says Gartner’s Cambon. This means employers should evaluate whether to bring people together in more intentional ways than previously in order to help build such connections, or whether they need to find new ways of building virtual connections.

“Because space will no longer be the dominant driver of culture, it will have a massive impact on employee experience, so employers will need to rethink what the space should become and understand what drives different cultures from company to company,” says Cambon.

To build more effective virtual connections, meanwhile, it will be necessary to understand how online environments change human behaviour. Managers will also need guidance in helping their teams deal with such change, not least in terms of emotional wellbeing and virtual overload – although such understanding is currently a work in progress.

The power of listening to employees

However, to make things even more complex as employees’ personal and professional lives continue to blur, it is becoming clear that they expect their employer’s values to become increasingly “human”, says Cambon. In other words, employee experience is now created less by the “things” an employer can give, such as better renumeration, and more about the “feelings” they engender, such as career opportunities that make people feel invested in.

“If you look at the Great Resignation, it’s about employers failing to understand people’s feelings that is driving departures,” she adds.

But it is here that employee listening technologies, ranging from employee engagement platforms such as Peakon to staff survey applications such as Glint, come in. They are intended to help employers understand what their staff are thinking and feeling and where the organisation is falling short, the aim being to shape the employee experience more effectively.

Another common driver behind the introduction of employee voice initiatives is a desire to enhance the customer experience. As CCS Insight’s Ashenden explains: “To improve customer experience, you need to improve employee experience. There is an understanding now that they can’t be treated as distinct entities and the one drives the other, so if you get the employee experience right, it will have a positive impact on the customer and will boost productivity.”

Therefore, over the next year, Ashenden expects to see a surge in investment in employee-centric initiatives and technologies, such as Microsoft’s Viva employee experience platform, which pulls together a range of tools supporting everything from continuous learning and development to employee wellbeing and communications.

Mai-Britt Poulsen, managing partner for Boston Consulting Group in the UK, Ireland, Netherlands and Belgium, also expects to see growing uptake of tools that “smooth the gap between online and in-person working”. These range from shared project platforms and task and time-tracking systems to scheduling apps that show which particular employees are in or out of the office.

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But as Ashenden points out, technology in itself can never be enough to create a truly exemplary employee experience.

“Yes, it’s about using technology as a tool to support processes and leverage what people know, but it has to go further than that,” she says. “It’s about changing the culture, the way people work together and the way teams are organised, so they operate in a cross-company fashion rather than in little departmental pockets – and so the cultural mindset has to change, not just the tools.”

While many organisations are evaluating how best to start their journey here, few are yet to bite the bullet because introducing such significant change is a major task. As a result, most are taking baby steps, with common entry points being the introduction of continuous learning or the enhancement of communications, says Ashenden.

Another inhibitor is the lack of clarity over the implications of hybrid working and what it really means for the employee experience, leading to an “experimental phase for a couple of years at least”, says Cambon. What is certain, though, is that “we’re entering an era where flexibility is table stakes”, she says.

“This means that employee control over work and the work day will be very important, but the inconsistency and inequity of hybrid working also means there is a potential for disconnection and lack of engagement,” she adds. “So, to ensure a positive employee experience, it’ll be all about learning to identify and manage those risks.”

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