How to support a hybrid workforce

As the economy opens up, organisations are rethinking the idea of office-based work – and a more flexible approach is on the cards

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A recent study from McKinsey found that the proportion of employees showing a preference for a hybrid work pattern has increased by more than one-fifth (22%). The Reimagine work survey of 5,043 employees in corporates and governments found there has been a 25% decline in the number of staff who want to work full-time in the office, dropping from 62% pre-Covid to 37% post-pandemic. Over half (52%) of the workers surveyed said they would prefer more flexible work.

McKinsey reported that more than a quarter of those surveyed said they would consider switching employers if their organisation returned to fully on-site work.

The study also found that employees with young children are the most likely to prefer flexible work locations. It reported that only 8% would like to see a fully on-site model in the future. According to McKinsey, employees without children under 18 are nearly three times as likely to prefer on-site work, but the majority still prefer more flexible models.

The idea of a workplace where staff gather to do their job is a concept that harks back to the industrial revolution. Even in the age of the knowledge worker, rows of desks are organised in such a way that managers and senior executives get a feeling of what everyone is doing.

This approach to management bears a striking resemblance to how people are managed in factories. The idea of “clocking in” and out of work is not necessarily a concept associated with the electronic office, but in spite of people being “always connected” via their tablet computers, smartphones and laptops, there is a very real sense that work output is a measure of hours logged in.

Working in a more flexible way, avoiding daily rush-hour commutes and the need to stay in the office for a certain number of hours, has had a positive effect on employee productivity. It has also helped some companies broaden the net when hiring, as Stuart McGrogan, lead architect at  retailer Toolstation, explains: “We are no longer limited to recruiting miles from the office. Remote working opens up the talent pool.”

Toolstation, like many businesses, used to run traditional, face-to-face meetings at its head office. Now, says McGrogan, “I have 10 hours of [virtual] meetings a day – we get more done because you have to make decisions”.

100% e-commerce in a day

The company rolled out Google’s Workspace (G Suite) productivity suite in February 2020, just before the first lockdown. As a DIY retailer, it was still able to operate, but needed to turn itself around from being 80% in-store sales to 100% online, with click and collect. “We have quite a small management team,” says McGrogan, “but we were able to turn the business model to 100% e-commerce in a day.”

This was made possible using Google Meets - the product that used to be called Hangouts - to communicate with people, he adds.

For McGrogan, working remotely means using online collaboration tools and document sharing. “Hangouts, email and Google Chat are very important,” he says. “You will have structured meetings, but then have time to multitask on Chat. Previously, things were done locally, but now Google Drive is used to share documents securely.”

Like Toolstation, every organisation has been forced to make major changes to the way work is done because of the pandemic. And even though the economy is starting to open up, there is no going back.

Gartner’s 2021 Digital worker experience survey found that among employees whose work-from-home time had increased since January 2020, there had been a 36% increase in productivity. According to Whit Andrews, distinguished research vice-president at Gartner, flexibility in working hours was the most cited factor enabling greater productivity, selected by 43% of respondents.

Andrews adds: “Now that many workers have had a taste of the flexibility that remote work offers, it will be a key factor in hiring and talent acquisition. In fact, 69% of workers in our survey said they were more likely to consider a new role that allows them to work from a location of their choice, and 64% were more likely to consider a role that allows for flexible hours.”

Technology to support a hybrid workforce

Along with flexible working, analyst ISG sees five further trends that are driving post-pandemic working practices.

ISG director Iain Fisher defines integrated autonomy as the ability to assist the workforce and says: “Embedding RPA [robotic process automation], AI [artificial intelligence] and machine learning algorithms across the enterprise, including in the back office, will keep productivity up and ensure employees are at their most effective.”

By taking advantage of capabilities in the cloud, organisations can ensure their employees can always access their work and deliver to the customer, says Fisher, and having digital channels hosted on cloud-based platforms ensures revenue streams remain unhindered. “In the back office, through the use of new automation tools such as sentiment analysis and just-in-time principles, IT departments can ensure that a seamless service is offered while proactively delivering problem-solving capabilities,” he says.

The connectivity aspect is about connecting colleagues and customers. “Making work and interactions easier for employees and customers drives up adoption and provides a more seamless customer experience,” says Fisher. Offering simple interactions with customers such as video support, message and chat support in more cost-effective environments, such as the employee’s home, ensures a win-win for the customer and company, he adds.

Fisher believes a collaborative environment can offer organisations a way to support higher productivity in shorter, sharper bursts. When based in employee-friendly locations, this also improves work-life balance. He says: “Delivering these tools to employees provides a better and a stickier customer experience, resulting in higher satisfaction.”

Given that working from home with the right technology and employee support will be cheaper and more cost-effective than office-based work, organisations will need to assess what their post-Covid office environment needs to look like. Fisher believes that expensive office space will become much more adaptable and used for true collaboration. “In the front office, you may see a significant reduction in contact centre size and shape, but overall, a more open and collaborative space that is adaptable to business needs will emerge.”

A quarter of workers who took part in Gartner’s 2021 Digital worker experience survey, said their productivity had fallen. Connectivity issues and technology changes were among the top reasons cited for decreased productivity. Gartner’s Andrews says he expects digital proficiency to become even more essential for productivity when working remotely. “CIOs should extend worker-to-worker lateral mentoring and training to ensure that no employees are left behind as technology mastery becomes the expectation,” he says.

ISG expects cognitive and augmented technology to be deployed  to support employees proactively. Among the technology trends set to emerge from Covid-19 is self-healing systems, given that remote working during the pandemic led to a new set of challenges for the IT helpdesk. Fisher adds: “Proactive support detects and reports these problems; automation and AI can fix them silently. Employers can even monitor the state of an individual employee’s technology, making the employee more productive.”

Remote monitoring

Gartner says it has seen “a significant increase in client conversations related to supporting remote work over the past 12 months” as lockdowns caused by the pandemic forced organisations to pivot from office-based to remote working. 

Although various studies show that remote working can lead to increased productivity, business leaders and IT security heads are wary of the risk of home workers losing data and lower levels of productivity.

In Gartner’s report Getting value from employee monitoring technologies, the analyst firm notes that while some tasks are routinely monitored, there are many work-related tasks that are not tracked, which means there are no standards for measuring productivity.

As the report’s authors point out, time spent on tasks and task volume are often used as a proxy for productivity. But they warn that without information from the broader work context, this proxy does not always translate into impact.

Read more about hybrid work and productivity

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In the report, the analysts state that within the context of the Covid-19 response and the sharp increase in remote work, the best information will only show how different task volumes and time spent have shifted.

They recommend that organisations look at how contextual analysis can be used to show whether this shift in task volumes and time spent translate into a subjective sense of improved worker productivity or an objective impact on organisational results.

Similar to the observations ISG’s Fisher makes about automation, the Gartner analysts believe that rather than providing metrics of work, productivity monitoring may help organisations to identify repetitive chores that would make good candidates for automation.

Shift in work patterns

With the economy opening up, flexible working is something many organisations will have to address. Many workers have grown accustomed to attending online meetings using desktop video conferencing at home, and cloud-based applications and storage mean it is easier than ever for office-based workers to access the IT resources they need from anywhere.

And although there is a risk that productivity monitoring is a blunt instrument, it does give organisations insights, which, if used strategically, can support flexible working by enabling certain tasks to be automated or streamlined in a way that does not require an individual to be in the office.

Taking this idea further, some people may not want to be tied into a full-time job. The tech driving the gig economy shows how software can be used to join up units of work with someone who is able to complete the job. ISG’s Fisher calls this the “uberisation” of the workforce.

As a final thought to ponder on post-pandemic office productivity, could the right work management systems, capable of matching skills with tasks, combined with a watertight framework for employee protection offer a more flexible alternative to full-time employment?  

Read more on Collaboration software and productivity software

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