Hybrid work will be part of the future for many small and medium businesses (SMBs). Getting it right is about people, process, policy and technology.
Taking an evidence-led approach
The best and worst of both worlds
Policy and process matter because they give people direction
Moving towards anywhere operations
Today’s decisions will reverberate long into the future
1. Start by reflecting on what worked and what didn’t for a business during the worst of the pandemic.
2. Evaluate exactly which benefits the business wants to gain by embracing a hybrid, remote-first, remote-allowed or wholly work-from premises model.
3. Dimensions to consider include costs, productivity, collaboration, organisational culture, technological readiness, business processes and regulatory barriers.
4. Shift from managing people to enabling them.
5. Adopt empathetic leadership, robust business processes, the right technology and clear, decisive policies.
6. Create clear operational guidelines and put easily understandable accountability in place.
7. Measure results rather than hours worked.
8. Monitor and manage mental and physical wellness, taking steps to prevent burnout and exhaustion.
There is plenty of research out there about the future of work. Whether you believe that remote work will outlast the pandemic or whether you think that people will be returning swiftly to the office when it’s safe to do so, you’ll find a study that supports your view. It would thus be brave or foolhardy to be too confident in our predictions about where it’s all going.
That said, it seems a safe bet that some form of hybrid work will be part of most SMBs’ business models beyond the worst of the COVID-19 crisis. In a hybrid approach, people in some roles work remotely and others from the office, or employees come into the office some of the time and work remotely at other times. Microsoft believes hybrid work will be the ‘next great disruption’.
The theoretical appeal of a hybrid model is that it could enable companies and employees to get the best of both worlds. The business could downsize its monolithic head office and attract talent by offering flexibility in where and when they work. Yet it could also build culture and enhance morale by bringing people together in the office for some of the time.
Employees, meanwhile, would hope to skip rush hour commutes, have flexibility to watch their child’s soccer match and work without the noise and distractions of the office. At the same time, they would be able to get regular facetime with their co-workers when they need it. They could thus avoid the loneliness and disconnection from the organisation that can be common among fully remote workers.
The exact mix of remote and on-premises work will be determined by the culture, business model and strategy of each organisation. For a construction, hospitality or manufacturing business, a higher proportion of the people will need to work onsite full-time than in a software development house or an accounting firm. Indeed, many professional services employees were already working remotely pre-pandemic.
Across industries, we believe that organisations that take a deliberate, evidence-led approach to designing their future workforce will outperform those that continue to be swept along by waves of infection and government restrictions. A good place to start is by reflecting on what worked and what didn’t for a business during the worst of the pandemic.
In our own business, we found that work-from-home actually boosted productivity during the hard lockdown. However, some of our people felt isolated without face-to-face contact with customers and colleagues. The organisational culture and collaboration also took some strain. To address this, we invested in an array of tools such as modern meeting space solutions that bring together the digital and physical workspaces to sustain hybrid working for the roles or locations that it suits.
The next step is to evaluate exactly which benefits the business wants to gain by embracing a hybrid, remote-first, remote-allowed or wholly work-from-premises model. Some dimensions to consider include costs, productivity, collaboration, organisational culture, technological readiness, business processes and regulatory barriers.
From there, an organisation can start to shape its strategy and make the necessary investments to bring it to life. It’s worth bearing in mind that running a hybrid model is more complex in practice than choosing between a pure remote or office working model. Done badly, it can turn into a messy compromise that works for neither the business nor the workforce.
Many employees find it draining to face both regular commutes to work and to be always-on, as is often expected of the home worker. Cultural cohesion may also suffer in workplaces where some people are fully or partly remote and some are office-bound. Us-and-them dynamics and resentments can quickly set in.
These challenges should be addressed through empathetic leadership, robust business processes, the right technology and clear, decisive policies. The goals should be to empower people with the tools they need to do work from anywhere, to ensure that they are immersed in the business and culture, and to offer them the right balance of accountability and flexibility.
Each person should know which tasks they are accountable for, what their deadlines and milestones are, where to turn for help when they need it, and how their performance will be assessed. Fair, clear guidelines about working hours and who may work from home and
when will help to foster a sense of collaboration between teams, wherever they are working.
Furthermore, leading companies will also think carefully about how mostly or fully remote people are integrated into the business. Formal policies about how often they check in with their managers, which in-person company meetings and events they need to attend, and how they get included and heard in important meetings can help.
In a world where top talent calls the shots, leading companies will shift from managing people to enabling them. This will mean offering employees more flexibility not only in where they work but also when and how they work. There are some jobs that demand a person’s availability in a certain place or at a certain time. But for others, it makes sense to measure results rather than hours worked.
Another pandemic lesson companies shouldn’t forget is just how important mental and physical wellness are. Hybrid team leaders should prioritise helping their people to strike a healthy work-life balance, so they can get sleep, exercise, nutrition and human contact. They should keep an eye out for signs of burnout and exhaustion.
Companies can create a shared experience for remote and office teams by investing in tools and technology made for hybrid work. These software-as-a-service (SaaS) tools can create a digital fabric that connects teams through shared knowledge and culture, no matter where they are working at a given time.
Collaboration, productivity and communication tools such as Microsoft365 enable hybrid remote teams to share documents, meet and work together, no matter where they are. Asynchronous collaboration tools such as Microsoft Teams or Zoom allow people to share ideas, discuss them and iterate on them, rather than depending on real-time meetings alone.
The IT team may need to adjust some of its processes and philosophies to cater for the hybrid work environment. Many IT departments are moving to a decentralised ‘anywhere operations’ model to reach customers, enable employees and deliver business services anywhere. An anywhere operations strategy is people-centric and location-independent.
This isn’t simply about providing the data centre or cloud solutions that supports a dispersed workforce with the scalable infrastructure they need to perform their duties—it’s about building a more secure, resilient and flexible IT backbone. Anywhere operations are built on fundamentals such as self-service IT, customer automation, zero-touch provisioning and remote configurations.
The decisions that CEOs make today will have profound implications for everything from their longterm real estate commitments to the IT infrastructure they invest in and the sort of people they’ll be able to hire and retain into the future. Luckily, CEOs have two years of data and experiences to inform their choices. Now is the time to chart the path into the work-from-anywhere future.
Legal technology company, LexisNexis South Africa, is one of the many South African companies that is permanently adopting a hybrid model following the success of this style of working during the pandemic. Its flexible work arrangements will include a two-to-three-day in-office work week that combines the benefits of remote work with the best use of office time.iii
LexisNexis South Africa CEO and Chairperson of the Board, Videsha Proothveerajh, says this arrangement will promote better work-life balance for employees by offering them more freedom over where and how they work as well as reducing the time they spend commuting. Office days will be used for face-to-face meetings and teamwork to ensure the company maintains the human touch.
“Remote working can be difficult for many, logistically and mentally, while infrequent interaction with co-workers could also stifle creativity and reduce team cohesion,” says Proothveerajh. Companies need to design a culture that prioritises safety, wellbeing, belonging and camaraderie regardless of physical location, she adds. They must ensure that new ways of working are inclusive.
LexisNexis has introduced a range of initiatives to foster constant communication and engagement. These include Mute Hour which prohibits meetings before 9am, and Friday Connect, when no strategic meetings take place and the day is set aside for team building and nurturing relationships.
Discovery supports LexisNexis with wellbeing programmes and workshops. The company launched campaigns to upskill employees in terms of technology, business continuity, health and safety and virtual working support before the hybrid model went live on 1 March 2022.
One of the secret benefits of using remote workers is that the work itself becomes the yardstick to judge someone's performance.
When you can't see someone all day long, the only thing you have to evaluate is the work. A lot of the petty evaluation stats just melt away. Criteria like "Was she here at 9?" or "Did she take too many breaks today?" or "Man, every time I walk by his desk he's got Facebook up" aren't even possible to tally.
Talk about a blessing in disguise.
What you're left with is "What did this person actually do today?" Not "When did they get in?" or "How late did they stay?" Instead it's all about the work produced. So instead of asking a remote worker "What did you do today?" you can now just say, "Show me what you did today." As a manager, you can directly evaluate the work—the thing you're paying this person for—and ignore all the stuff that doesn't actually matter.
The great thing about this is the clarity it introduces. When it's all about the work, it's clear who in the company is pulling their weight and who isn't.
From Remote: Office Not Required, Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hanssoniv