More than a year of a lot of working from home has changed the concept of the ideal workspace.
During the pandemic, many employees learned to appreciate the advantages of working from home once they acquired the necessary infrastructure. Many employers noted reduced costs without a loss in productivity and as a result are extending the practice until the end of 2021 with occasional visits to the office.
The post-pandemic challenge is to devise a hybrid model that would work best for an organisation and its employees. How much can be done remotely? What components of the assembly chain require employees to be present at the office? How should time, tasks, and locations be balanced so that products and services can be delivered smoothly at the optimal cost while not sacrificing the professional culture of an organisation?
“There’s an underlying difficulty in letting go of control — the need to monitor working hours, the need to treat everyone ‘equally’, which is complicated by the fact that part of the organisation [the office staff] can work from home while sales and manufacturing are bound to be at the workplace,” said Rashmi Datt, an India-based organisational development and leadership facilitator.
Complexity for managers has increased, Datt said. Timelines for deliverables haven’t changed, but in a hybrid workspace people work different hours across different locations and time zones. To manage a distributed team, leadership has to be more intentional about building culture and has to be more output-driven than task-driven.
While a hybrid workspace gives employees more flexibility, it also presents challenges for them. Varun Shankarnarayan, ACMA, CGMA, an engagement manager at MyCFO, an implementation services company that provides CFO and finance effectiveness services to clients, said learning opportunities may be diminished outside the dynamics of the office workspace.
“An individual’s career development, especially in the early stages, is hugely influenced by the skills learned by observing, listening, and interacting with your peers, managers, and mentors,” Shankarnarayan said. “Since there’s limited scope for these now, individuals must take it upon themselves to learn and grow, take up online courses to sharpen various skills, and reach out to their managers to find out ways in which they can plan their career development.”
Working from home can also affect employee creativity, said Bamby Abraham, ACMA, CGMA, CPA (Australia), a Bangalore, India-based lead for commercials and pricing at Capgemini, a French IT services and consulting company. Abraham said working from home can lead to decreased physical activity and increase calorie consumption and anxiety among employees. “This can lead to reduced creativity and synergy in the team,” he said.
The inherent challenges of a hybrid workspace can be tackled once an organisation devises the kind of hybrid model that works for it, said Maureen Chiana, a UK-based neuro-leadership and resilience consultant and coach.
“Culture is about behaviour, not location,” Chiana said, adding that effective hybrid working is about matching the task to the location and doing the right work in the right place. “A hybrid workspace is not just about combining remote working and office working but focusing on how to work more effectively across the different domains of the organisation.”
Pointers on building an effective hybrid workspace
The new hybrid workspace is all about work/life integration. To ensure the model works at all levels from the beginning, Shankarnarayan, Abraham, Datt, and Chiana suggested these best practices to working effectively in a hybrid workspace while ensuring fairness and career development:
Re-examine your organisation’s vision and purpose. Go back to the basics. Identify your organisation’s culture and examine it, Chiana said. Is it serving you well? Is it sustainable in the new situation? Accordingly update it. Embed a culture of growth mindset.
Encourage collaboration and developing relationships. Hold regular training sessions, team meetings, and activities such as town halls to engage and inspire employees. Set up ways of recognition, such as shoutouts, and set an example and provide team members with a standard to strive for, Datt said.
Since remote teams don’t have the luxury of building rapport around the water cooler, conduct planned individual conversations that extend beyond the professional. Use one-to-one meetings to deepen relationships and express appreciation or concerns. Set an honest and comprehensive tone to ensure the whole team is on the same page, Datt said.
Promote upskilling. Employees should focus on personal and professional development and make the most of the days spent in the office, but professional development training and performance management should be reviewed and updated to match the organisation’s hybrid model.
Make autonomy the fuel. Design a work environment that focuses on giving employees autonomy to have a say on how they work. “This requires a mind shift that focuses on work effectiveness and accountability and will ultimately increase engagement and motivation,” Chiana said.
Streamline communication and build a culture of psychological safety. Ensure clarity of communication, Datt said. “It’s of utmost importance to have structured, one-on-one communication,” she added. “Sarcasm, emojis, or vague remarks can be misinterpreted when they are not accompanied by the body language and facial cues that our brains rely on.”
She recommended not using emojis or GIFs while giving instructions or describing problems, but said it’s OK to use emotional forms of communication, such as happiness, celebration, and sadness. Datt also recommended switching the video camera on during team meetings and one-on-one communication. “Seeing the facial reactions of team members can add emphasis and emotion to conversations. It also ensures that members are paying attention,” she said.
Open channels for anonymous feedback.
Adopt new habits, become role models. Leaders must reinforce the new working paradigm. Have clear guidelines about work styles, encourage collaboration and creativity, lead with emotional intelligence, and communicate effectively with all employees regardless of where they are working from. All these are acquired habits that grow over time.
Stay transparent and take your staff on-board. “If you want employees to be proactive, then they must know why they are doing something and how it makes an impact,” Abraham said.
Focus on employees’ mental and emotional health. This can be done “by capping weekly working hours, ensuring that weekends are not spent working remotely, and by introducing mandatory monthly leaves for employees to unwind,” Shankarnarayan said. Mandatory leaves may not be an option, though, in some locations where they are not commonly provided. Additional options to help employees include providing flexible schedules and reminding them of the availability of an employee assistance programme should they need it.
Respect employee privacy and have dedicated times for office and social calls to promote positive work relationships, Chiana said.
Revise standards and define the rewards. The new system needs new standards. Rewards and recognitions should be realigned. Individuals can be recognised publicly for their extraordinary work and commitment.
Ensure equal access to opportunities and resources. All employees must have equal access to resources, professional development opportunities, and technological support.
— Swati Sanyal Tarafdar is a freelance writer based in India. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Sabine Vollmer, an FM magazine senior editor, at Sabine.Vollmer@aicpa-cima.com.