'Welcome to the hybrid era'

Three-quarters of workers say they'll leave their job if not offered flexibility

'Welcome to the hybrid era'

In many ways, the future of work is yet to be written, however one thing that seems to be here to stay is the hybrid work environment and it is now the dominant work mode for knowledge workers, according to new research.

Fifty-eight per cent are currently working in hybrid arrangements, found the latest Future Forum survey, which was conducted between Nov. 1 and 30, and heard from 10,737 employees in the U.S., U.K., France, Germany, Japan and Australia.

But does this way of working have long-term staying power?

“Welcome to the hybrid era,” says Brian Elliott, executive leader at Future Forum and senior vice-president at Slack in San Francisco Calif., who created the research consortium.

“It’s going to continue to grow because it’s the preference of an even bigger majority: over two-thirds of people want something that’s in the middle. They don’t want the extremes; they don’t want to be full time in the office but most people also don’t want to be fully remote; they want the opportunity to come together with their team.”

The Future Forum study also showed that 68 per cent of knowledge workers reported hybrid as their preferred approach and 72 per cent said they would consider leaving their jobs if the inherent flexibility in hybrid was not present in their current situations.

“We can see why, there’s real benefits people have in terms of flexibility: It drives better work-life balance, it reduces their stress but there’s also a sense of belonging that people get from not coming together to put their head down to do work on something they could have done at home but to have conversations together, to spend time with each other, to grab a meal together and that blend is really important,” says Elliott. “It’s got real upside for organizations from a retention perspective.”

A vast majority of workers surveyed in the summer of 2021 said they considered hybrid work “optimal.”

Hybrid meetings also effective

This research was corroborated by a similar study looking at the most effective types of meetings.

“We found that the most inclusive form of meeting was actually hybrid,” says Joseph Allen, professor of industrial and organizational psychology at the University of Utah in North Salt Lake.

“That’s because it allows for people to be in different locations, it allows for different conductivity, so it has the potential to be the most inclusive. What was surprising to us is that, when done well, it can actually be more effective, more satisfying, and create a better relationship with an organization than the other types of meetings.”

Allen initially thought that hybrid was the least effective way to conduct meetings mainly due to difficulties involved in coordination.

“You actually have to be more proactive as a meeting leader and you have to work harder as an attendee to be seen and heard. When I sent that survey out, I thought, ‘This is going to be the worst form of meeting’ and what we found was the early adopters were trying to actually do their best job,” he says. “They were starting meetings on time; they were ending them on time; they were letting the remote attendees speak first — they were doing all these good things that we’ve been recommending and so they were seeing really good outcomes.”

There are a number of best practices to be considered in setting up the best hybrid workplace, according to experts.

Eliminating the ‘proximity bias’

One potential downside to the hybrid model emerged in the survey: 41 per cent of executives said “proximity bias” was a top concern and this was the first time they rated it so highly.

It’s an issue that should be recognized and prevented, says Elliott.

“If presenteeism is what’s getting people new opportunities for advancement, then you risk furthering the divides on diversity, equity and inclusion inside an organization. The relatively good news is that there is growing awareness among executives as a potential problem,” he says.

“The bigger challenge though is what are executives doing to actually close those gaps to make sure that proximity bias doesn’t become the method for advancement of their organizations?”

There are best practices to eliminate this bias, according to Allen.

“One of the best ways to deal with that from a meetings perspective is make sure that the people who are remote, if they’re on the phone or through video in a conference room, make sure they get to participate first; start with them, so that way people in the room don’t automatically create a bias. Because I’ve been in meetings where I get to the end of the meeting, and I realized there were three people online that I didn’t even talk to.”

A wide range of employee experiences will have to be rejigged to maintain a sense of fairness among the different groups of employees, says one expert.

How leadership can level the playing field

At Slack, executives recognized this bias may become a larger problem, and made some real-world changes at the C-suite level, says Elliott, especially if senior leaders continued to come into the office five days a week.

“We set literal speed limits: the executive team all agreed they wouldn’t come into the office more than three days a week and that they would focus those days on times when it was for a team-building event or planning for a big launch or something that was about interaction with other people not sitting on that C-suite floor,” he says.

“We also literally disassembled. We no longer have a single floor and a physical headquarters that is the executive suite. That shift to a digital headquarters is really important because it’s how you maintain this level playing field we’ve found ourselves in. Leading by example is really key.”

For HR professionals, continuing to offer flexible arrangements, especially hybrid work, will be key in retaining top talent who now, more than ever, are speaking with their feet and leaving non-flexible organizations, says Allen.

“This is not just an HR-related problem but HR managers have an important role in making sure that top talent and individuals in the organization have the things that they need to be successful on the job, and that will include flexible work arrangements, being able to allow people to work from wherever they can.”

When making those plans, it’s key for senior leaders to truly commit to transparent communications, says Elliott.

“What do we mean by ‘transparency’? It’s not simply that you’re sharing the plans, it’s you’re sharing the decision-making logic behind it, it’s that you’re involving and engaging people in the process. Somewhere around two-thirds of executives tell us that their future work plans are still being made with little to no input from employees. Executives think they’re being transparent but most employees do not think they’re being transparent. Even if the executives think they are, if they’re not engaging employees in a two-way conversation about it, you can understand why that distrust exists.”

“Transparency isn’t just sharing ‘Here’s what the plan is,’ it’s actually engaging people in the process of figuring out the plan,” he says.

There is no normal anymore and employers have to realize that a remote workforce “is quite a bit different than a workforce that’s right under your nose all day long.”

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