Most workers today have come from a background where, rightfully so, work was synonymous with place. We have all been used to the idea of going to and coming from a workplace.
Yet, with the entrance of ‘the digital’ into our worlds, things are becoming borderless, and the digital has been deemphasising place in a number of ways: shopping no longer requires going into a physical store, goods can be bought digitally and remotely, and medical appointments no longer have to be done at the doctor’s surgery either, digital has allowed practises such as e-consultations.
In the same way that the digital has become pervasive across all areas of our private lives, it is infiltrating our work lives too. More and more workers are becoming digital workers, doing tasks that can be done digitally. On the one hand, this deemphasises the importance of workplace, whilst at the same time reemphasising the importance of place in the sense that it moves the focus from ‘where does the employee have to work from?’ to ‘where does the employee want to work from?’.
There have been a number of factors and mega trends at play now for a long time which have collectively been pushing us in the direction of hybrid and remote styles of working (even if we had not realised it). There has also been a significant generational shift in the workplace with a more digitally based generation entering and establishing themselves. This generation are also very much consumers in the experience economy which means they’re used to greater levels of personalization in every aspect of their lives, such as how their phone or their Netflix account is configured. This generation is looking for this same experience in the workplace: they are much less committed to individual organisations and are a much more fluid workforce. The highly talented members of this generation in particular, are looking to maximise their employee experience, they are happy to have portfolio careers and will seek out a positive employee experience at each new workplace. Many of them are also carrying out heuristic work which can be done almost anywhere.
Despite these seismic changes, countless organisations have continued to maintain a 19th century type of work ethic and mindset. This no longer needs to be the norm and Covid19 proved this to us. The Covid lockdowns exposed the myth that work has to be a physical place – for many, work is no longer synonymous with place.
So, what have organisations done since Covid ‘exposed’ this myth? Some have ignored everything and continued to reinforce the myth. Where these organisations can replace their employees easily, then continuing to reinforce the myth should not be too difficult. Of the other organisations, some have wholeheartedly found and embraced their new ways of working, but many others have simply made a concession to the hybrid way of working, coming up with some mechanical idea of what hybrid looks like, such as a certain number of days in the workplace each month. Unfortunately, these organisations may be failing to maximise the opportunity that has been provided to them; to use hybrid and remote working in a way which best enhances the organisation.
Instead of hybrid working being seen as a concession which employers must ‘bear’ simply because it has become the norm, employers should be asking themselves, “how does attendance in the workplace bring value to the organisation? How is it a value add, or how do we ensure it becomes a value add?” It is essentially a question of reimagining the work organisation in all of its forms.
We would suggest that the following 3-step evaluation method is a good starting point to help bringing about this change, as it involves organisations looking at the different levels that make up the business and how hybrid working best benefits each of those levels. The evaluation is carried out from a corporate perspective, from a role or task perspective and from an individual employee perspective.
The corporate level
Where all or most of the work being carried out by the organisation can be carried out remotely, organisations need to ask themselves: what value add do we believe attendance in the workplace brings to the work organisation and how does it bring that value add? It may be that attendance is a value add because it can help define the work culture, it can help the organisation incubate and spread the values wanted within the team, it may bring about higher levels of connectivity, team building, collective activity or social cohesion which you arguably cannot get as much of online, or it may allow for higher levels of observation and exposure. Organisations need to contemplate what is important to them, what type of organisation they want to be and how hybrid working can best augment that.
The role / task perspective
Of course, some roles are so intrinsically linked to place, there is little room for creativity at this level. For example, for transportation workers, hospital workers or production line workers, work is still very much about place. However, for the multitude of roles where work is now an activity, not a place, organisations should consider what aspects of the role are better carried out at the workplace and what aspects of the role are better carried out at home or elsewhere. It may be that the workplace needs to be redesigned to accommodate the parts of the role that could best be carried out there, such as client interface, knowledge sharing or creativity. Once an organisation starts thinking about the roles within the business, coupled with its ideal corporate persona, it may come to the conclusion that the workplace as it always has been, is no longer suitable. For example, it may no longer make sense to have individual desks or 5 floors of office space, when the space is better utilised as a client zone or a creativity zone with a focus on bespoke equipment and facilities that workers would not have at home.
The employee/individual level
The final level to consider is the individual level. When starting with the mantra that work does not have to be a place, you open up the opportunity for personalisation of work for the individual too. Individual preferences can be explored, which helps organisations ensure they are providing the bespoke employee experience that so many employees are seeking. Some employees may seek out the quiet of remote working for tasks which require concentration but value the collaborative brainstorming sessions a workplace environment can facilitate. Others may see the workplace as giving access to a protected space or preventing isolation.
Of course businesses may come to different conclusions at each step of the analysis. What works at a role or individual level may not work at a corporate level for example. The needs at each level will have to be balanced against each other to reach a strong middle ground. Although this could mean compromises may be needed, it is a much better way of applying hybrid working than applying it mechanically and simplistically with no logic behind the chosen approach. A purely mechanical approach will likely not satisfy or support at the corporate, role or individual level.
A well thought through and tailored approach to hybrid working on the other hand, provides an opportunity for businesses to offer personalisation to employees, to combine the strengths of the work environment offerings with those of the remote environment offerings and to decide on the new focus of the workplace, redesigning it in line with the organisation’s values and visions. Ultimately the workplace of the future should be seen as a tool, not a destination.