How to get hybrid work right for the long term

Hybrid work is work; it just needs a bit more infrastructure in place.

As hybrid work shifted from an emergency response to a permanent reality, 65 percent of Canadian knowledge workers now work in either a remote or hybrid format. And while the vast majority (89 percent) of Canadians are keen on hybrid work, fewer than one-quarter of them (22 percent) say they are thriving in a hybrid environment, according to recent research.

Experts in support of remote work say employee difficulties are the fault of leadership, while leaders driving the return-to-office push say hybrid work is fundamentally flawed.

For John P. Trougakos, a professor of organizational behaviour at the University of Toronto and a workplace productivity consultant, both parties have a point, depending on the circumstances. But it’s unlikely that hybrid work is going away any time soon. So what are businesses to do?

Speaking with BetaKit, Trougakos explained how to truly get hybrid work right—and why no two organizations should use the same strategy.

There’s no standard model for hybrid work

The single term ‘hybrid work’ encompasses a near-unlimited number of working arrangements. For example, employees could be in the office four days a week and remote for one—or vice versa. Some businesses schedule at a weekly cadence, requiring employees to do one week in the office, and two weeks remote. One of Trougakos’ clients even schedules annually, telling employees they must be in person for 18 specific days per year.

“It comes down to really examining what needs to be in person.”

The different types of hybrid work can cause confusion, but Trougkaos sees this variety as a powerful tool because companies have an opportunity to define hybrid work in a way that works for them.

“It bodes well for organizations to keep that definition a little more flexible,” said Trougakos. “I know they don’t like uncertainty a lot of times and people do kind of want some kind of standardization. But the reality is this is a great way to create work models that work for different companies.”

Hybrid work is a (solvable) process problem

Like any other work model, Trougakos said successful hybrid work planning starts with organizational effectiveness. That is, companies need to document what work they need to accomplish overall, and then identify which parts are best suited to in-person work versus remote work.

“It comes down to really examining what needs to be in person,” said Trougakos. “So what’s the point of being in the office space and making sure that when people are coming in that there is a very specific purpose.”

This step helps you identify what cadence might be necessary for your organization—not because of a recent trend, but because it gives employees the flexibility and autonomy they want to get more work done.

Once you’ve identified the cadence that might work, you have three factors to consider: performance management, technology, and security. To get performance management right, leaders need to prioritize consistency, trackability, and communication. This means setting performance objectives for each role and each work type (in-person versus remote) with relevant metrics to help you track progress.

“When we talk about metrics, we’re talking about outcomes,” said Trougakos. “When we empower our staff, when we create an environment where there’s trust, you’re not watching how everyone does every bit of their job.”

Technology solutions must be considered to enable everyone to do their work in both office and remote settings, but also the seamless transition between the two work environments.

“A lot of companies thought about, ‘how do we make the transition back into the office better?” said Trougakos. “But I don’t know that they went down to the micro level and thought, ‘well, on a day-to-day basis or a week-to-week basis, what technologies do we need to make that smooth between the two places?’”

A key part of enabling both high-quality work and a smooth transition between work locations is security. While Trougakos said there will be some additional concerns around hybrid work compared to solely in-office work, he said the issue is not new.

“It’s an ongoing problem that has to be addressed, at all levels of government and organizations, whatever it is,” said Trougakos. “This is not a new thing. This is not something that’s unique to hybrid or remote work.”

Technology solutions must be considered to enable everyone to do their work in both office and remote settings, but also the seamless transition between the two work environments.

The solution, Trougakos noted, is to build robust use policies, communicate those policies, and make the consequences of non-compliance (i.e., the risk of a hack) well known.

“I don’t think that people want to deal with the consequences when they happen, but maybe they’re not aware because we’ve just integrated technology so freely into our life in every way that we take for granted the potential negatives,” said Trougakos.

When organizations take the time to plan what kind of work actually needs to be done and create the plans to empower and manage it, Trougakos said they begin to target the three fundamental psychological needs that humans have at work: the need for competence, the need for autonomy, and the need for relatedness.

This is all underpinned by trust. When you structure your work for a certain cadence and when you set outcome-based performance management policies in place, you are putting trust in your employees. But putting these mechanisms in place and not abiding by them is a big statement that you don’t trust your team—and if that’s the case, how are the models supposed to work?

“Where there is that lack of trust between leaders and their staff, then you don’t have a model that works well regardless of whatever type of model you’re doing,” said Trougakos.

Nothing is static for eternity

Having the right performance culture, metrics, trust, and tech enables hybrid work for the long term. But since the structure of every organization’s working arrangements should be based on the work that the organization needs to accomplish, Trougakos said it is inherently subject to change and “there is nothing that should be static for eternity.”

The key is to make change decisions on the same framework rather than changing with trends. For example, Trougakos explained that the 9-5 was the norm for decades due to structural and technological constraints, but that has now been upended; that means all businesses are currently presented with the opportunity to do better.

“The new norm is companies being able to cater their work models to what works best for them and their employees,” said Trougakos.

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Stefan Palios

Stefan Palios

Stefan is a Nova Scotia-based entrepreneur and writer passionate about the people behind tech. He's interviewed over 200 entrepreneurs on topics like management, scaling, diversity and inclusion, and sharing their personal stories. Follow him on Twitter @stefanpalios.

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