5 key challenges to adapt to a hybrid workforce model

October 04, 2021

While some entered the decade somewhat unwilling disciples of office conformity, a period of Covid-enforced home working has turned the spotlight on the potential benefits to employers of catering to the differing needs and wants of their staff.

A global JLL survey revealed that two-thirds of ‘office workers’ now expect to be able to work from home at least two days a week; some of us even more. At JLL we have identified four profiles for today’s white-collar worker. 

Identifiable not by age, gender or corporate hierarchy, but by individual personality and dove-tailing interests outside of the workplace. We call this the hybrid workforce – and harnessing its emergence will be critical to the sustainable success of every office-based company.

Breaking with centuries-old convention will, of course, not be without its challenges. Here are five that I believe companies should prioritise as they adapt to this new normal …

1. What to do with real estate savings

Without having to accommodate all of their people all of the time, some of the company leaders I’ve spoken to expect the consequent reduction in desk space to equate to a 30% savings on office costs.

So what do they intend to do with this windfall? Share it with employees? Reduce fees for clients? Laugh all the way to the bank?

The most sensible approach would be to reinvest into the business to support the evolution of the new working model. Enabling work from home is no longer a question of simply giving permission; it involves providing for a home environment that enables employees to work with the same commitment to health, safety and well-being as they would experience in the office; and equally then ensuring the office itself is set up flexibly enough to respond to the needs of all staff.

Investing in ergonomic furniture and home tech for staff and then repurposing, rather than simply reducing, space will be key to the sustainability of the hybrid workforce model.

2. Maintaining culture will require emotional and physical adaptation

When quizzed at our recent Future Cities events about the biggest challenge they felt they faced in accommodating a hybrid workforce, our panel of corporate leaders all focused in on the C-word … Culture.

Shaped by social interactions, water-cooler moments and the celebration of collective successes, culture is the intangible x-factor that gives companies their edge. A good leader will take proactive and reactive measures to enhance company culture – but as one put it rhetorically at Future Cities, “how do you smell what’s going on in a virtual world?”

The key for companies will be to balance the personal space they give employees to shine, with the ability to interact with one another. Serendipity doesn’t happen by chance. It requires a mix of physical office design that promotes social get-togethers, professional collaboration and the cross-pollination of ideas, and policies and protocols that ensure people’s time in the office sufficiently overlaps.

Long-term, and counter-productive as it sounds, people will not come into the office to work – but it will continue to play a significant role in the success of the organisation.

3. Learn to measure value differently

Silvana Schenone of law firm MinterEllisonRuddWatts addressed this point at our Future Cities Auckland event, as the challenge is pertinent to their staff and their clients. Both, like those of most professional service providers, have traditionally measured cost, and therefore value, in units of time.

It stands to reason that a happier, more engaged workforce will generally produce consistently high-quality results. If the expected elevated level of service can be provided by a hybrid workforce in less time than it may have taken through a conventional office-based approach, then should this be reflected in a cost reduction to the client?

Not necessarily, says Schenone, as while the time taken to achieve the output might be shorter, this will reflect the investment – be this technological or through enhanced HR support – made in creating the environment that has allowed individual staff to work to the fullest potential. The value remains in the quality of the work, irrelevant of the time taken to achieve it.

4. Beware mistaking more output for better productivity

Relieved of the need to commute, there can be a natural temptation to maintain the rhythm of the conventional workday; to arrive at your home desk at the time you’d turn the ignition or swipe your HOP card, and to stay there until you’d have arrived back through the front door.

Traditionally, when only done on the odd day, we might have done this as a kind of subconscious appreciation to have been given the opportunity to work at home – to repay with interest the trust bestowed upon us to carry out our duties autonomously. But as this becomes part of the weekly grind, then this can steadily erode the work-life balance you’re actually seeking to enhance.

Presenteeism can therefore manifest itself outside the office as well as in. At Future Cities Wellington, Siemens’ Paul Ravlich talked of their trust and output model, through which they empower staff to work in a way that will allow them to deliver the best possible results with the greatest efficiency and enjoyment.

In a smart, mature organisation, the synergy between the two will be game-changing.

5. This is not a digital revolution … but the revolution needs to be seamlessly digitised 

Out of necessity, our technical know-how has increased dramatically. But having mastered setting up our own team meetings, we’ve still got a long way to go – even with Zoom, or Teams, or whatever your favoured head-in-a-square forum may be.

Along with fully embracing Cloud-based CRM and document management systems, introducing plug and play hardware and tailored scheduling apps will play a huge role in supporting a no-fixed-desk MO.

The good news is that the technology is already here; the not-so-good news is that we as users have big strides to make to catch up to it. To me, it’s certainly no coincidence that technology-focused firms adapted the quickest to the impact of Covid.

As we move to the hybrid workforce model, the ability to harness technology to run effective meetings will be a significant hurdle to overcome. Managing the contributions of physical and virtual attendees at meetings will require an adroitness beyond most current skill-sets, but will be vital to create the equity that will sustain the hybrid workforce model.