Office going hybrid? How to think through the options

As companies adjust to the reality of a hybrid workplace, a growing number of tools can enable better workflow, project planning, and communication. Knowing how to use those tools and engage employees remains a huge challenge.

With the rise of both the hybrid workplace and fully remote workers, enterprises now face growing demands for a new work-life balance — and the prospect of losing employees if they don’t offer more workplace flexibility.

More specifically, companies that decide to go back to a fully on-site arrangement could lose up to 39 per cent of their workforce, according to the 2021 Gartner Hybrid Work Employee Survey of 2,400 knowledge workers.

As a result employers need to practice “radical” work environment flexibility, the survey indicated, allowing employee performance to be determined not by how many hours they clock in, or when they’re in the office, but by their accomplishments.

“Did I get to the outcome you needed? Yes? Then allow me the autonomy I want instead of prescribing the amount of time I need to be in a chair,” said Adam Preset, vice president analyst for Employee Experience Technologies at research firm Gartner.

Shifting from an “office-centric” to a “human-centric” workplace where employees have flexibility reduces fatigue by 44 per cent, increases intent to remain with a company by 45 per cent, and boosts performance by 28 per cent, according to Gartner’s survey.

And, as employee surveys now routinely show, it can keep workers from becoming part of the "Great Resignation."

Remote work doesn't mean an end to burnout

If people work more because they're not commuting anymore or because they're having fewer social interactions in a physical workspace — and they fill that time with extra work — they're exceeding their capacity without realising it every day, Preset said.

That kind of overload can slowly build to the point workers feel so overworked they decide they need a big change. Sometimes that means drawing a line in the sand around the number of meetings they have, other times it means cutting back on available hours.

Organisations have tried to tackle these issues with technology — unplugging at certain times or putting in place more controls so people can be offline and catch their breath, according to Preset.

For example, some software tools allow people to take a deeper look into how they're spending time at work — and whether they're spending too much time overall. Other tools can get more granular, reporting on the number of meetings a person has. Or from a human resources perspective, a company can offer more programs to help employees feel connected to the larger team.

"The possibility that an employee might not stay because they feel overworked combined with the fact there are so many opportunities for them to move around, means that it's essential for organisations to look at this challenge holistically in terms of technology and people issues," Preset said.

Another issue: many managers tend to gravitate toward working in the office, and favour employees who do the same. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, remote workers were often made to feel as if they were less valued than their on-site colleagues. As a result, they often participated less in meetings and offered fewer ideas.

“We are again in danger of leaders creating hybrid meetings that are too much like the meetings we used to have,” Preset said. “Leaders should consider whether they’re engaging in old behaviour that’s no longer appropriate in the hybrid work world.

“It’s a big problem I see: people backsliding,” he added. “Don’t try to figure out how to get things back to normal. You’re in the new normal now.”

Instead of holding an on-site meeting in a conference room, managers and executives should vary the routine and conduct meetings from their desks or even from home to level the playing field, Preset said.

Even in a virtual collaboration environment, old-fashioned techniques still apply. It’s still good practice to start a team meeting with “good news" (i.e., new hires, positive project outcomes, etc.), remember to ask people what they think and whether they  have questions, and highlight action items at the end.

One new no-no: When listing available job positions don’t require in-office work unless it's absolutely necessary.

“With the exception of certain entry-level positions where in-person mentoring is key, I'll never post another job listing with a required office location,” said Shawn Dickerson, vice president of marketing at project and work management software vendor ProjectManager.

Dickerson has remotely managed his own marketing team for the past six years, and called it a positive experience; now, there's really no other choice to do it otherwise.

The job market is flush with companies offering fully remote and flexible work environments, which gives restless employees an advantage they've not had before.

So if a worker goes onto LinkedIn and searches for “remote” as the work location, even for executive positions, there are typically hundreds available, Dickerson said.

“You’ve got some of the big investment banks that are insisting people are going to come back to the office, but I think when they find people changing jobs, especially in this hot market, they may walk back some of those mandates,” Dickerson said.

Workstream, collaboration and project management tools can help

Navigating the new normal means having to learn about a dizzying array of tools; simply using email and shared document platforms won't cut it. Cloud-based suites such as Microsoft Teams can usually handle basic collaborations tasks. 

More focused apps such as Slack might work for some companies, but be too limited for others. And some companies find they need a hodge-podge of tools from a variety of vendors to work effectively — albeit at the risk of overwhelming workers.

Picking which option works best for the most employees is at the heart of what  companies must decide as the COVID-19 pandemic rolls into its second year.

With workers scattered in all directions, it’s increasingly critical that companies be able to track projects and allow teams to effectively communicate in real time.

Tools that enable the latter include planning software and services, collaborative work management applications, and workstream collaboration software. They all generally  revolve around agile practices — taking small bites out of a large projects, such as software builds, to make them more digestible.

Agile planning tools enable organisations to scale up agile practices to support a single enterprise view for a project. They serve as a "hub" for the definition, planning, and management of work.

According to Gartner’s “Magic Quadrant” — an overall view of vendors, products and market positions — leading enterprise agile planning tools include Atlassian, Broadcom, Digital.ai, GitLab, Planview, and Targetprocess. Microsoft’s Project, Siemens’s Teamcenter, and IBM’s Planning Analytics are also in the mix, according to Gartner.

More focused collaborative work management (CWM) tools offer task-driven workspaces with a focus on planning and execution; they combine task, project, workflow, and automation capabilities with conversations, content publishing, reporting, analytics, and dashboards. These tools tend to be used more at small and mid-sized firms with fewer than 500 employees.

Standouts in this area, according to Gartner, include Adobe Workfront, Asana, ClickUp, Microsoft’s Lists, Monday.com, and WorkOtter.

And workstream collaboration (WSC) tools tend to focus on remote-work issues — the same issues workers increasingly want companies to address. They're designed to provide a cohesive experience for employees and can unify messaging, meeting, content sharing, and task coordination, according to Gartner’s Market Guide for Workstream Collaboration, published in March.

The major vendors offering workstream collaboration software include well-known names like Cisco’s WebEx Teams, Google Chat, Microsoft Teams, Rocketchat, Slack, Wickr Pro and Enterprise.

Standardise where possible, and lower the 'noise'

There's a down side to the proliferation of options for companies managing a hybrid workforce: with the adoption of WSC tools surging, employees can be overwhelmed by the “noise of being part of multiple chat-based channels," Dickerson said.

“Having a system of record to track your team's projects, tasks, assignments, and progress is a best practice — regardless of your team's situation," he said. "But being in the same office can act as a band-aid for bad processes. Being a hybrid team requires a more programmatic approach."

Regardless of which direction a company takes, it's important to standardise on work and project management platforms so employees can communicate and collaborate on projects. Too many platforms can mean too few people become proficient at using them.

“With all the different ways to handle projects, it’s really important for an organisation or workgroups to have standard methods that they use. One thing that’s common in a lot of technology areas is platform proliferation,” Preset said.

Gartner also recommends:

  • Communicating the value of WSC tools to employees by sharing best practices and employee success stories in internal communications, providing talking points for supervisors and using leadership town halls.
  • Elevating WSC tools as a foundation for remote and hybrid work by using them  as the integration hub for meetings, content services, and collaborative work management.
  • Working with enterprise architecture teams to define guidelines and usage scenarios for non-WSC chat tools.

For most employees, companies only need to figure out what's “good enough” for routine communications, project management, and hybrid work — and then deploy those applications.

Specialised technology, such as collaborative work management software, should only be used when the more general platforms won't work for more complex projects. “That’s when you get collaborative management software and go off and get enterprise agile planning tools and project management reporting,” Preset said.

Different work styles require different tools

While companies may look to standardise on work, project collaboration and employee communication tools, it’s important to remember that not all employees work the same way. Some might be more comfortable with a waterfall project management approach, using a Gantt chart to manage tasks. Others prefer agile project management tools, such as Kanban boards that are designed to help visualise work progress and flow.

Senior managers might put together a project using a Gantt chart, while members of that same project team end up using Kanban board. It’s OK to blend waterfall and agile project management methods, according to Dickerson.

Collaboration tools and employee communication applications (ECA) are also beginning to overlap. Communication tools often include chat, something that can overlap with similar functions in other tools. ECA vendors have historically focused on enterprise-wide communications such as newsletters, HR information, executive views, policies and “state of the company” information, according to Gartner.

“Cloud office vendors (Google and Microsoft) have commoditised basic workspace chat, file-sharing and meeting capabilities to varying degrees,” Gartner said in its Market Guide for Workstream Collaboration report.

A sense of unity is key

Another hurdle managers face involves creating a sense of belonging and camaraderie in the hybrid workplace, where there are no water coolers employees can congregate around to chat and get to know each other.

“From a management perspective, it’s about how do we make the work more appealing so [workers] feel less overloaded and more socially connected to the organisation. That’s the huge challenge here,” Preset said.

In the beginning of the pandemic, organisations in crisis mode reacted by supporting  employees with the bare minimum of tools needed to do their jobs outside the office. Managers simply looked to confirm that their employees were delivering on commitments and goals. Any productivity and employee engagement beyond that took a backseat, Preset noted.

Now that organisations have better adjusted to remote and hybrid work environments, they’re rethinking how they deliver on goals and do a better job at creating a collaborative environment.

Dickerson suggested a simple starting point.

“Take time to laugh. The things that bond a team virtually are the same things that bond us in person: shared experience and a lot of laughter,” Dickerson said. “A team Zoom meeting without plenty of laughs is like driving a station wagon. It'll get you there, but it's no fun for anyone.”