All indications are that the hybrid work model is here to stay. Even before the start of the pandemic, Meutia and Mauliza (2019) found that hybrid work increases the life balance, productivity and job satisfaction of employees, while reducing work-related stress. A post-pandemic report by Babapour Chafi et al. (2022) indicated that the pandemic has fostered feelings of freedom, creativity and spontaneity.
After two years of practical implementation, hardly anyone can imagine going back to the old ways. Organizations planning to mandate physical attendance, perhaps to gain value from existing facilities or retain a measure of control, should consider carefully. Hybrid working is no longer something optional – it is necessary to recruit and retain personnel, and maintain a competitive position in the market.
But this new reality makes strategic planning very difficult. Employers have many questions to consider. How much freedom should they allow their workers? Should they mandate their people to return to the office for a specified number of days? If it is left to employees to choose, why would they choose the office? In the new era of hybrid working, what does an effective workplace look like?
Workplaces needs to support people
Rather than order employees back to the office, a better approach would be to provide a workplace that supports people so well they want to use it. In order to do this, organizations need to gain a better understanding of their people’s needs, wishes and perceptions and why they make the decisions they do. For example, why are people so reluctant to leave their homes now that the main reason to do so has gone?
The Leesman Index (2022) tracks employee satisfaction with their working environment, providing valuable pointers to the factors that influence their decisions. Its ongoing home working survey asks employees how their home is impacting their productivity, wellbeing, and ability to perform their roles. As such it’s a useful corrective to many of the assumptions that tend to be made about people’s experience of working from home.
Leesman data from March this year suggests that overall, employees working from home feel their experience is positive. Most agreed that ‘my home environment enables me to work productively’ (84.8%), and ‘when I work from home, I am able to share ideas/knowledge amongst colleagues’ (79%).
But surely the office scores when it comes to interpersonal activity? According to Leesman, there is high satisfaction even in regard to activities that one might assume are best conducted in person. Employees feel well supported by their organisations in facilitating planned meetings (94.4%), collaboration (82.7%) and informal meetings (74.7%). Technology has been a great enabler: most (89.9%) believe videoconferencing is well supported, and are satisfied with their WiFi connectivity (78.3%).
Why would employees wish to return to the office?
All of which brings us back to the central question – why would employees wish to return to the office? Assuming they are not mandated to do so, what would persuade people to spend time and money on making the journey with all the accompanying hassle – the early start, the need to dress smartly, the busy roads, the crowded trains, the difficulty in finding a parking spot?
While home working has undoubtedly proved successful for many, there are indications that the flight from the office has not been entirely positive. Something important has been lost along the way.
A study reported by Forbes (Brower 2021) found that over 60% of employers struggle to maintain morale, and more than 30% struggle to maintain company culture, when most of the work is done from home. Yang et al. (2022) reports that spontaneous and interdepartmental collaboration have become more static and fewer bridges are built between departments that do not normally collaborate daily. These effects make it more difficult for employees to acquire and share new information across the network.
Even Leesman’s generally positive picture slips a little when employees are asked about feelings of connection. In the home working survey, a smaller proportion (67.5%) felt connected to their organisation, and only 63.7% felt connected to colleagues.Similarly, while 84.1% of respondents believe that thinking and creative thinking are well supported by their organisation, fewer (69.5%) feel the same about collaboration on creative work.
The Downsides of video conferencing
Video conferencing might be the great enabler of remote working, but some research indicates a downside. A study by Carnegie Mellon (Gaskell 2021), for instance, suggests that use of Zoom and other video platforms is reducing the collective intelligence of teams. The authors argue that most organisations attempt to replicate traditional meetings online, which has not been particularly effective. They say that people are less able to synchronise verbal and non-verbal cues on video.
‘We found that video conferencing can actually reduce collective intelligence,’ concludes the report. ‘This is because it leads to more unequal contribution to conversation and disrupts vocal synchrony. Our study underscores the importance of audio cues, which appear to be compromised by video access.’
This is supported by a study from MIT (Engel, et al., 2014) suggesting that when we’re conversing online, we struggle to work effectively as a team without the in-person cues that help us to understand and empathise with others (Theory of Mind).
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