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When It Comes to Hybrid Work, Employers Must Trust But Verify

Most discussions of hybrid work center on the increased sense of autonomy for employees, but how can employers best manage hybrid work?

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Hybrid work

Often when we talk about hybrid work, our conversations are centered on employees’ increased sense of autonomy. But while most employees embrace this newfound flexibility, employers have struggled to find the best approach. What happens to workplace effectiveness when employers are allowed to work any time, anywhere, and however they choose? Do managers have to change their approach to management? What improves and what gets worse?

Best practices for hybrid work

Hybrid work models are just starting to emerge and there is little consensus on how to implement them properly. Having to worry more about employees’ mental health is just the start of what management must deal with. Teleworking (the OG term for WFH) has been around since the 1970s but companies have only recently started to address it for the majority of their workforce. At the peak of the pandemic when most countries were under lockdown, an estimated 40 to 50% of people were working from home. In the IT and Education sectors it is 60%. Once workers got a taste of this, they wanted more. For many companies, hybrid work came about as a way to get people back to the office, if only for a few days a week for meetings.

For employers, there’s less to like about hybrid work. Employers fear a loss of control, lowered productivity, and the end of corporate culture. But these are largely an illusion. 

Hybrid work is the new normal

Hybrid work was already happening when the pandemic hit. Forward-thinking Silicon Valley companies led the way, allowing their employees to work from home at least some or all of the time. Twitter employees can decide whether they prefer to work from home or come into the office, permanently. Apple and Google expect employees to work in the office a few days a week but delayed a permanent transition to hybrid work due to recent COVID-19 variants. Financial services firms, Citigroup, HSBC and Standard Chartered are doing something similar. 

Jack Kellam, researcher with Autonomy UK, who studies the future of work says that hybrid work is emerging due to a broad recognition of changing attitudes toward work. “Both the office and home can be productive,” he says. “It all comes down to working practices. People appreciate the opportunity to have autonomy. That’s why we are seeing hybrid work come more to the fore.”

Radical flexibility as a right, not a privilege

Gartner calls this radical flexibility. Employees are starting to see it as more of a right than a privilege. “The expectation of radical flexibility is likely to make a hybrid workforce model more prevalent in the post-COVID-19 world.” Having a choice over where, when, and how you work empowers employees. But leadership must adopt new practices in order to adapt. Otherwise, they risk losing their ability to attract and retain quality employees.

Kellam says companies should view this as an opportunity rather than a crisis. For some companies, the pandemic proved that WFH is a viable option for their company.  While others still cling to what he calls  “received wisdom” about productivity that is out of date. 

Does hybrid “work” for your company?

Whether or not hybrid work can work for your company depends on the industry and the nature of the work your employees do. Hybrid work makes more sense for employees that do most of their work on their own and regularly engage in deep work, for example, writers, coders, and designers: knowledge workers. These people can easily manage the few Zoom calls they have each week to sync up with co-workers and use Slack and Asana to keep them on the same page as their team the rest of the time. 

In some company cultures where in-person meetings are the norm or in an industrial or factory context, this isn’t possible. Hourly workers, such as some Amazon employees, require access to a warehouse or a delivery truck. It is impossible for a construction worker to work from home.  The same is true of people that work at fast food restaurants or in retail. During the pandemic, we saw what can happen when students and teachers can only interact through little boxes on a screen and it wasn’t good.

Benefits for employees who work from home

For employees, this way of working promises many benefits, such as greater autonomy, fewer hours commuting, and increased time for personal errands such as picking the kids up from school and doctor’s visits. But, as with any untested hypothetical on paper, reality is often another story. “Remote working can bring many benefits, but there is a very real danger that it will result in people working more hours with no clear boundaries between work and home life impacting on mental health,” says Will Stronge, Director of Research at Autonomy

Messaging apps best ways to monitor employees remotely

While so-called workplace surveillance tools that allow management to view their employees screens have been available for some time, it is really less sophisticated messaging and project management apps like Slack and Asana that are your best bets for keeping tabs on your employees, according to Kellam.  Employees happily use them because they provide benefits to individuals and teams first and management second. Also, employees know that they are expected to respond to messages in a timely manner and most do so, no matter what else they are doing. 

“The power of surveillance works best when you do it yourself,” says Kellam. Similarly, Zoom and Google Meet all let you see who is attending and participating in a meeting. Newer tools such as Poised go even further, analyzing sentiment and engagement in real-time. But again Poised is designed for workers (other attendees can’t see how you’ve performed) to improve their meeting effectiveness, not as a way to see if someone nodded off during the presentation.

To be truly effective, digital tools need to do more than just connect people. They need to engage and delight. Adding an analytics layer gives people managers what they need to perform active listening (not surveillance) and make sure employees are getting the support they need. Analytics software that looks at sentiment in the aggregate can surface early warning signs such as mental health issues or a lack of engagement—top downsides to hybrid work. It can help you combat burnout, foster more meaningful connections, and reduce proximity bias. Prior to COVID-19, it was enough for people managers just to track general demographic, geographic, and behavioral data. With hybrid work, you need to understand how your employees are feeling, too.

Trust your employees 

Hybrid work may account for increased productivity, but what’s missing from this discussion is an effective way to measure said productivity. Without this, you won’t know if hybrid work is having a positive or negative effect on business outcomes. Managers who subscribe to the school of management by walking around are facing more of an adjustment than those who have always put more trust in their employees. 

It sounds simplistic, but management starts with the hiring process. When you hire good employees, they tend to perform well. That’s not to say that performance can slide. But it’s generally true, no matter where they are working.  “I think you have to trust your people,” says Robert Chan, Senior VP, Head of People Analytics at City Nation Bank in Los Angeles. “Some managers aren’t comfortable with the lack of oversight but for me personally, that’s not the way I like to manage anyway. As long as you get the work done, I don’t care how you allocate your hours. It’s just a different mindset.”

Maintaining equality between remote and on-site workers

What managers really want is more visibility into what their employees are doing. Without this, the early warning signs of burnout can be much harder to detect. A recent phenomenon known as quiet quitting (where employees put in the same hours but only do the work they think they are being paid for) is much worse with hybrid work because you may not know how your employees are spending their time. Furthermore, it creates a gap between remote workers and those that are in the office that may be unfair to the remote workers. Office workers may be perceived as working harder, which is unfair to employees at home who are engaged in deep work that produces meaningful business outcomes for your company. Proximity bias—the subconscious tendency to value and reward physical presence—is even more of a problem for those who prefer to WFH. This especially includes women, minorities and parents with young children.

A lack of face-to-face social stimulation and positive reinforcement keeps people engaged in their work and is absent from remote work. Spending just three days each week in the office, on average, can limit encounters between any two workers by 64% compared with pre-pandemic norms, according to the Economist. The gap widens to 84% in potential interactions for those in the office two days a week.

Planning for a hybrid work model

Hybrid work complicates resource planning. With fewer people coming in less frequently, many of midtown Manhattan’s office towers remain largely empty. People managers might not be directly responsible for filling seats but they are impacted due to difficulties of onboarding and providing desk space when needed. Planning for a hybrid work model is different than for remote versus on-site. Consider hot-desking, which allows workers to share a single physical workstation or space at different times or on different days. This can be combined with job sharing, a concept that is becoming increasingly popular as people’s concept of what work is continues to expand.

Autonomy offers a more utopian approach. According to its research in The New Normal,  hybrid work isn’t just about having a choice between WFH or going into the office. The paper specifically calls out third spaces such as working from a cafe, co-working space, or community work centers as an increasingly popular option that can give employees the socialization they crave without the formality of an office. Autonomy sees this as a way for local governments to capitalize on retail spaces abandoned during the pandemic. These multi-use work centers could allow for childcare, book club meetings, art shows, and concerts, essentially becoming the new town square.

Set yourself up for success

Hybrid work may give you increased productivity from employees who work better on their own, and open you up to a world of talent you may not have otherwise had access to. With access to tools like people analytics and collaboration analytics, you’ll have a better understanding of how your hybrid work plan is impacting your employees, so that you can adjust accordingly.

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