Flexible or hybrid working: here to stay and posing new challenges for organizations

15 September 2020

In March society was brutally forced to go into a state of constrained homeworking due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Homeworking became the norm in a matter of days. While we will return to a next normal in the future, remote working will stay and evolve towards flexible working. Flexible or hybrid working is defined with 2 major parameters : time and location independent working.

While remote working offers a number of clear advantages and even resulted in an increased productivity in the short term, one needs to prepare for effects that will arise in the future (the impact on the medium and long term).

Flexible or Hybrid Working

Step one: providing the required infrastructure is more than internet access.

Organizations and especially IT departments were faced with numerous challenges on how to provide the necessary infrastructure to allow homeworking at scale. Some were well prepared while others had to speed up. Most companies made rapid steps forward. Points of attention remain, among others, on security hardening both on infrastructure as policies to embed the security aspects with flexible working.

Additional efforts will be required to make existing tools/applications that have been in use for years in companies. They have to be flexible working ready. A lot of legacy software and tools have been designed for onsite use only. In the future they need to become flexible working ready (proof). Roadmaps will have to be developed to move them to the cloud or opened up (made accessible) through remote access systems. This will be a challenge that, if done well, will result in functional and financial benefits. The infrastructure challenge however is only one part of the equation.

Digitizing the way we work: hybrid working will be a reality

Let’s go back in time (with a personal experience at the e-invoicing company Certipost): companies were used to send invoices for over a hundred years by paper. Around 2005 the move to e-invoicing started. The way most companies replaced an old way of working with a new way of working was from “print to add stamp” to convert to “pdf and send by email”. Deception was high as the intended ROI was not realized. Credit collection became more difficult, with lots of follow-up emails becoming necessary etc. Nowadays efficiency is reached by digitizing and automating the entire payment/collection process. Next to e-invoicing, most companies however still efficiently send invoices by paper. It has become hybrid.

Today, in a nearly 100% homeworking environment, in many companies we do everything remotely and rely heavily on replication of what has been done in the past. That's a perfectly normal reaction. A few days ago, I participated in a brainstorm session were we used the value proposition canvas map. In an office environment we use a flipboard and use post -its. We did exactly the same thing using a PowerPoint slide with one person adding topics. Team members had to wait to give their input and the session did take much more time than before. Think about how many processes and ceremonies today are done remotely: stand ups, budget process, brainstorms, strategy exercises, ...

The reflection will often be: let’s get back together because for several of these initiatives/processes onsite collaboration seems more efficiently. But let's not forget about travel time, office space, setup time, ...

One should not answer the question with an OR approach: can we do this remotely or do we need to be onsite? One should go for an AND approach: a hybrid approach.

Every process should be investigated taking into account people, processes and technology (in a supporting mode). Circling back to the example of the brainstorm above: the tools exist to collaborate efficiently. Have a look at mural or miro.

A number of challenges will gain importance in a hybrid context: 

Team dynamics change in a hybrid work context:
transparency in who does what becomes key

Working in teams will be and is being challenged. It's even more critical to set clear objectives, as well as determining how to reach them. This has always been a key focus point in working with teams for managers. In a world where everybody works remotely to a larger extent the need for transparency on who does what becomes more important. This transparency is the sum of the interactions between team manager and team members and most often in an informal way. The informal discussions did spur ideas, creativity and a sense of supporting each other.

Tools will be required to increase transparency in a hybrid world. It will result in identifying redundant tasks in an earlier stage and stimulate contribution and collaboration. It also creates insights on a team member's role within the big picture (individual contribution). A key role will be given to the team manager to challenge on results rather than physical appearance.

Engagement and wellbeing will become even more of a key topic in the near future. A weekly face to face, quarterly or annual reviews will be insufficient.

Working in a hybrid world has many advantages. Flexible working clearly has significant upsides in work-life balance, mobility issues are tackled etc. The downside is that working remotely for longer periods can and will impact the wellbeing (and thus resulting engagement) of team members. Processes and tools will have to be put into place to measure the wellbeing of team members in real-time. Early detection of signals will be needed to prevent individual problems. For example, studies show a correlation between wellbeing and the use of video in calls: people that do not feel fit for whatever reason tend to avoid video in calls. More research will be needed in this domain to offer answers to managers to detect signals and how to treat them.

The sense of belonging!

Working in organizations suddenly moving from onsite work to a flexible organization will increase the importance of a clear purpose, strategy and mission (the why, what and how). Team members will have a higher sense of belonging if these are very explicit and that they clearly see their contribution in their daily work to achieve them.

Working in a hybrid world will also require that facilities will evolve where the office not only becomes a place to work but a place where culture is fostered: a place where team members want to go in order to exchange ideas and collaborate, and less of a place where they are required to go to. 

There's still a lot of work to be done to establish this in the coming years. Team dynamics and wellbeing in a hybrid world might not yet be an issue that is high on the agenda in many organizations. But it will be soon. Organizations will need to prepare themselves very soon in order to address them structurally. If not, they will face even more investments when the challenges hit them.

Welcome to a hybrid world. Welcome to the world of accelerated transformation.

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