To say there are many challenges of hybrid working is no doubt an understatement.
Companies are still very much in the process of figuring out what hybrid work can and should look like for their employees. As they wade through the many hybrid work model pros and cons,
they’ll need to stay agile and test many different methodologies and office configurations.
By staying flexible and listening to their employees, companies can turn any hybrid work challenges into opportunities to create a more flexible work environment that is great for both workers and the bottom line.
In this article, we explore the nine biggest challenges of hybrid working that employers are currently facing. We also review strategies to overcome them.
Discover the four models companies are using to adapt to hybrid work—and how to make them work for you.
Open any newspaper app and you’ll quickly read about how hybrid working is on the rise. This workplace trend is no longer a ‘perk,’ but something that employees are increasingly demanding.
“We’re seeing a consistent increase in people returning to the office, along with shifts in how people are using their space; bookable desks are winning the day, and the office is becoming more of a collaboration hub than a place where employees have to go, day in and day out,” says OfficeSpace Software CEO David Cocchiara in a recent webinar, ‘Foundations of successful hybrid workplace’.
This rise in hybrid goes hand-in-hand with employee demand. Famously, Microsoft’s 2021 Work Trend Index found that while 70% of today’s workers want to keep up with the flexibility they’ve enjoyed while working from home, 65% also want more in-person time with their co-workers; in other words, workers today want their flexible cake, and they want to eat it, too.
This creates big challenges for companies. But potentially, big rewards, too! Especially when it comes to retention and attraction efforts, or corporate real estate savings.
Indeed, hybrid working can be a gold mine—or a minefield. There’s a new onus on employers to find a hybrid work model that suits their work culture and physical space. This is while also creating a dynamic work environment that supports employee wellbeing and optimizes workflows.
In other words: realizing the benefits of hybrid working is no easy task! But it can be a very fruitful one.
Thankfully, companies can test and adjust their work arrangements, based on both employee feedback and good workplace reports and analytics.
“What began as a crisis management measure may evolve into an important opportunity: the opportunity to rethink and reimagine work in a way that does not just improve productivity, but also contributes to the cultural evolution of organizations.” Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, Forbes
“What began as a crisis management measure may evolve into an important opportunity: the opportunity to rethink and reimagine work in a way that does not just improve productivity, but also contributes to the cultural evolution of organizations.”
“Flexibility and how it’s adopted will really be an experimentation over the next year and a half to two years at least,” says Cocchiara. “It will require a ton of patience by both employers and employees as we adapt to what works best for ‘us,’ which will be very individually defined.”
Before we jump into the nine main challenges of hybrid working, keep two things in mind.
First is that hybrid working is very different from ‘remote first working’. That’s because hybrid work requires employers to optimize all the places where work takes place.
“Talking to our client base, we see that employees don’t necessarily want to be remote” says Maya Ketter, OfficeSpace VP of Client Success. “They want to be flexible and have choice.”
Second, remember that you don’t have to create the perfect hybrid workplace on the first go. In fact, the more you’re able to test and stay agile, the better.
Otherwise, as you begin the process of reshaping the future of work for your people, be sure to carefully work through the following nine challenges of hybrid working for employers.
‘Hybrid’ and ‘flexible working’ might be the biggest buzzwords of the day. But there’s little consensus around what they actually mean.
Lockdown pushed us all into uncharted territory, as ad hoc remote working becoming a ‘new normal’ almost overnight. Now, as companies plan for their post-pandemic office reopenings, they have the time to more carefully plan initiatives and a hybrid workplace strategy that is better aligned with their goals and culture.
It’s only when employers have a clear picture of where they are and where they’re going, that they can start to enact the hybrid workplace best practices that will actually help their people. The onus is therefore on workplace leaders to codify what hybrid means for their teams.
Two major factors are currently shaping a company’s approach to hybrid: employee flexibility and real estate strategy.
Companies with high employee flexibility over where they can and should work are exploring more employee-driven definitions of hybrid. Alternatively, many companies are eyeing the possibility of using hybrid work to cut back on the amount of physical office space they need. Thus, potentially saving money and cutting their carbon footprint.
At the most extreme end of hybrid situations are ‘pioneers’. So-called because they give their employees complete ability to choose where, when, and how they work. Their real estate is extremely dynamic. They’re transforming their workspaces to accommodate a variety of employee needs, workstyles, and schedules.
The pioneer model is mostly being adopted by small tech companies (often under 200 employees). They rely heavily on engineering and other roles that can be easily performed remotely. In fact, these were many of the companies that were dipping their toes into hybrid working even before the pandemic. Most companies will need a less dramatic approach to hybrid. I.e.: one that is slightly less flexible for workers… Although certainly a lot more flexible than what existed in the past.
But the reality is that no matter what model you choose, there will be tradeoffs.
The goal should therefore be to figure out how best to weigh those tradeoffs, while maintaining the ability to evolve both now and in the longer term.
“At the end of the day, whatever you choose, it really has to support who you are as a company,” says Ketter. “So if you’re a very flexible and open company, with very low restrictions, then trying to apply a model that is very restrictive for a very long period of time would just not work with your employees.”
Finally, as you work to define hybrid for your organization, also consider that you may have different models for different locations or departments—your hybrid model doesn’t have to be one-size-fits-all.
“The office is a place that people now choose to come to. They have reasons why they come in. Understanding those reasons and making sure there’s a place for them to actually use the office based on that is key.”Maya Ketter, OfficeSpace VP of Client Success
“The office is a place that people now choose to come to. They have reasons why they come in. Understanding those reasons and making sure there’s a place for them to actually use the office based on that is key.”
Ultimately, companies should define and refine hybrid in as collaborative a way as possible. During this process, pull in as much data as possible (more information on data below), and be ready to pivot as necessary.
So much of work takes place online, even in the most traditional of traditional offices. So hopefully, companies will already have digital workplace solutions in place. This should create a streamlined digital experience for all employees, no matter where they work.
Of course, getting the digital workspace ‘right’ is make-or-break in a hybrid office.
Specifically, companies should be looking for user-friendly, cloud-based hybrid working tools that enhance communication, security, scheduling, and collaboration strategies in the workplace.
When introducing new technology in the workplace, make sure it’s well-integrated with existing tools. And ideally your existing integrated workplace management system, or IWMS.
As we’ll cover further below, teams who work remotely, even part-time, will also need technology to allow collaboration and teamwork from anywhere. For most organizations, this looks like cloud-based software. Think Google Suite, as well as collaboration tools like Slack and Teams integrations.
By definition, in a hybrid office, employees will still be using the office, at least from time to time.
Hybrid employees will therefore still need the right technology to interact with the physical workplace.
In fact, hybrid working demands even better tools to engage with the physical workspace. Employees who are less familiar with the office don’t want to spend the first hour of every day trying to find their way around. Or accessing the resources they need. Doing so can degrade the employee experience. It can make it difficult for employers to get the buy-in they’re hoping for for their return to the office. Not to mention the negative impact on retention.
Specifically, employers should look for the following workplace technology to help employees more easily use the office:
Depending on how busy their physical office is, companies may still need to keep strict plans around social distancing in place. At least for the foreseeable future.
To make this easier, especially in a dynamic office that is constantly in flux, they may want to invest in a social distancing planner. This can simplify this process for everyone.
Finally, companies with hybrid and fully-remote workers should also ensure that their teams have physical home offices that support them just as well as in-office setups.
Of course, employees need to have the right technology, like laptops and headsets for video conferencing.
But many companies now also offer stipends to help create a comfortable home working environment for their people, too. Those sit/stand desks certainly aren’t cheap.
One of the biggest challenges with hybrid working has to do with coordinating when employees are in the office.
Remember that for many organizations, the office is becoming a new collaboration hub. This is where employees come to enjoy the teamwork, social interaction, and mentoring they missed most during the pandemic.
But hybrid schedules are complex, and the return to the office has been sporadic at best.
So employees may find themselves frustrated, if they come into the office one day specifically to collaborate—only to find tumbleweeds rolling down the hallways.
Like one frustrated hybrid worker told Vox, when they show up at work and no one on their team is there, “I don’t gain anything besides a commute.”
The answer to this challenge is to provide better visibility into the workplace; employers must give employees a way to quickly and easily see who is going to be in the office, when.
For example, employees will appreciate a visual directory they can easily access on mobile or desktop. They can use it to find the people and resources they need. And all the better if they can use that same app to book into desks and send facilities requests.
The Who’s In feature from OfficeSpace Solutions takes this one step further, showing employees exactly when their colleagues will be in, along with where they’ll be sitting. Armed with these invaluable insights, employees can develop a schedule that will allow them to be happiest and most productive.
When employees come into the office on differing schedules, this presents another hybrid working challenge for employers. Getting a handle on how the office is actually being used.
As we’ve covered, real estate concerns are driving many decisions around the permanent switch to hybrid working.
But even companies not actively looking to shrink their real estate portfolio (and reap the accompanying cost-savings) can still benefit from good workplace analytics. Analytics that help them understand how their hybrid workforce is actually interacting with the office.
“The thoughts you have today on how the workplace will best benefit the employees and the business may not actually be where you end up.” David Cocchiara, OfficeSpace Software CEO
“The thoughts you have today on how the workplace will best benefit the employees and the business may not actually be where you end up.”
Specifically, if employers are able to use space management software (and possibly IoT sensors) to gather data around occupancy rate, office density, and space utilization, they’ll gain a much better understanding of how the office is currently being used. And how it can be better optimized.
Not only can this data help improve employee experience. It can also dramatically improve both facility planning and restacking the workplace.
There are many benefits of working remotely for both employees and employers. But managing a distributed workforce is no walk in the park.
Having employees in different time zones (and therefore with different working hours) is becoming increasingly widespread. It can be a challenge to manage hybrid teams located in different parts of the country (or world). Leaders and managers will therefore need carefully considered plans in place when handling people in different offices and/or locations.
We all know why collaboration is important in the workplace. But good collaboration can only happen when people feel connected to the company and each other. And when they enjoy formal and informal interactions with their colleagues. Or when teams are able to avoid silos.
Thankfully, many services have sprung up to help handle these complicated logistics. This includes services in areas like communication, file sharing, and hybrid meetings.
“Leaders need to decide on the type of culture they want, the signals that are appropriate to communicate it, and how and when to send them without distortion.”Pamela Hinds and Brian Elliott, Forbes
“Leaders need to decide on the type of culture they want, the signals that are appropriate to communicate it, and how and when to send them without distortion.”
That said, managing a widespread team isn’t just about installing scheduling software, setting up video calls, and calling it a day.
It’s also about ensuring that managers are equipped to handle the nuances and challenges of far-flung, hybrid teams. This may require additional training.
“There are best practices and nuances to managing a mixed remote and hybrid team,” says workplace strategist Angie Earlywine, Senior Director in the Total Workplace division of Global Occupier Services at Cushman & Wakefield. “And there are benefits to having regular training programs. Don’t assume managers don’t need training and that employees know how to not just survive, but thrive in this new model.”
Finally, companies should also be aware that a new distributed workforce may lead to underutilization of the physical office. When this happens, they can pull in space utilization data (see above) to inform better decision-making. This informs how best to optimize their real estate for their new reality on the ground.
Given the productivity from remote teams we’ve seen in the past two years, some of the old biases against remote working are becoming a thing of the past. Does anyone really think that remote workers are just napping at home all day anymore?
Now we all know that good employees can and will do their best work, regardless of where they’re sitting. This is assuming they’ve been given the right tools and technology to do so.
Like Earlywine stresses, companies need to trust their people, because “the labor market is too competitive now to not be doing what you love.” People want to do their best work.
But of course, while conscious bias against remote work may be falling away, unconscious bias still persists. And it can have big, unfair consequences for remote workers. Research shows that remote employees tend to get smaller raises and fewer promotions. This is despite being just as productive and competent as their in-office counterparts.
“One of the challenges with hybrid working will be maintaining strong cultures, morale and camaraderie among team members—and ensuring fairness and equity both in practice and in perception.”Tracy Brower, Forbes
“One of the challenges with hybrid working will be maintaining strong cultures, morale and camaraderie among team members—and ensuring fairness and equity both in practice and in perception.”
The best way to start overcoming any biases is to first recognize the problem.
Then, ensure managers have the right training. Ensure that the lack of physical face time doesn’t unfairly undermine full-time remote or hybrid workers.
There are also many new strategies and best practices emerging to counter this problem. This is along with creating more inclusivity in general. For example, reviews and meetings can always be done via video conferencing, even when some people are in the office.
Each company therefore needs to come up with solutions that work for their unique situation, to avoid any inequity in the workplace.
One of the biggest concerns and challenges for employers when it comes to hybrid working is maintaining company culture. Thankfully, for companies that take this challenge seriously, the latest research is promising.
“If you’re worried that hybrid workforce and remote work models will ruin your organizational culture, data suggests you’re wrong.”Jackie Wiles, Gartner
“If you’re worried that hybrid workforce and remote work models will ruin your organizational culture, data suggests you’re wrong.”
A large 2021 Gartner study of new remote and hybrid employees found that 76% reported their company culture had improved.
These same happy employees were more likely to report high employee engagement, higher discretionary effort, and more intent to stay (critical data as the Great Resignation marches on).
Of course, company culture used to grow naturally from in-person interactions. It only stays vibrant in a hybrid office if leadership takes the right steps to ensure it remains a top priority.
“The clients that we’ve seen implement hybrid working successfully have really clear communication around what it means to be flexible, and around the shared responsibility everyone has to make it work together,” says Ketter.
With the past few years under our belts, many companies have started to figure out best practices around events and get-togethers. This is whether they’re in person or via Zoom (or possibly a combo of both).
Beyond this, companies should look to create clear communication and guidelines around policies and tools.
Employees need the right messaging to know exactly how they should interact with each other. And what types of engagement are expected from them.
Consider that research from the HOW Institute for Society found that since the pandemic began, employees with managers who are flexible with scheduling and ‘open to sharing personal updates and emotions’ are 90% more likely to feel connected to their manager. 80% more likely to feel connected to their colleagues. And 60% more likely to feel connected to their organization. And there’s nothing stopping this openness from happening via Zoom.
Hybrid organizations also need to ensure (again) that managers have the right training to support their employees. This can include regular check-ins to ensure everyone is having the experience you want them to have.
“You need to be able to evaluate feedback from your pulse checks, make sure that you understand the ideal state for your team, and acknowledge that what worked for your team on month one of your return to office journey may differ six months down the road,” says Earlywine.
HR also needs to be more involved with hybrid teams. They need to ensure they have clear guidelines and the necessary policies in place. Remote onboarding can be particularly tricky. So HR will likely also need to develop new policies to ensure they’re meeting new employees where they are.
Finally, thanks to the Great Resignation, even companies that once only paid lip service to workplace wellbeing now have to put employee experience and engagement front and center. Employees are no longer willing to put their own work-life balance on the back burner.
Of course, burnout is always possible, even in hybrid and fully remote models. Companies can help address this by ensuring there are guidelines around standard working hours. No one should feel the need to work ten hours a day to ‘make up’ for being home.
Note, too, that a recent study in the Journal for occupational and environmental medicine found that decreased physical and mental wellbeing for remote workers is linked to, among other causes, communication with coworkers, distractions, and their home office.
So in many ways, promoting health and wellness in a hybrid workplace is about addressing all the challenges we’ve covered here. Like improving communication and giving everyone access to the physical spaces they need.
And of course, like always, employees need good benefits that include mental health care as well.
Employees will face many of these same challenges when it comes to hybrid work. Like staying connected with their employees and accessing the right resources remotely. They’ll also have their own personal challenges when it comes to work-life balance. And with finding a schedule that works best for them.
Of course, how well they’re able to navigate these challenges will depend in large part on how much support they receive from their employers in the process.
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