As COVID-19 continues its erratic spread around the globe, with vaccinations helping cases fall in some areas while variants drive surges elsewhere, many organizations are busy making plans for their employees to return to the office. What was normal for the office 18 months ago, however, is unlikely to be the reality most workers will return to.
Office workers have had a taste of the benefits of remote working, and many are not keen to return to a daily commute, though most would like to spend part of their workweek in the office. At the same time, companies have noticed employees are more productive working from home and realised there are some major cost savings to be found by downsizing office space in large, expensive cities.
Some organisations have already taken the drastic step of closing all their offices and making their employees permanent home workers. Many more are planning to adopt a hybrid workplace model, where some employees may be fully remote, some may work in the office full-time, and most will split their work time between the office and home (or another remote location) in a way that suits both them and their employer.
Many companies have likely never had an official non-pandemic-induced work-from-home policy in place, let alone an established hybrid working framework. But implementing a remote-work policy doesn’t have to be scary, says Darren Murph, head of remote at GitLab. In fact, he notes, many large companies were already partway there even before the pandemic.
“If you look at a company with 5,000 people in a building, the people on floor three are already remote to the people on floor eight,” he says. “They almost never see each other; they may as well be on a different continent. But a lot of companies haven’t given voice to that or acknowledged it.”
Time to stop winging it
What white-collar workers have experienced over the past year does not equate to intentional remote work, says Murph, who worked at organisations supporting hybrid work for 14 years before joining GitLab, an all-remote company, in 2019.
“Quarantine-induced work from home is definitely not the same as intentionally designed remote work, but many companies are conflating them as exactly the same thing,” he says. “When you’re intentional about it, collaboration is easier, team building is easier, culture building is easier.”
Angela Ashenden, principal analyst, workplace transformation at CCS Insight, underscores that point. She says much of the change in how people work during the last year or so has been tactical and localised, with organisations sorting everything out ad hoc and individual teams often finding their own way. “But now it's important to try to build in some structure, consistency, and predictability, to ensure the whole business is working in rhythm through strong and progressive leadership.”
Ashenden says company leaders need to realise that hybrid working is not just about having some people in the office and some people working from home. “It has huge consequences for the way people will work independently, how they work collaboratively, how the company culture will develop, how you think about workplace technology and the employee experience, and for the policies that you need to ensure a fair, inclusive, and healthy work environment,” she says.
For IT, that means supporting users in myriad ways, including provisioning equipment that enables workers wherever they are to do their work comfortably and successfully, providing the right collaboration technology, digitising and automating work processes, and protecting devices and data. More fundamentally, it means coordinating with other company leaders to change the corporate culture and craft policies to ensure a successful hybrid workplace.
So, how can IT leaders implement hybrid and remote policies that benefit both employees and employers long term? Here’s expert advice on how organisations can get it right from the start.
“You need a level playing field,” says Penny Pullan, an expert in virtual and hybrid work leadership and the author of books including Virtual Leadership: Practical Strategies for Getting the Best Out of Virtual Work and Virtual Teams. “When you’ve got some [employees] in the office and some remote, the inequalities can begin to creep in. Over many years, I’ve heard people say, ‘“If I’m remote, and everybody else is in the office, it’s almost as if I don’t exist.’”
Murph echoes that thought. “When you look at who is praised and promoted in a hybrid organisation, it is more likely that those who stay remote by default will have fewer opportunities for career advancement because of that ‘out of sight, out of mind’ type of mentality,” he says.
The all-virtual approach most companies have taken during the pandemic has temporarily leveled the playing field, but that will change when some workers go back to the office, notes Pullan, who holds a PhD in nanotechnology from Cambridge University.
The best way to promote equality among hybrid teams, she says, is to think “remote-first” when establishing business norms and interactions among employees. “To try and minimise the potential for unconscious bias, always stop and say, ‘What are we doing for remote?’ If we’re choosing a new way of working, always have this remote-first mindset.”
Murph advises companies to think about remote-first principles not in terms of where people work, but how they work. If you go into the office and hold a meeting, he posits, “do you fundamentally do that meeting differently in the office, compared to how you would have done it if you were at home?” Organisations need to audit their processes and ensure they work on days when the entire workforce is not in the office; that way they’ll also work when any number of employees are in the office, he says.
Interactions with managers and among co-workers are also important. “You’ll probably need more check-ins with remote people because you aren’t bumping into them in the same way that you would if you were in the office,” Pullan says. “Something that’s quite useful is to have time slots where everybody’s going to be available and accessible. Your employee might not be in the office, but you know that between this time and this time on Tuesday, or maybe a couple of times a week, everybody is open to having a chat.”
Companies also need to think about how they will fairly accommodate employees’ scheduling requests for in-office vs. at-home days as well as how to measure employee performance, Pullan says. “There’s been some horrendous stories of companies using applications that monitor their employees’ computers or have webcams that take pictures of them to see if they’re there. All of that will just destroy trust and motivation. You need to measure the important stuff, which is that the work gets done.”
One of the best ways for remote workers to feel involved is to be asked for their thoughts on making the hybrid workplace work. “Get input from your employees when you’re setting up these guidelines and policies,” Pullan says. “Obviously, there will be some company-wide policies that you will need to take into account, but for your team, get people’s input. Find out what their preferences are and go from there.”
Management must set an example
Ensuring a remote-first mindset begins at the top, Murph says. Executives must work from home at least some of the time to establish and reinforce a company culture that embraces remote work as much as being in the office.
At a previous employer, Murph recalls, “I never knew when the executive team was going to be in the office, and that was intentional.... That meant that all of our workflows had to work on days that they were not there too.”
When executives work outside the office frequently, “it sends the signal that you don’t need to come to the office to progress your career and that there is actual inclusivity and flexibility,” Murph says. That’s an enormous relief for elder caregivers, working parents, military spouses, and others who might feel pressured to prioritise face time at the office over family. “If the executives are [working remotely], then you can as well. It’s a huge signal, and I don’t think a lot of executives appreciate that.”
Both Murph and Pullan believe that the office should no longer be the epicenter of power. “If all the senior people are having face-to-face meetings or working in-person in a building, then that office is seen as the center for decision making, and people will want to be close to it — whereas if senior people are actually working remotely, that’s another way of getting past this bias, because people just forget about trying to be seen by senior leadership,” Pullan says.
Technology is key
Companies around the world discovered at the start of the pandemic that various collaboration technologies were essential to their teams’ ability to communicate and work together productively. While videoconferencing software saw the biggest upsurge and attracted the most attention, collaboration tools of all stripes proved important.
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