LagomWorks Research Series: August 2020

Blurring Boundaries: Preparing for a Blended Workplace

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Keywords: Distributed Organisations, Remote Working, Blended workplaces, COVID-19

Two different situations, similar experiences.

Last weekend, almost after 4 months, my 4-year-old daughter got to meet her two older cousins for a short duration, contrary to pre-COVID-19 times when it was a daily practice. What had changed? We met downstairs in the building compound, not at home. Our masks had to be on, with a frequent spray of sanitizer on our hands. She could not hug or hold hands or do a piggyback or climb into the laps of her most favourite people in the world. While we had tried to prepare them for it in advance, you could see that it was quite hard on the kids. Little children are agile and quick to adapt. On the spot, not only did they invent a few games but also involved us adults in a game of hide and seek. Overall, kids were excited, and we were happy to just meet with each other.

A few weeks earlier, in the head office of a media company, one of the business heads was happy to be returning to the office. Masks on, sanitisation at each stage, only a few people in office, all interactions still on virtual platforms like MS teams/ Zoom, no jamming sessions to come up with ‘big’ ideas, no water cooler (or coffee machine) chats, no getting together for lunch or a binging on snacks in the evening and no heading out for client pitches. Things had changed!

In the first instance, kids adapted quickly and made the most of it. What needs to be done for ‘The Office’ to adapt to this new? Would it go back to being in the office like pre-COVID-19 times or continue to be remote working forever or will it be a blended approach?

As the offices are reopening in many parts of the world, workplace model and attitudes towards the office will evolve.

Workplace - Blended or not? What are the options?

At the onset of the pandemic, the world experienced a big shift in ways of working where within a few days most organizations adopted/ were forced to adopt a remote working strategy.

Real estate consultancy JLL’s Asia Pacific survey titled ‘Home and away: the new workplace hybrid?’ said 61% of employees working from home in the Asia Pacific region and 82% of surveyed Indian office employees said they miss working from the office. Across the region, the human aspect of office was the most missed element. Lack of access to required tools and devices and missing out on a daily office routine were some of the other reasons cited. The survey results are based on responses from 1500 employees across 5 countries in Asia Pacific.

A recent work-from-home survey performed by Global Workplace Analytics shows that 80% of workers want to work from home at least some of the time.

This leads us to a question: “Post this pandemic, do we need to bring everyone back to the office forever/ sometime or at least some people back to the office for some time?”  The options are:

  • In-office – Once the pandemic is over, everyone goes back to office like pre-COVID-19 times. Working from home/ anywhere remains the privilege of a few.
  • Remote – Continue to operate remotely, without a need to get into the office ever.
  • Blended – which operates remotely and in-office, in parts. An arrangement where the majority work remotely, and at any point only a few come into the office. An alternate arrangement where majority come into the office while a few jobs/ roles work remotely.

“The term blended working to refer to time-independent and location-independent working enabled through high-tech Information and Communication Technology software, devices, and infrastructure.” (Van Yperen NW, Rietzschel EF and De Jonge KMM). The pros and cons of blended working have been explained by Van Yperen NW, Rietzschel EF and De Jonge KMM in the research paper ‘Blended Working: For Whom It May (Not) Work.’ (2014) as following :

Through increased flexibility and a better work-home balance, blended working may have substantial positive consequences for workers’ effectiveness and quality of work and life. In addition, blended working is a way for companies to reduce expenses, including real estate costs, to comply with government regulations regarding equal opportunities, and to demonstrate corporate social responsibility. 

Blended working may have downsides as well, particularly for those working primarily away from the office. These include relational and information impoverishment at work, ambiguity about tasks and roles, career stagnation (“out of sight, out of mind”), increased work-home interference, distraction and interruption by family members (particularly when there is no detached home office space), procrastination, cyberslacking, and the pressure to be available anywhere, at any time.

“From a positive view, hybrid work reduces turnover rates, improves employee commitment and attracts talent; thereby, increasing productivity and reducing costs.” (Grantham, Ware, Swanberg, et al, 2009).

“On the other hand, there are negative aspects in that virtual workers may feel disconnected from the organization. Consistent concerns include being excluded from communication and training opportunities; as well as being overlooked for promotions.” (Grenny & Maxfield, 2017).

As organizations start to plan for the future, many are beginning to see and evaluate the benefits associated with having a permanently remote workforce as part of the mix. COVID-19 times have created a proof of concept for remote working and it’s benefits that many leaders across the world had never considered as a possibility.  

New processes and methodologies will be required to adequately support the needs of this blended workforce and leverage the best of both the worlds. There is no prescriptive solution or one-size-fits-all answer for the organizations.

So, what are some of the key considerations as the shift towards a blended workplace is being contemplated?

Organizations must factor in different facets of Physical, Digital, People and Culture elements as they start planning on a blended workplace model and the degree of it. What does this entail?

Physical

How much real estate is needed? This would require thorough workforce and space planning to provide for space only for those who need to be in the office, with some contingencies built in. This could also mean flexible spacing to be able to increase or decrease the capacity based on requirements. The office will serve as the nucleus of the organization, with even remote employees coming into the office from time to time for collaboration, trainings, meetings, and cultural engagements.     

At what cost? Tie this in with the business model to optimise on costs, without compromising on productivity and employee morale.

Where should the physical offices be located? Evaluate if this office should be in main business districts or in the areas closer to the employee base. Should it be one large office or a few smaller offices? This could help save some cost due to cheaper real estate and reduced commute time for the employees. This could also help augment higher local mobility through teamwork.

What should be the design layout of the offices? To enable social distancing during COVID-19 times and beyond that provide flexibility to adapt to emerging needs and create the right employee experience. This would include aspects like the design of the seating area, cafeteria, elevators, and common collaboration areas.

Digital

This will play a crucial role in making the blended workplace model work. A robust digital blueprint will be needed for each organisation, which will be based on:

  • the operating model, business roadmap, shift required due to pandemic and beyond
  • strategy for data storage, data sharing and data security
  • distribution of workforce and customers in terms of locations/ geographies.

The focus must be on creating business value in an integrated approach while creating capabilities for deployment at scale and managing the change.

The digital transformation could be brought in by leveraging a range of digital capabilities like:

  • Enhanced connectivity using Cloud and Internet of Things
  • Use of data analytics tools, Artificial Intelligence & ML
  • Automation of work using robotics, robotics process automation and chatbots
  • Collaboration tools like MS Teams, G-Suite, and Slack

In this new world where ‘work from anywhere’ is emerging strongly, the work is directly linked to access and sharing of data, connectivity and communication. The digital blueprint of an organization needs to enable that.

People and Culture

People are at the heart of any business and they are social beings, with a basic need for interaction and connection. What needs to be enabled for them?

Enabling flexibility (to operate from home or from the office). Effectiveness of blended working depends on four psychological needs: the needs for autonomy, relatedness, competence, and structure. “The workers who have a strong dispositional need for autonomy may feel that blended working works for them, because they get more discretion as to where and when to work. In contrast, workers with a high need for a structured and unambiguous environment may perceive blended working as personally ineffective because it fuels their aversion to ambiguity.” (Van Yperen NW, Rietzschel EF, De Jonge KMM). Hence, a planned approach to enable the employees to adapt to new ways of working along with inbuilt flexibility to exercise some discretion based on psychological needs. (For additional insights, please refer to our article on Workforce Integration in the New)

Foster collaboration among the workforce. Establish and test formal and informal channels to nurture an environment for open communication and collaboration. This could be a blended approach of using technology platforms and a well thought out plan for in-person meetings to create a positive employee experience where employees strive to contribute their best.

“Moreover, the informal “social dimension”, whereby people do more than defined by organizational charts, or by the job, work, and business process descriptions, is changing...That is, people “connect” socially; creating a subset of practices for the way that work is actually done...In some cases, this less formal social network contributes to innovation and improves productivity. In other cases, the social network maintains ingrained, sometimes antiquated, business processes and practices; thus, blocking progressive change.” (Bradley & McDonald, 2011). 

Building a culture of trust is crucial! Jason Fried, Basecamp CEO says: “The only way to look at the work, is to look at the work. The work should speak for itself and it should be viewable and visible from anywhere.

‘Out of sight, should not be out of mind’. Bring in systemic and cultural changes takes time, effort and leadership intent. Leaders must lead from the front and be role models of delivering to the promise (remotely or in-office), taking time off when it is due, build channels for communication and build connections (in person or virtually) with the team at a human level.

Leading people in the New. A new way of working will require new leadership model and skills. The leaders must adapt to new ways of managing teams’ morale and their performance, handling the client’s expectations and delivering in the new normal. This will require organizations to invest in their leaders at all levels.

Redefining people processes. “The hybrid workforce is influencing job and work processes, collaborative efforts, the order for decision-making, power, and authority, and mechanisms for controlling the exchange of communication and information (Gutterman, 2013). Hence, it is imperative to review the organisation design, tenets of work allocation and monitoring, performance development, rewards, capability building, and decision approvals, as organizations adopt a blended workplace model. Digital will be a catalyst here. (For additional insights, please refer to our articles on Performance Management in the New and Organization Structure in the New)

Employee Wellness may need an impetus given the current pandemic situation across the globe is going to have a lasting impact on humans. Organizations at these times must be more empathy driven and 'human' to support the employees.

“Change is not only likely, it’s inevitable.” – Barbara Sher

Organizations are at a crossroad where they need to embrace this change to survive in the new world. A well-planned adoption to this change will create the right kind of environment and experience for the employees to be positive, collaborate with colleagues, contribute their best to achieve the objectives of the organization.

 

Authored by: Abhilasha Jha
Authored by: Abhilasha JhaDirectorabhilasha@lagomworks.com
Human Capital expert with 18+ years of experience across pharmaceuticals, information technology and consulting. Expertise in the areas of People Transformation, Change Management, Rewards, Service Delivery and Mergers and Acquisition. Previously worked with Accenture Technology India as a Vice President. PGDM (HRM) from XLRI. Certified by ICF as an Associate Coach. Visiting Faculty for Design Thinking in HR at Xavier University, Bhubaneswar.
Peer Reviewed by: Gitanjali Saksena
Peer Reviewed by: Gitanjali SaksenaDirectorgitanjali@lagomworks.com
Leadership Consulting professional with 21+ years of experience. Core expertise in Scale-Up strategies, Digital Workforce Capacity and Capability Enhancement, Leadership Alignment, Assessment and Development. Previously worked with Sage GlobalHR as a Director and Gallup Research as a Principal Consultant. Masters in Business Economics from Delhi University. Stanford certified Advanced Design Thinking specialist.
Peer Reviewed by: Raghu Raghavan
Peer Reviewed by: Raghu RaghavanDirectorraghu@lagomworks.com
Technology Consulting Leader with 20+ years of experience across BU and Account Leadership, Transformation, Governance, Finance, Risk Management, Business Development, Investments, IT and Operations. Previously worked with Accenture Technology India and US as a Managing Director. PGDM from IIM Calcutta as well as MA Economics. Design Thinking Facilitator at IIM Calcutta, XIMB and TAPMI.

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