Work might soon be about what you do than where you go every morning, no matter your geographical position. If there’s one paradigm that has shifted dramatically in our business climate, it is the unavoidable imperative of reinventing work processes and tools. Workplace has grown to mean many things for many people.
Organizations are wary of going any one way. What, however, is becoming clear is that, ‘hybrid working’ is gaining currency. Companies across the world are recognizing the need for having hybrid workplaces though the Old School, to varying degrees of recalcitrance, continues to debate its realism in an increasingly virtual world. From these warring thoughts has emerged the need to have the virtual world and the physical world in peaceful co-existence.
It’s not anymore the pre-pandemic work-from-home culture for a major part of a month and then show up at workplace in the remaining days to keep a job. Now be prepared to see a colleague physically for the first time in 3 months or, maybe, even six. With many offices having made the choice to give up physical space, hybrid workplaces make even more sense. To have a hybrid workplace is not a shoo-in though. Companies are now busy reshaping the methods of engagement with staff and giving teamwork a reorient that is so needed for any new-fangled networking.
A global research by DDI has found that only 20% leaders believed they were “very effective” in leading cloud teams. How this impacts a world that is partially virtual and partially physical is a question that hasn’t been answered with any sense of finality.
During the pandemic, a huge number of people across the world went virtual as our calendars became the drivers of our lives. Very soon, the conversations turned to work-life balance, mental health, and a forced overdose of confined personal space. This brings us to a point where business leaders have to, on the one hand, judiciously factor the presence of the virtual world into a world that is also physical and, on the other, ensure that everything in life cannot be remote-managed.
A hypothesis in this regard may, to an extent, lend an insight into the experiments we are making to balance the virtual space with that of the physical. For example, you have to address an audience inside a hall. How will that be in a hybrid space? A few people on the floor, a few on virtual windows and, more importantly, who will you speak to. Inadvertently, the outreach here might get compartmentalized because connecting with everyone collectively might not be easy. These are the challenges leaders across the world are reacting to, and sometimes, intention is translating into action while on other occasions, not everybody is being reached interactively in the true sense of the term.
Let’s look at what is becoming touch-and-go and the implications of hybrid working on these critical factors. The critical factors vis-à-vis employees are recognition or visibility, networking, motivation, productivity and skills development. Among the impediments could be connecting with the hybrid employees only when there are tasks for them. This may create a grey area in terms of visibility of efforts being put in by the employees and likely deplete the energy a team needs to function with. In the physical scenario, an employee could be looking up to a role model at workplace to emulate. But in a hybrid workplace, the leadership abilities of such role models may fade. What possibly could be done to overcome these challenges is to identify the gaps in the work processes, seek proactive support from employees, connect with them frequently like it is done in a physical workplace, and invite them to agenda-less meetings aimed at boosting the morale – something that could be done even physically to make employees feel that they haven’t gone out of circulation.
The challenges could be even greater when managers are taken into account. Tracking productivity, driving innovation, avoiding duplication of work, proper distribution of tasks, helping to avoid burn-outs and re-invigorating the hybrid workers can combine to be a major stumbling block for managers. Isolation and a lack of meaningful outreach can affect the performances of both managers and employees. If that is not enough, little or no clarity of accountability, depletion of the skills matrix, grapevine and clan or herd behaviours can emerge as groups are formed. The parameters to tackle these problems would be to build trust and inclusion, communicate effectively, keep the focus steady, instil a deep sense of accountability, create a strong team culture and deploy empathy to avoid burnouts. For the Human Resources department, critical to building and retaining a repertory of talents in an organisation, managing performances of employees, evaluation, putting in place a succession plan and acquiring new talent will need an unconventional approach. This is where an HR manager turns into an anticipator, one who would use analytics to forecast talent needs, provides insights and solutions to ensure high-quality talent supply and links the talent blueprint to business planning.
Hybrid working has the potential to bring the balance that was only spoken, never experienced, and serious thought needs to be accorded to building a strong bridge between physical space and cloud spectrum. Or else, a time would come when the phrase ‘hybrid workplace’ will join ‘Cordless phone’ in the attic to gather dust, and the line between hybrid workers and physical workplace will begin to blur without warning.
The progress of humanity has always hinged on speed and connection. The wheel may not be reinvented, but it has to be fortified so that it adapts smoothly to diverse pathway conditions.
(The author is Mr. Amogh Deshmukh, MD, DDI India and the views expressed in this article are his own)