Before the COVID-19 outbreak, working from home was a taboo topic in most organisations. When the pandemic forced businesses shut and employees to stay indoors in efforts to minimise the spread, working from home became the new normal.
As the world gradually came to manage the COVID-19 situation with vaccines and lockdown restrictions eased, organisations are now looking to resume business as usual. However, organisations are now faced with the big question: should employees return to office or not?
According to a survey conducted by HR consultancy firm Aon covering 248 companies in India, majority of the organisations surveyed (85%) have indicated that they were planning to work either remotely fully or partially post-pandemic. Tech companies, the likes of Google and Facebook, are ramping up their remote working policies, suggesting that the industry is de-emphasising shiny offices and fancy office perks.
There are, no doubt, plenty of positives to working remotely. For one, employees save on commuting time to the office. According to a report by Global Workplace Analytics, Sun Microsystems’ experience suggests that employees spend 60% of the commuting time they save performing work for the company. Second, offering remote work also allows organisations to expand their labour pool, which previously may be inevitably restrictive. Historically excluded talent due to location, mobility packages or candidate’s inability to relocate, can now be hired without having to be physically in the same country.
However, the road to implementing a work-from-home policy permanently also comes with its set of challengings and stumbling blocks. Countries and organisations with a lack of access to broadband, remote spaces and essential online services are likely to struggle in effectively rolling out remote working.
The hybrid model
According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), a professional association for human resource management professionals globally, there could be greater freedom and flexibility in how, when and where people work in future. They noted that employees often want to balance workplace and family commitments with the possibility of having more options in their daily work arrangements, suggesting that a mixed or “hybrid” model can provide an effective balance for many employees.
In fact, many organisations are considering implementing a hybrid work arrangement in the post-pandemic era given the various upsides that employers and employees have gained while countries were in lockdown. Large corporations the likes of DBS Bank, Citigroup and Gartner have announced that a hybrid working model has been made permanent. A hybrid work model essentially provides employees the option of working from home several days a week and working in the office on other days. This allows employees more flexibility to get work done when they are most productive.
Challenges of a hybrid model
Linking promotion with recognition
With some employees working from home and the rest of the team in office, it becomes difficult to track employees’ performance. How do managers determine whether an employee is truly putting in their optimal performance while working from home? Are high performing employees losing steam because of the overlap between working hours and personal team? Organisations, particularly those in the service and manufacturing industries, are still very much fixated on the idea that being physically present in office translates to a hardworking employee.
As organisations work towards adopting a hybrid working arrangement, performance management framework also needs to realign in order to recognise and reward employees fairly. Based on a 2020 study conducted by the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and Northwestern University on 400 technology workers, they found that while workers who work from home and in office stand equal likelihood of being promoted, workers who work from home are getting a lower pay raise compared to their peers who go in to office. Managers need to be well-equipped to manage the inevitable power differences that arise in a hybrid environment by tracking, monitoring and communicating with their subordinates periodically.
Who decides when and where to work?
A hybrid environment also raises questions on who decides when and where to work. A survey of 16,000 workers by audit firm Ernst & Young found that as many as nine in ten said they wanted to be able to work when and where they chose after the outbreak was over. More than half of these surveyed workers said they would consider quitting if that flexibility were removed. Who is responsible for making the decision on when and where to work?
To ensure a smooth transition, the most meritocratic method is to make data-driven decisions. Organisations need to crunch their numbers and determine if their team is ready to go hybrid. Ask employees what their priorities would be if the organisation were to move to a hybrid arrangement. Seek honest and anonymous answers and use that as a foundation to decide what a hybrid future work arrangement could look like.
Division of the team
Allowing employees to decide when they want to work from home is often not random and dependent on age and family status. A Harvard Business Review found that among college graduates with young children, women want to work from home full-time almost 50% more than men.
To avoid a diversity crisis, senior management should efficiently use their office space to centrally manage when employees should come into the office. To encourage coordination, organisations should make sure that teams that often work together have at least two days of overlap in the office.
The COVID-19 pandemic has revolutionised the way organisations work today. Extensive research has shown that this new hybrid arrangement makes employees more productive and happier. However, with every new challenge, it is difficult to navigate for organisations and employees. Well-coordinated planning, coupled with periodic testing, correction, is critical to ensure employees do not lose their workplace motivation while driving high productivity levels.
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