Remote or in the office: How the pandemic is accelerating the transition to a hybrid workplace

COVID-19 has changed the way we work. Even before the pandemic, the U.S. workforce increasingly relied on remote collaboration technologies like video conferencing and Slack.

The global crisis has accelerated the adoption of these working tools and practices in an unprecedented way. In April 2020, about half of businesses reported that more than 80% of their employees were working from home due to COVID-19. This change was made possible by decades of research and then development of technologies that support remote working, but not everyone uses these technologies with the same ease.

As early as 1987, groundbreaking research identified some of the challenges faced by women working from home using technology. This included childcare challenges, work-home separation, and employee growth opportunities. Since then, we’ve learned a lot more about virtual collaboration. As an Associate Professor of Information Systems, I am interested in what to expect as we look forward to a post-pandemic future.

One thing stands out: Hybrid working arrangements – that is, employees doing some tasks in the office and others virtually – are clearly going to be a big part of the picture. An April 2021 survey shows that 99% of HR managers expect employees to work in some sort of hybrid arrangement going forward. Many have already started. For example, Dropbox, the file hosting service, made a permanent change during the pandemic, allowing employees to work from home and hold team meetings in the office.

The definition of “hybrid” varies in other organizations. Some workers may be in the office a few days a week or every other day. Other businesses may only need occasional face-to-face time, perhaps meeting in a centralized location once a quarter. Either way, research shows that many companies fail in implementing a virtual workforce.

Remote work versus office

Office work promotes structure and transparency, which can increase trust between management and workers. Developing an organizational culture happens naturally. Casual office conversations – an employee walking down the hall for a quick, unplanned chat with a coworker, for example – can lead to knowledge sharing and collaborative problem solving. This is difficult to replicate in a virtual environment, which often relies on advance planning for online meetings, although this can still be done with sufficient planning and communication.

But if you look at different metrics, working in the office loses out compared to working from home. My recent research has found that remote workers report greater productivity and enjoy working from home due to the flexibility, the ability to wear casual clothes, and the short or no commute time. Remote work also saves money. There are significant cost savings for office space, one of the most important budget items for organizations. Hybrid arrangements attempt to combine the best of both worlds.

it’s not perfect

It is true that hybrid working faces many of the same obstacles as working face to face. Poor planning and communication, ineffective or unnecessary meetings, and confusion over task responsibilities occur remotely as well as in person. Perhaps the biggest problem when working from home: technology and security issues. Home networks, an easier target for cyber threats, are generally more vulnerable than office networks. Remote workers are also more likely to share computers with someone else outside of their organization. Hybrid organizations must invest upstream to solve these complex and often costly problems.

With hybrid work, managers cannot see the work in progress. This means they need to measure employee performance based on results with clear performance measures rather than the traditional focus on employee behavior. Another potential pitfall: fault lines can develop within hybrid teams, i.e. misunderstandings or poor communication between those in the office and those at home. These two groups can start to divide, potentially leading to tension and conflict between them – an us versus them scenario.

Setting up a hybrid environment

Many recommendations exist on the best way to develop a hybrid model. Here are some of the best ideas. Getting together too often or with little purpose – that is, getting together for the sake of meeting – leads to fatigue and burnout. Not everyone needs to be in every meeting, but management needs to use finesse to make sure no one feels left out. And days without a meeting can help productivity and give employees an uninterrupted block of time to focus on complex projects.

Listening to employees is key to making sure the hybrid environment works. It’s also important to continually seek feedback, through one-on-one conversations, focus groups, or human resource surveys. The same goes for recognizing and rewarding employees with in-person or virtual congratulations for their accomplishments. Performance incentives, such as financial rewards or tokens of appreciation, including food delivery, help develop a supportive culture that increases employee engagement.

Finally: managers and employees must be transparent in their communication and understanding of hybrid plans. Policies must be in place to define what tasks occur in the office and remotely. Access to reliable communications is essential, especially for remote working. All employees should receive the same information at the same time and in a timely manner. After all, whether in the office or online, employees don’t want to feel the last to know.

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