by Herb Blanchard, president, AXIOM Learning Solutions
For decades, commuting to an office and conducting business in person was normal: the rhythm of a daily commute, an office-centric work lifestyle, blending social interaction and business in a shared space had simply been inherently a part of the experience.
Then the future arrived.
Even now, to some of us, the hybrid workplace may still feel new, strange or novel, but many workers have embraced these changes and set new expectations for their employers. Organizations that take a top-down approach to their future workplace strategy risk decreasing morale and employee job satisfaction or worse, including staff departures, employee disengagement, and difficulty attracting talent for key positions.
We believe that businesses and business leaders who address this change in worker expectations will be rewarded with better individual and organizational performance.
Criteria for Managing the Future Workplace
By now you’ve probably developed strategies for balancing in person, virtual, and hybrid work options for your organization. Some may be working as intended while others may be falling short. If you’re still navigating options, or even if your strategies are working well, we encourage you to consider how your efforts are guided and judged by two criteria: your organizational agility and your organization’s support structure. This is as much a mindset shift as it is a workplace shift.
Less Agility: This may be driven by job functions which are location-specific like when certain staff need to be physically present at a work location. Organizations with a culture that places a high value on in-office or face-to-face interactions would also be considered less agile.
More Agility: The operations of these organizations are less affected by the physical locations of their employees. Most so-called “white collar” businesses and roles have the potential to be more agile, but some may not decide to be, such as when roles which objectively don’t require a specific work location are mandated or pressured to return to the office in the name of teamwork or organizational culture.
Less Support: The organization is making little or no investment in supporting flexible working locations for staff. This could mean that the organization is only supporting on-site workers, or that staff who are approved to work remotely are largely on their own to manage their interactions with colleagues, supervisors and other business stakeholders.
More Support: The organization is making resources available to support employees across work locations, including staff who are working remotely. This may include software and systems to enable remote work (for example, ensuring systems are equally accessible from non-office locations) and organizational development support to develop skills and behaviors to help all employees perform when interacting with in-office and remote staff.
How Ready is Your Organization for the Future Workplace?
Where might your organization fall today within this matrix? With that in starting point mind, where are the opportunities for improvements?
Quadrant 1: The On-Site Expectation. Occasional remote work may be permitted, or permitted based on specific role requirements (e.g., a field sales role) or as a limited-term accommodation for a specific staff member (e.g., allowing remote work to allow for a specific childcare scenario). Remote staff may be invited to participate in an in-person meeting, but not supported equally as a participant. With low work site agility and low organizational support for remote workers, organizations in this quadrant risk allowing their relatively few remote staff to become culturally alienated from the rest of the organization or create an organizational vulnerability to staff departures in search of greater flexibility.
Quadrant 2: The Individualist. Like quadrant 1, organizations in the Individualist quadrant do not provide broad, systemic support for remote or hybrid staff. These organizations believe they are offering “work-life balance” by allowing individuals to elect remote or hybrid work with minimal organizational limitations — you may hear guidance like, “if you can do your work remotely, you’re welcome to do so.” However, these organizations place the burden on “making it work” on the back of the remote or hybrid worker and fail to make integration of various work locations an organizational imperative.
Quadrant 3: The Exception. Similar to quadrant 1, these organizations offer few opportunities for remote work. Many of the organizations who pivoted to a fully remote workforce during the COVID-19 pandemic may find themselves here as they have invested in the enabling tools and processes to support a hybrid and remote workforce during the pandemic, but are interested in as many staff as practicable to return to an in-office work environment. (These organizations also create operational risk for themselves as staff may resist return to office mandates.)
Quadrant 4: The Optimizer. The optimal position for many businesses is Quadrant 4. Creative strategies are employed to identify which functions or roles must be completed at a specific work location and which can be completed elsewhere. Blending traditional in-person roles with some flexibility for remote work enhances worker satisfaction and can boost productivity. Some organizations are addressing worker expectations through job sharing or a mix of onsite and remote workdays. While there will always be some work roles that must be performed at a specific work location, many organizations are recognizing the value of this quadrant.
Changing Your Position is Possible
If we’ve learned anything from the COVID-19 workplace experience, it’s that movement among these quadrants is possible when approached with intention, which requires you to both identify your starting point and where you want to be, and to take steps to move in the desired direction. Our experience at AXIOM indicates there are two primary “levers” your organization can pull to increase both your remote work agility and enablement: skills enablement and structural supports.
If your organization falls in quadrants 1 or 3, you may wish to understand the specific factors that are holding your organization back from being open to remote or hybrid work. Staff who may appreciate the ability to perform their role remotely (whether only occasionally or permanently) may not feel fully equipped to navigate the interpersonal implications of this change. As remote workers need to be able to effectively self-manage to a greater extent, an investment in broad-reaching leadership enablement may help both to empower remote workers and to build trust between office-based and remote staff. Offering skills development broadly in your organization may also reduce the perception of barriers between staff who are in the office and those who are remote, helping to build a culture that understands and embraces the shared hybrid experience.
If your organization falls in quadrants 1 or 2, you may wish to consider structural supports to help your staff bridge remote and in-person work. To begin with, can your staff find each other? Are there structures and tools in place that make it easy for staff to connect, regardless of work location, and are all of your employees prepared and trained to make full use of the tools you provide? Systemically address sources of confusion, and address points of friction before they become frustration. This may require an organization-wide level set, and almost certainly requires a variety of on-demand and reinforcement aids so that your organization sees the benefit of your tools and technologies.
The Changes We've Seen Aren't Temporary
As technologies have made remote and hybrid work possible over the past two decades, we’ve seen businesses experiment with using this flexibility to their operational advantage — some very successfully. The pandemic experience forced adoption of hybrid and remote work onto most workers which, in my opinion, has made hybrid work an expectation rather than a luxury. This expectation has been accelerated by the pandemic and will continue to evolve, but the one bet I’m willing to make is we’re not going back. Organizations who are willing to recognize this as an opportunity, to embrace and support this change, will be rewarded by higher productivity and performance.
While we don’t know what the next business disruption will be, we do know that we’ll face another one sooner or later. Let’s be ready.