As companies and local governments began relaxing COVID-19 restrictions, organizations around the world prepared for a “return to work,” undoing remote work and work from home setups. But that raised a question: What if employees don’t want to go back? It turned out that many did not.
Response to this dilemma varied greatly between businesses and industries. Many chose to find middle ground in a hybrid work strategy, having some employees work remotely and others be present at the workplace, depending on their schedules, locations, and day-to-day responsibilities. This created new challenges for HR departments, and raised another question – is a hybrid workplace viable in the long term?
Some don’t think so. Google’s former HR leader, Laszlo Bock, raised the theory that hybrid workplaces were doomed to collapse because in-person employees would be more likely to get promotions. But employees don’t appear impressed with that argument: A 2022 survey from Topia indicated that 90% of employees want flexible work opportunities, and also noted that many hybrid work policies seemed designed to discourage remote work instead of encouraging it. Other companies, however, have fully embraced flexible work options: Google itself has fully transitioned to a hybrid work policy, and many other industries are finding that the best way to attract new talent in the current work environment is to offer flexible options – especially if that allows them to net remote professionals they would not have been able to find otherwise.
As organizations grapple with a workforce that loves remote work options, it looks like it may take years to understand hybrid workplaces and the best ways to manage them. Overall, hybrid work looks like it’s here to stay, especially in certain industries. But what does that mean for HR? How do you manage a group of employees that may be in or out of the workplace at any given time – or who you may never even see in person? Let’s take a closer look.
What is Hybrid Work?
Hybrid work is a “new normal” option that combines employees coming in person to work, and employees working from remote locations like their homes or specialized co-working centers. Stanford Business had an interesting podcast discussion on just what this means, and it unveiled several important points HR leaders should keep in mind:
- Hybrid work can take many forms. Some employees may always work in the office or always work from home. Some may have set days in the week for remote work and set days when they come into the office. Others may only come into the office for certain projects, but without a set requirement. So much potential for combinations means that each organization can take their own approach to hybrid work.
- Hybrid workplaces shouldn’t be confused with virtual teams or other remote work tactics that companies use from time to time. Hybrid work is a redesign – sometimes an experimentation – of how the workplace functions to allow greater flexibility in where employees choose to work. It’s possible that employees will self-select based on where they feel comfortable, what they like doing, what else is happening in their lives, and other factors.
- Hybrid work requires rethinking how businesses communicate, especially how leaders and managers bring their teams together. That often leads to searching for the right digital tools – Zoom vs. Skype, etc. – while creating new policies to facilitate remote work. What happens if there’s an all hands on deck situation at a hybrid company? Businesses need to have policies for these situations. Leaders will also have to re-examine how they personally communicate, and if some of the methods they rely on don’t work as well if they can’t be face-to-face with others.
- So far, evidence shows that productivity does not decrease in hybrid work environments. However, there are some concerns that remote workers lose opportunities to connect to their peers, or may find it difficult to access all the information they need.
HR and the Difficulties of Hybrid Work
HR departments face many of the difficulties in managing a hybrid workplace. Hybrid dynamics mean that managing teams and employee wellbeing becomes more challenging. Those challenges include the following issues:
Updating employee training can be time consuming. Hybrid work environments often require new training, in part to address some of the problems below. That means HR departments have to assemble training based on their organization’s unique hybrid structure. Sometimes that can mean training employees twice, once for remote work and once for in-office work. This requires a lot more from HR and can strain resources.
Missing a sense of belonging. In remote work situations, employees can feel disconnected from their workplace and employer. They may not feel as fulfilled as they would in a physical workplace, which can lead to feelings of discontent and depression. Workers may be less likely to attend work events or be involved in workplace discussions. Even if they want to be a part of the company, they may feel like they don’t have as many opportunities to connect. Studies have even shown that hybrid workplaces can increase anxiety for some employees.
Employees may be less likely to be open. Some people may not be comfortable sharing with HR through an online connection the same way they would be in a private office. Some may even be afraid of being recorded through teleconferencing, etc. If employees are less open with what they feel or what they have experienced, it can be more difficult for HR to do its job.
Mistakes with digital communication. Online communication brings its own difficulties, and this can easily affect workplace relations. Body language (and its absence), tone, attention, eye contact, and much more can be different when teleconferencing. This can lead to employees getting the wrong impression from their peers or leaders, and vice-versa. One of the things hybrid training must do is emphasize that digital communication is different, and that employees should not be afraid to clarify what they mean.
Cybersecurity risks. When so much communication is moved online, the threat of cybercrimes also increases. HR departments must accept this increased risk and find ways to mitigate it so that their online communication, and personal information about employees, is not compromised. That can be very challenging since many employees will be using their at-home or personal devices, which the organization has limited control over. Employees can also be resistant to company measures like requiring a VPN or tracking software.
Managing the goals of company leaders as well as the goals of new talent. New job candidates often want positions that are as flexible as possible. More traditional company leaders often want employees to return to the office. The tension between these two views can make it difficult to hire top talent and foster a happy work culture.
New biases in the workplace. Hybrid workplaces also introduce new potential biases for employees and managers alike. As Laszlo Bock mentioned, some managers may automatically favor in-person employees when it comes to mentoring and promotions. On the other hand, employees that have to work in-person (such as customer service positions) may start to feel jealous of those who can choose when to come into work and when to work from home.
Reasons Why Companies are Moving Toward a Hybrid Work Model
Hybrid workplaces are far from just bad news for HR. There are also a number of advantages to these flexible setups, such as:
- A renewed focus on outcomes. This is one of the most significant changes that hybrid work is bringing, as well as a center of conflict. Ultimately, it can be healthier for employees to focus on final outcomes instead of less useful productivity metrics, and easier to measure success for the organization. That’s challenging, because many businesses love following productivity indicators, and encouraging them to switch to outcome-based approaches can be an uphill battle. But in the long term it can be better for both employees working within their own schedules and businesses focusing on what really matters in the workplace.
- The ability to recruit without needing to worry as much about candidate location. HR can focus more on specific skillsets or the most valuable experience, knowing that a remote work situation is a possibility.
- Drawing in new talent. As the surveys above show, flexible work options are very popular among today’s employees. HR can use this feature in recruiting as a benefit of working for the business, attracting larger applicant pools and candidates who feel like the organization cares about their work/life balance.
- Easier collaboration. With everyone in the office comfortable with digital communication, gathering teams together for quick input and updates can be much faster and easier for everyone involved. From asking advice to brainstorming, hybrid workplaces can move more quickly and get results fast.
- Potential new efficiencies, especially reduced overhead if an organization is willing to use hybrid work to move into a smaller office, cut down on workstations, and so on.
Prepare for the Challenges of Remote Workers
The new world of hybrid and remote work requires new skills from organization leaders and HR. The challenge of managing and communicating with employees at a distance continues to yield new tactics and innovative uses of technology. In many ways, we’re all learning best practices together – but there are still resources you can use to gain an edge. We suggest starting with KnowledgeCity’s introduction to Effective Communication as a Remote Leader. For a more in-depth look at how to bridge the gap between online and in-person teams, you may also want to try the guide on Managing Remote Employees.