From living room couches to factory floors, where, when, and how we work has been temporarily—and likely permanently—altered by COVID-19. Organizations are looking to come to terms with new realities for their workforce and their workplace. Managing the uncertainty of today on the one hand and, on the other, optimizing what is becoming a hybrid workforce for tomorrow are top of mind when we speak with Chief People Officers around the world. Leading these hybrid organizations comes with new challenges for leaders—balancing equity between those who can work from home with those who cannot, creating a new culture with strong organizational values, and ensuring that employees can balance their professional and personal responsibilities, maintaining mental health are all real priorities.
Equity Across the Workforce
Perhaps the biggest challenge for leaders in both the short and the medium term is to establish an equitable and inclusive organizational model that accounts for both those who can work remotely those whose responsibilities require them to be on site. Employers must keep an open mind about what work they prefer to be done on site and what work has to be done in-person. According to a University of Chicago
survey, about 40 percent of the workforce in OECD countries are in occupations that could plausibly be completed from home.
At the same time, leaders must also take into account that the divide between remote and on-site work could further heighten socioeconomic, racial, or gender inequality. The same University of Chicago study showed that the jobs most suited for remote work are well-paid, white-collar positions in big cities while those that are customer facing or manual were much harder to do from home. Companies need to invest proactively in the social fabric to ensure a divide does not become the unintended consequence.
For this reason, Chief People Officers may need to find innovative ways to incentivize or recognize essential workers, which COVID-19 has already begun to accelerate. One CHRO we spoke with noted that the pandemic shined a spotlight on workers who do not consistently feel appreciated in their roles, adding that without them there would not have been food on grocery store shelves or medicines available in
hospitals. “We have a group of employees who [at times did not] feel very valued and the crisis gave them a great way to find pride in their job and to be fully recognized by the entire company—up to the board—for the essentially heroic nature of what they have done,” he said.
To care further for on-site workers, companies could consider additional incentives—especially during the pandemic. Leading with care and communicating that care are critical at a time like this. “One thing we learned with key workers is psychology of confidence. We couldn’t understand why when we were over-indexing on the safety of workplace, and we would get feedback that people didn’t feel safe,”
a Group HR Director said. “We had to make it more visible. You need to think about how to communicate the measures you are taking.”
A critical success factor in leading hybrid workforce is to ensure that leaders are still present in the office and on the shop floor with some regularity, so that neither population feels disenfranchised. While being physically present as local jurisdictions allow is important, presence can also be established virtually during the pandemic. An Executive VP of HR explained that his company is doing virtual market visits. “We use tech—a phone or through Zoom—and visit facilities as a leadership team,” he shared. “Someone in the factory takes us around and then we hold a virtual town hall. We didn’t have that reach before. We can connect face-to-face with huge numbers of people and we can recognize them for their efforts.” Some other organizations have an “infinite” virtual meeting room, which is online 24/7—any employee can “drop in” for a chat, both those who are physically at their place of work, as well as those who are remote, creating a sense of “one-ness.”
Creating and Maintaining a Hybrid Culture Based on Trust and Flexibility
Trust has always been at the core of successful employee relationships, and the COVID-19 crisis showed just how seamlessly many people were able to adapt to doing their jobs at different hours, at different locations, without a drop in productivity. One major shift has been around the concept of “face time.” “One thing that is broken permanently is the concept of being present— a large part of employee value is perceived when the employee is visible—and this has been shaken,” explained a Chief People and Performance Officer. “People are more comfortable not seeing their teams and a large element of that is trust.” While toying with the idea of measuring productivity, many with whom we have spoken abandoned the idea, replacing it with closer connectivity among team leaders and members.
The second key element is flexibility. If you can trust the work is being done and being done well, when and where it happens matters less. “We are giving employees full freedom,” an HR Group Executive shared. “You know your jobs best, we trust you in how you will do them.” She added that this conversation did not come easily to the leadership team initially and it has been a journey to get to this point. Today, the organization is thinking of changing bonus allocation, to a more group-led, team contribution-based system in an effort to align reward with input.
To maintain this trust and flexibility, leaders need to rely on technology to play a major role in a hybrid culture and adjust accordingly. Communications happen differently over different channels and are more premeditated. Colleagues no longer just run into one another in the hallway, so leaders must be intentional in how they interact with employees. In addition, with travel happening much less frequently,
leaders have had to become comfortable with having more of a digital relationship with employees, which ended up being a most welcome development. “We have accelerated our use of technology incredibly quickly and have been able to engage larger numbers of the workforce faster than anyone imagined, and I think that will have a lasting impact on how we operate,” said a CHRO.
While trust and flexibility are key pillars, even stronger articulated collective purpose and mission will underpin corporate cultures going forward.
Fighting Against Employee Burnout
For employees who have been able to work remotely, the line between work and home is increasingly blurring, and employees feel tremendous pressure to be available all the time—even across time zones. To fight against burnout, one Chief HR Officer shared that based on a study conducted by a business school in London, her company is implementing time each week for people to focus on deep, meaningful work. “Not just responding to emails,” she explained. “But work with medium-term to long-term impact.” The focus group in the pilot study showed that two hours of this type of work, four times a week for six weeks improved engagement and mental health.
Another factor in increased anxiety is the lack of human interaction. Many people miss the collaboration and the camaraderie of seeing their fellow employees in the office. “What people are missing more and more is the office as a place of sociability and serendipity. There is no randomness—I only speak to the people on my calendar,” shared one chief HR Officer. “What we have been looking at is trying to reopen the office [where we can]. Trying to create real opportunities for people to come to the office not to do work they can do at home but to socialize.”
Some ways to keep people feeling connected are to create multiple hubs or microhubs where people can physically travel to and work in safely. In completely remote settings, leaders can also prioritize informal gatherings, such as “fireside chats” and regularly leave some time on calls for informal chats.
Lastly, psychological safety is also critical. In the spirit of trust and flexibility, employees must feel that they can balance their personal needs with their professional priorities and know that the workday can end even if their laptop is still in sight.
Where We Go From Here
Hybrid organizations are a structure we will see more of in the future, and some companies are using COVID-19 as a catalyst to make that change. One Chief People and Culture Officer shared that her company has elected to transform itself into a work-from-anywhere organization. “We are genuinely saying we won’t suggest you come into the workplace,” she said. “There are no core hours or core days and no performance management that dictates you need to turn up at a certain time. We are removing any barrier to a classical hierarchical way of managing people and performance.”
As many countries face a second wave—and a second lockdown—moving into winter months, HR leaders are grappling with keeping up resilience and energy levels in an even more uncertain time. Hybrid organization models are a necessity at least in the short-term for many companies and look like they are here to stay over the long term. With accelerated use of technology, with investment in local leaders,
with “true care, all the time, everywhere and forever,” as a Group HRD puts it, organizations have the opportunity to marry efficiency, productivity with purposeful businesses, delivering meaningful work, while investing in the holistic wellbeing of their workforce, remote or physically present.