Overcoming hybrid work environment challenges
With the pandemic setting the stage for universal adoption of hybrid work models, public sector agencies have the opportunity to redesign their work systems to make their return-to-work strategy truly work.
The pandemic-induced shift to remote work has shaken society out of norms that lasted for more than a century. For decades, most changes to the workplace were incremental. Rarely, if ever, have we seen organizations and governments both embrace a sea change such as widespread remote work with such speed. Because of this revolution, public sector agencies now have a rare opportunity to intentionally remake their work systems to serve everyone better and adopt a ‘distributed by design’ approach. With the latest surge of Omnicron, it has become apparent that we may deal with variants for years to come as COVID-19 becomes endemic. This gives us even more reason to have robust hybrid structures in place to move seamlessly between fully remote and hybrid models as the situation demands.
But it’s easier said than done. Bringing about meaningful change requires finding answers to several questions that are on leaders’ minds concerning hybrid and distributed work in different areas:
Work: How it gets done
How do I maximize productivity in a hybrid environment?
While organizations spend untold millions each year to increase efficiency (work done in a way that optimizes resources) and effectiveness (work done in a way that optimizes outcomes), significantly less is typically spent to improve a third factor, employee engagement, which can amplify both dramatically.
A great way to improve in this area is to offer employees the flexibility to work from anywhere. Other strategies that organizations include are methods such as Organization Network Analysis, which help gain insights into productivity and well-being by examining how people work. Encouraging asynchronous collaboration between employees allows employees to exchange information and ideas as their schedules permit, rather than in real time. Using the right mix of digital platforms and technologies can help employees connect, collaborate, and deliver value anywhere. Lastly, how can they reimagine the role of supervisors in a hybrid environment?
Why is now the right time to fundamentally redesign work?
The pandemic-induced changes notwithstanding, most agencies have begun to embrace a digital-first way of working, meaning that where work is done matters less than how it’s done.
Earlier cross-functional teams were typically collocated in the same physical building; digital technology makes this unnecessary. Agencies can look at problems rather than places; they can build a “digital workplace” around a specific issue or problem and unite the required workers and resources in a virtual space. These teams can then work with digital tools and platforms, using physical places as needed without being defined by them.
How can we pursue our mission and keep up with evolving customer needs in a hybrid setting?
Online and hybrid channels have ensured better access for customers while improving their experiences. Governments can build on the success they saw with their online and contact-free citizen experiences to meet and exceed customer needs.
As part of this, they can use human-centered design and journey-mapping to identify opportunities for more tailored and integrated services—such as building infrastructure for seamless service delivery on digital platforms with personalized services for customers. Adopting artificial intelligence (AI) and automation can support faster service and reduce workload on employees; also key is to provide infrastructure support for remote workers.
Workforce: Redesigning work for those at the center of it
How do I boost workforce engagement and morale in geographically dispersed or asynchronous teams?
Today, many people are rethinking the role of work in their lives. Their preferences and priorities are changing. Workforce engagement has, therefore, never been as crucial as it is today. To strike a chord with the workforce in terms of engagement, organizations need to focus on factors close to their hearts, such as belonging (the feeling of connection with a group or community), well-being (including mental health and help with access to education, resources, and training), flexibility (giving employees a sense of control and ownership over their work by holding them accountable without micromanaging), and purpose (reminding them they’re part of the larger mission no matter where they work).
How do I create opportunities for socialization, networking, and mentorship in a hybrid environment?
If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that social connection is important for us to thrive not just as human beings but also as professionals in our work. The sudden shift to remote work succeeded largely because existing social ties and relationships within organizations helped sustain our productivity. Making sure that this social capital continues to thrive in a hybrid environment will be critical.
As part of this, agencies can bring people together in the moments that matter (e.g., for brainstorming sessions, townhalls, or informal gatherings for holidays or to celebrate successes) and provide time for workers to engage in virtual “watercooler” connects (casual conversations not strictly related to work). They can also encourage employees to strategically plan their in-person days (coordinating schedules and activities to ensure face time with colleagues and stakeholders), allow workers to choose how they’d like to connect with others, and provide opportunities for informal interactions and mentorship sessions with leaders.
How can I advance diversity, equity, and inclusion in a hybrid work environment?
In a hybrid work model, some workers will be in the office and others work remotely. Without an accompanying culture change, this can create a “two-tier” workforce, with primarily remote workers feeling like they may miss out on career- and relationship-building opportunities.
To mitigate such challenges, agencies can train managers to use check-ins to understand and address any problems team members might have with the remote environment and educate them on how to identify and avoid “proximity bias.” Managers should promote an inclusive team environment and demonstrate behaviors that show support for remote workers. Adopting equitable meeting practices—such as having everyone log into a virtual call regardless of location—can also help foster inclusion. Lastly, agencies can provide their workforce with resources and training for career advancement, as well as options for different career paths that are partially or entirely remote.
How should I adapt my organization’s processes for hiring, onboarding, and knowledge transfer to serve the needs of a distributed workforce equitably?
As organizations step into the hybrid environment, strategies they can consider include continuing with the virtual hiring practices adopted during the pandemic and retaining some of the virtual elements of the recruitment process (e.g., virtual job fairs and events). Seek geographically distributed talent can help them to access a wider and diverse talent pool.
For effective onboarding and knowledge transfer, organizations can arrange in-person interactions for new hires with managers or “onboarding buddies.” These individuals can help new hires to build relationships and become familiar with unspoken work norms and aspects related to organizational culture. Making important documents and other knowledge available to new workers in a searchable form can help to mitigate bottlenecks in information flow.
Workplace: Addressing issues around the new world of work
How should organizational culture and leadership evolve to keep pace with a changing work environment and society? How do we ensure our values and culture are sustained in a hybrid work setting?
Organizations should intentionally curate and rebuild their culture in ways that reflect the new world of work. This applies to leadership as well. To create the new culture, managers should resist returning to what previously might have been strict boundaries between the personal and professional. Instead, they tap into the closeness with employees that many found during the pandemic to strengthen connections and trust. They should also encourage experimentation and creativity, lead with empathy, and create an inclusive work environment. Lastly, it is important to really listen to workers—what they think about how work is affecting them.
How can I adapt the physical workplace to meet the needs of hybrid work?
The new workplace is wherever work is done, whether it’s at the office, at home, in a café, or a coworking space.2 Many agencies are rightsizing their office spaces based on the changing needs of the work and their workers. Based on feedback and surveys, agencies can modify their office spaces to support collaboration, creativity, and a sense of community. They should encourage employees to work where they’re most productive, but also tailor workplace policies and procedures to the types of work being done. They should consider alternative workplace options beyond the office or home, such as satellite offices, shared workplaces, and commercial sites. Also, it is important to design and reconfigure spaces with employee engagement in mind. Collaborative spaces should promote creativity and innovation for both in-person and virtual attendees. Providing workers with an allowance and equipment to outfit and optimize home workspaces can help support their work and productivity.
How do I provide my workers with the tools and technologies needed to work effectively in the digital space?
To ensure that workers can do their best work in personal as well as shared digital workplaces, organizations can take a number of steps including ensuring cybersecurity, encouraging seamless collaboration with the right digital tools, and investing in resources and training to build digital competence and skills. They can also promote wellness by providing apps and tools that help workers focus and establish boundaries in a distraction-filled digital workspace. Using video calls sparingly, for example, can help reduce camera fatigue.
(Courtesy Deloitte. By William D. Eggers. Alexander Braier. Amrita Datar. Matt Garrett)