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Ratcheting down the tension in the hybrid world

Employers who reject the trend towards adopting more flexible, hybrid ways of working may struggle with staff retention - and CIOs have more to win or lose than most in a hybrid world

Hybrid working is a virtual certainty for many firms in the short to mid-term as they deal with the post-Covid environment. But a key problem is that because of the huge amount of rapid change experienced over the past two years, there is a consensus that very few organisations have deliberately designed how they will operate in order to maximise hybrid working and deal with the risks of adopting it.

Getting any such redesign right requires that organisations not only understand how their business needs have changed, but also that they invest across the board in everything from ensuring home-office set-ups are ergonomic to revamping benefits packages and modernising performance management processes to link individual objectives to organisational goals.

It is now considered a truism that employers who reject widespread market trends towards adopting more flexible, hybrid ways of working will struggle with staff retention, particularly in today’s era of rampant skills shortages and the so-called Great Resignation. But a report, written by analyst firm Gartner and published in the Harvard Business Review in January 2022, 11 trends that will shape work in 2022 and beyond, forecasts that some employers at least will have trouble making this approach work.

While Gartner says more than 90% of organisations across all sectors currently plan to adopt a hybrid model for their knowledge workers, it expects a small minority to change tack over the year, requiring them to return to the office full-time in the process.

Factors behind this decision will include poor business performance, which will be blamed on hybrid working, and higher levels of turnover among hybrid workers due to weaker social connections with colleagues and a wider geographical spread of job opportunities. A third issue will be the perceived damage that hybrid and remote working are inflicting on organisational culture.

But Graham Waller, a distinguished vice-president at Gartner, believes the real problems lie not so much with hybrid working models per se and more with whether “they are executed well or poorly”. The approaches that work well generally have a “human-centred” bent, while those that do not tend to be more “location-centric”, says Waller.

“Location-centric is when organisations are obsessed with how many days employees need to be in the office and there is often a somewhat arbitrary one-size-fits-all policy. But a human-centric approach is about redesigning work based on people to focus on issues, such as helping to reduce burnout by providing employees with as much autonomy and flexibility as possible.”

The firm’s research indicates, for instance, that adopting a human-centric model leads to a 44% reduction in staff fatigue and burnout levels, a 28% performance boost and a 45% increase in employees’ intent to stay with their employer.

Taking deliberate action

As such, Nick Gallimore, director of innovation at business software and services provider Advanced, believes that UK plc is currently at an “inflection point”. “The decisions that organisations are making here now will have far-reaching, long-term implications and are critical,” he says.

But a key problem is that because of the huge amount of rapid change experienced over the past two years, “very few organisations have deliberately designed how they’ll operate in order to maximise hybrid working and deal with the risks of adopting it”, says Gallimore.

While underlying challenges, such as an ageing workforce and a need for new, evolving skillsets, mean that planning for change was always going to be necessary, “headwinds” such as the pandemic and Brexit have “accelerated the issue and brought it to the surface quicker,” he adds. A good example of a company doing just that is Virgin Money with its A life more Virgin initiative, he points out.

Waller also agrees that taking intentional action to address these issues is important. A key tension that exists in many hybrid and flexible working environments, for example, is in ensuring employees have a sustainable work-life balance while also performing at their best, he says.

The issue here is that although performance and productivity have traditionally been used as the most important measures of employee and managerial success, people tend to work both harder and for longer in remote and hybrid working set-ups.

Louis Asber, chief technology officer at freelance marketplace Catalant Technologies – formerly known as HourlyNerd – says the lack of clear delineation between personal and work life that such working models engender often make it tricky for people to set boundaries and get the balance right. In a digital environment, managers also find it more difficult to pick up social cues indicating whether something is wrong.

Boosting employee wellbeing

But this situation, particularly during full lockdowns, unfortunately resulted in widespread mental health challenges, such as stress and burnout, which ultimately led to staff absence and retention challenges. As a result, Waller advises that “employee health” metrics should be added to “employee performance” measures in order to create a more sustainable way of operating. Employers that have already done so have seen staff productivity levels increase by 17%, and employees are 1.7 times more likely to stay with them, says Waller.

Other measures to boost wellbeing that Asber and his fellow executive leadership team members have introduced include closing the office once a quarter to ensure staff have more downtime and encouraging employees to go home early after big in-office meetings. “We try to force it a bit to ensure people unplug,” he says. “HR has also been excellent in coming up with quick and easy tactics to check in, such as asking everyone in the team if they’d had lunch, which are really important if you’re online and don’t have soft cues but want to know how the team’s doing.”

But this idea of “rest and recovery” is not just important for employee wellbeing, says Gallimore. As with top athletes, it is also imperative to ensure peak performance. “Performance science is clear that people need good-quality goals, an effective coach and access to feedback about how they’re doing – but none of that is enough if they don’t have the opportunity to rest and recover,” he says.

Translated into a workplace context, this means line managers also have a vital role to play (see box below) in ensuring (sustainable) high performance, particularly when using ongoing, as opposed to annual, performance management approaches.

The vital role of line managers

Line managers have a vital role to play in ensuring hybrid and flexible working models are effective. Christin Owings, partner and member of Boston Consulting Group’s People & Organisation practice, describes them as the “glue between what organisations are trying to achieve and their people, translating what things mean for their teams and empowering them to do it in the best way”.

In many instances, this requires that line managers are trained and upskilled to take less of a traditionally directive, task-based approach and assume more of a coaching, mentoring and enabling role, where the focus is on outcomes.

Some organisations, such as Australian telco giant Telstra, are even splitting the job into two: people managers, who support employees in areas such as skills development, and work managers, who focus on ensuring that their teams, which are fluid, meet prescribed outcomes and objectives.

Another important element of employee wellbeing, says Christin Owings, partner and member of Boston Consulting Group’s People & Organisation practice, is about people feeling a sense of belonging and connection with colleagues, as well as engaging with the organisation’s purpose and values – something that can be tricky if they are not spending much physical time together.

“It’s much more difficult if they’re working a lot remotely, particularly for young people just starting out,” she says. “It’s led to higher levels of employee turnover as they’re not getting that fulfilment from somewhere where they feel they belong.”

What Catalant has done to help address this challenge, says Asber, is ensure that time is always made for teams – no matter what their location – to engage in non-transactional interaction, whether that involves taking time out to brainstorm or play cards together. “It’s very easy when you’re online a lot to fall into a pattern of transactional conversation, so ‘is this done?’, ‘yes’, and move on,” he says.

“The problem is that it erodes trust and, while it is important to recognise there is a spectrum of personality types who have different preferences in terms of how they interact, it’s also important to ensure people don’t feel disconnected.”

Ultimately, though, to make certain the shift to hybrid working is effective, Owings believes it is vital to consider the “full employee experience”. This means covering everything from upskilling managers to support and empower their staff to offering them a wide range of learning and development opportunities.

Another key factor is ensuring that the right company structures, resources, tools and incentivisation schemes are in place to encourage people to “do the right thing”, says Owings. “It’s about how to rewire the organisation to capture talent potential in a more hybrid world – and there’s a lot of experimentation going on at the moment.”

But getting such considerations right is perhaps even more important for CIOs than for their peers, says Gartner’s Waller. This is because tech staff are more in demand and are job-seeking more actively than other workers. They are also often better positioned to work remotely.

To illustrate this point, Waller says that in the fourth quarter of 2021, just under one-third (32%) of IT employees were actively looking for a fresh position, compared with only 19% of non-IT personnel. Also, of those IT staff that changed jobs last year, 76% had at least two other offers on top of the one they accepted, compared with 43% of non-IT workers, implying high levels of bargaining power.

“Everyone in the C-suite has this dynamic going on, so it’s not only CIOs who are finding it harder to hire,” he says. “But it does seem that CIOs have more to win or lose than most in a hybrid world.”

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