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Unlocking business growth through hybrid working

By Sridhar Iyengar, Managing Director at Zoho Europe

The global Coronavirus pandemic has completely transformed working practices, ushering in a new era of remote and flexible working standards that are set to continue indefinitely, even when full restrictions lift in the UK this month.

With millions of workers set for an at least partial return to office-based working in the coming months, business leaders need to think clearly about how to get the best out of a weary workforce who may be tired of daily, expensive commutes and are seeking more time at home, now they have had opportunity to become accustomed to it.

When the Covid-19 pandemic first hit, there was much debate around whether companies had the infrastructure, IT resources and energy to operate without face-to-face contact. However, even some of the country’s largest and most successful organisations quickly discovered that not only could they continue to grow in a 100% remote working environment, but they also discovered that their employees were largely happy to experience the benefits of home working, including the opportunity to enjoy more family time.

With the government declaration that nearly all restrictions on travel, commuting and social distancing are to be scrapped this month, employers have to find a way to combine the requirements of staff who wish to stay at home and those who are itching to get back into city and office life, have more social time with colleagues, perhaps enjoy a more structured work environment and enjoy the benefits of office-working such as spontaneous creativity and collaboration that is difficult to replicate remotely. The only way to achieve the best of both worlds is through widespread adoption of a hybrid working mode.

We have already seen multiple global companies like banks and management consultancies commit to different long term business operation strategies that embrace hybrid working. For example, staff working at UK-based professional services firm Deloitte will be able to work wherever they want when Covid restrictions are eased. Approximately 15,000 Deloitte staff responded to an internal survey about the future of work at the firm, with more than 80% of those saying they expected to work from a Deloitte office for two days or fewer per week. More than 90% of Deloitte’s workforce said ‘choice’ and ‘flexibility’ should be at the heart of how the business operates in future.

Other companies, like HSBC and JP Morgan are to have thousands of employees working permanently from home, suggesting that some of the changes seen will outlast the pandemic. So, we are seeing a mixed industry response. Some employers have given employees permission to continue working remotely for the foreseeable future, while others have recalled staff to the workplace on different schedules and in staggered groups. Meanwhile, others are leaving it entirely up to individual workers to decide where to base themselves. But businesses are also starting to think about the longer term, including alternative ways to structure working days through communication and hours as well as considering how necessary physical presence is.

What hybrid working involves
Hybrid work refers to a blend of home or remote and office-based working. This has always existed, but its prevalence has been accelerated by the pandemic and subsequent remote working experiment.

The business benefits of hybrid working
Better Collaboration and Work Relationships
Many organisations can thrive if their employees can, at least part of the time, collaborate via face-to-face meetings in the same space. When all employees work from home and can only meet virtually, it can be harder for a company to function at optimum levels.

Traditional office-based working and its face-to-face interactions make collaboration easier. It allows employees to be social with colleagues and discuss useful ideas during informal in-person conversations. Innovation is often created through unplanned spontaneous in-person collaboration. Learning with peers can be tricky when remote working, and ideation too is often unstructured and not listed on an agenda. Employers should ensure the workplace is best set up to provide an environment which encourages this practice, and we see that as the purpose of the office of the future, not just a place to get through employee ‘to-do lists’.

Interestingly, the lack of face-to-face interaction can hinder work relationships. Deploying a hybrid work model allows staff to have the best of both worlds – employees can experience the benefits of collaborative, in-person relationships while also having the chance to work remotely on tasks that require deeper individual focus.

Improved Work-Life Balance
Work-life balance is a vital aspect of any healthy working environment. It helps prevent burnout and minimises stress, which can negatively impact employees’ mental and physical well-being.

An organisation that prioritises work-life balance maintains a healthier and more productive workforce and saves money. With a hybrid model, a workforce can better balance their personal lives with their job responsibilities. When working from home, employees can structure their day to use breaks for essential things such as childcare, resulting in improved focus and attentiveness when they are working.

Employees who feel that their employers help them to create a good work-life balance are more likely to be motivated to succeed, so this can play a big part in contributing to an organisation’s overall success.

Increased Productivity
Productivity gains can come from greater flexibility and increased focus while working. Remote working allows greater flexibility since employees can work from any location, at any time. As such, they can balance their workloads easily. Despite these benefits, remote working is not always the best option for some employees, for example, if they lack a dedicated workspace, or if kids at home make it difficult to work uninterrupted.

By contrast, in-office setups provide individual spaces that can be equipped with collaboration tools such as video conferencing facilities, good audio, and video capabilities. Employees can maximise productivity by leveraging these technology capabilities while on-premises and save individual tasks for when they are home alone.

There needs to be a huge focus on the importance of trust, culture & leadership, especially now that staff will not be physically in the office every day and may work more flexible hours rather than the usual 9-5 working day. Some managers who have operated more rigidly for many years may find it difficult to adjust, but adaptability is required in order to make these working models of today and tomorrow a true success. In fact, culture itself needs to be more firmly managed to ensure it remains entrenched in an organisation despite the staff not being in a physical workplace every day.

Wider Talent Pools
When it comes to hiring, an organisation that follows a hybrid work model can choose local talent or source from a global workforce. Hiring locally signals to clients and customers that you are invested in your local community. However, this prevents you from accessing the wider pool of talent that is available. Blending remote and office working can be a driver in pushing for a greater breadth and depth of talent, and so organisations that employ hybrid work models can attract more skilled and diverse employees across multiple geographies than those without one. This can also open opportunities for a more diverse workforce as many may not be able to commit to a daily commute into the office. Previous barriers for some are now removed or at least reduced.

Issues to look out for
Potential burnout
If employees are left unchecked, a culture of overworking can potentially creep into a hybrid workplace model. Remote workers may work longer hours and take shorter breaks than their in-office counterparts. When flexible workers take time out for themselves, perhaps to take a break or for childcare – it can trigger feelings of guilt, which leads to more stress and possible burnout. It is up to managers to carefully cultivate a company culture that keeps employees focused and working at the right level of intensity and time to achieve success, and in turn, happy.

Increased reliance on technology
Separating a business from its physical premises is a huge and complex challenge, but a hybrid workplace must be able to operate from anywhere. The same cloud-based productivity suites that enable remote working, such as Zoho Workplace, enable a hybrid office to seamlessly work from anywhere and switch between home and office working easily.

This means that everyone needs to be given the adequate software, hardware, and resources – including laptops and phones, for example – to do their job no matter how far from the office they are. The importance of the right technology and collaboration tools is essential for business leaders to consider and can make the difference between success or failure with hybrid working.

Redesigning the office layout and reimagining its purpose
To transition to a hybrid workplace, employers must invest in adapting their existing office space to meet the needs of flexible workers. That means providing areas for employees to do their best work, such as common areas for breaks and quiet zones for concentrating. It also means room for more collaborative working, collective ideation, and space for a more social time.

How to get it right and be successful
Through the proper implementation of technology like tools, hardware, software, infrastructure, organisations can enable seamless interchanging between office and remote based work. Tech can also provide guidance on usage and ensure that employee and company data is protected.

In addition, there must be a focus on leadership, with leaders adapting and being more flexible in their approach. They can do this by avoiding a one-size-fits-all policy as now individuals and their needs are unique, and environments differ.

An honest culture of flexibility, trust and clear objectives will undoubtedly help organisations to thrive during this transition period. Employees need to feel empowered, so it is the responsibility of business leaders to keep a closer check on employees to ensure everyone is empowered to succeed.

To be successful, focus needs to be on creating processes that support work from home, such as flexible work hours, company meetings and time tracking. Above all, employees need to be able to easily collaborate and communicate so that they can clearly understand the technology platform they are using.