Remote, hybrid or office-based work – how can companies navigate the months ahead
Professor Finian Buckley shares his insights on remote, home-based and flexible working as companies prepare for a new work landscape post-COVID-19.
Q: A year on, companies are undecided on remote working. How important will flexible working be?
I think that no single year in recent history has had the transformative effect on how we perceive “work” and “working”, as the period since March 2020. There is hardly a worker who has not experienced disruption to their work life, be that enforced unemployment, being furloughed, working remotely or the stressful demands faced by so many essential and frontline workers.
As we emerge from the crisis (hopefully) it is timely for firm leaders to review and re-evaluate what the last year has taught them – how work in their firm is organised, where this ‘working’ should be located and what new forms might support sustainable growth. Indeed, there is growing evidence that the pandemic has afforded many employees the opportunity to review why they work, not to mind where and how they work. If vaccinations confirm long-term protection, as we all hope, I predict that the next 12 to 14 months will see a post-pandemic backwash provoking significant developments in the organisation of work, workplaces and worker mobility.
Already, progressive senior management teams are proactively reviewing what the crisis has taught them regarding the effective structure and dynamics of work. Many firms adapted or pivoted in order to effectively deliver customer and market needs during the pandemic. Now it is opportune to reflect on what have they learned? What roles within the organisation benefited from remote working? While decades of research evidence exist indicating that voluntary remote working results in greater employee job satisfaction, performance dividends, lower job turnover and reduced stress (e.g. Bloom et al., 2015), few firms embraced these potential benefits until remote working was mandated!
What is clearer now is that the remote work performance dividend was not true for all roles. Jobs and roles such those in food production and processing, construction and many essential services could not be delivered remotely. It became clear that some roles require and prosper with face time, be they customer facing roles, roles in which knowledge creation, exchange and sharing are central, and especially roles where collective innovation or real-time decision making is core. In contrast, some more technical and administrative roles were perfectly suited to remote work and in many cases productivity jumped significantly. Many of these contented remote working employees reported higher engagement and motivation as they crafted their own work schedules and rhythms, adopting a project-like approach to their work, while balancing home life demands. Yet another category of roles seemed perfectly suited to hybrid working, a number of days each week working from home and a few days dedicated collaborative work from a co-located venue.
So, the message is not uniform, as with any change we need to reflect a little before we advance!
Q: Taking a Management perspective, how can these differing messages be navigated?
Evidence would suggest that now would be a great time to conduct a peremptory reassessment, reflective of the ‘After Action Review (AAR)’ model borrowed from military strategy where members conduct a focused evaluation of a recent operation, deconstructing what occurred from several perspectives, looking to learn from what was successful and to study any shortcomings with a view to manage these in future.
Much of my current work at DCU is assisting Irish SMEs to grow and professionalise. Many SMEs don’t have the luxury of a developed HR department to assist with strategic talent reviews, so to help I have developed this following simple three layer 9-question analysis template to assist CEOs and senior teams to review the last year and to gains some understanding of how they might manage the coming year. The template based in a simple AAR, can just as easily be adapted for use by team managers and department leads in larger firms. It focuses on a 9-Question approach, three questions regarding reviewing how well strategy/goals were executed over the pandemic, three questions that focus on return to work planning and three questions that focus on employee needs now that we exit the pandemic influenced work approaches.
In sequence, the first step of the AAR is a review of the delivery of overall strategy (or team/project goals) over the period. What has worked well, what have we learned from this, balanced with what has not worked, why and what can we conclude from this? Finally, the strategy/goal review should take a ‘reflective growth mindset’ approach, by assessing what opportunities or possibilities has the experience offered us?
Second, focusing on staff and return to work planning, each firm (team/department) needs to conduct a role led review, which importantly in the first instance, is not a named employee review. The goal is to separate roles that cannot be delivered in a remote work format, from those that were delivered successfully remotely. Finally, there will be many roles that would deliver well in hybrid form, some days in office and some days working remotely. This role identification may assist if the new post-pandemic work strategy requires the creation of new or differently defined roles.
The final step of the AAR will involve communicating with employees to understand their experience of working through the pandemic. What worked well for them, what did not, and how they would like to work in the future? Seeking the direct feedback of employees is an essential step in the review, as many employees may have different experiences. For instance, some emergent research (Grelle & Popp, 2021) indicates extraverted employees have experienced remote work as isolating and they hunger for a return to the office. In contrast, employees what are more introverted may dread the spectre of a full return to the office and see it as disrupting their productivity.
Emerging evidence suggests that if given a choice regarding remote/home working, some subgroups of employees are more likely to elect to embrace the option than others (Sherman, 2020). For instance, working parents of young children are more likely to seek remote/home work or hybrid options than are single workers in their 20’s who desire the meaning and collective experience of co-located working.
Q: So, Managers really need to plan for the possibilities of remote-home working and the prospect of hybrid working ?
Yes, this is a definite one occasion where taking a strategic and reflective approach will help avoid many potential difficulties over the coming months. Consider for a moment a team made up of 8 employees, where 4 younger members want to return to full-time work in the office, while two women team members, parents of young children, would like a hybrid working option (2 days a week in the office), while two more feel they can deliver more effectively working full-time remotely from their new post-pandemic base on the other side of the country!
The manager is faced with a conflict between ensuring that the interdependencies between individuals, roles and jobs are supported while also attempting to meet employee’s individual needs. Managers and leaders facing challenges like this need to weigh up maximising efficiencies, ensuring productivity potential while ensuring the team does not separate into two/three sub-units that become distanced. Much easier to manage when all members were co-located! Reflecting this, a number of large financial services firms in the USA, when recently faced with this eventuality, decided on a full return to work policy, no negotiation! They can expect some significant turnover in coming months as their competitors adopt a more sophisticated approach to designing a post-pandemic work location strategy that facilitates fluidity, recognising the productivity dividend.
Q: Any advice for managers planning the imminent return to work for their staff who have not been in the office for most of a year.
Most larger employers have return to work teams and volunteer officers who are charged with ensuring that workplaces meet the prevailing criteria and adhere to government guidelines. Some of these criteria will restrict workplace movement and interaction, at least in the short term. A clear outline of these protocols should be communicated before there is a return to the workplace so that expectations are transparent and surprises are to a minimum. Couple a protocol document with a meeting where employees can ask questions and seek clarifications regarding new protocols and practices.
When employees face uncertainty they seek leadership guidance and direction. Leaders and managers should consciously attempt balance directive communication (this is what we propose to implement and this is why…), with employee considerate communication (your safety and well-being are our first concern…). This build trust and confidence and a sense that while most employees are a least a little anxious about the return to the office, this reality is shared by management and staff will be supported.
At a more practical level, there is little doubt that managers will need to be tuned to employee needs and experiences and be ready to give effective support where needed. Research I conducted with my colleague Prof. Melrona Kirrane over a decade ago still holds true, when faced with work-non-work conflict issues, employees value managers who can offer immediate instrumental support (solutions!) above those who just adhere to policy (Kirrane & Buckley, 2004).
The coming months will be testing but taking a reflective approach and adopting a growth or learning mindset we can, not alone manage the challenges, but create new work environments that leverage all our new learning while hopefully meeting the emerging needs of employees. Here at DCU we are looking at embedding crisis management leadership in several of our senior leadership development courses, as we seek to equip leaders of the future with the perspectives to successfully navigate future disruptions, while keeping enterprise to the fore.
Bloom, N., Liang, J., Roberts, J., & Ying, Z. J. (2015). Does working from home work? Evidence from a Chinese experiment. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 130(1), 165– 218.
Grelle, D., & E. Popp. (2021). Considering the interaction of individual differences and remote work contexts. Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 14, 244–247.
Kirrane, M., & Buckley, F. (2004). The influence of Support Relationships on Work-Family Conflict: Differentiating emotional from instrumental support. Career Development International, 23 (1/2), 78-96.
Sherman, E. L. (2020). Discretionary remote working helps mothers without harming non-mothers: Evidence from a field experiment. Management Science, 66(3), 1351-1374.
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