Article main image
Mar 4, 2021
This article is part of a series called COVID-19 Coverage.

Remote work, once a consideration for a small number of organizations — and hardly a priority — became a health, safety, and economic imperative for the entire world in a matter of weeks with the onset of Covid-19. Employees everywhere suddenly found themselves setting up makeshift home offices, balancing chaotic daytime living situations, and relishing in newfound time in place of their daily commute. What many believed would be a stint that would last a few weeks became the biggest remote-work experiment no one saw coming.  

Gartner research reveals that 48% of employees will keep working remotely at least some of the time after the pandemic, and nearly 1 in 5 will work remotely full-time. This is echoed from an organizational perspective — three quarters of employers plan to shift to more remote work post-pandemic. 

Furthermore, the majority of employees who have been working remotely during the pandemic not only succeeded at their jobs from home, they also developed new digital dexterities and collaboration skills to work more effectively while away from the office. Now employees see fewer barriers to continuing this process once crisis conditions subside.

There is no putting the genie back in the bottle. 

Looking ahead to the post-pandemic workplace, HR leaders must consider the impact of remote work on their organizational models. Beyond the “where” of work, organizations must also embrace strategies that account for the “when” of work to truly take advantage of the hybrid workforce.

Embracing the Hybrid Workforce Model 

A hybrid workforce model gives employees the ability to flow through various work sites and schedules. These can range from remote-solo to micro-sites of small populations to traditional concentrated facilities. Additionally, the hybrid model is rooted in three elements: flexibility, adaptability, and shared ownership on the part of employers and employees. 

An employee’s ability to work successfully in a hybrid work scenario requires a collaborative and trusting relationship with their manager. To harness the benefits of a flexible environment, organizations must enable an environment of shared ownership and break down long-held beliefs — or potential myths — about where and how work gets done most effectively. 

HR leaders must work to shift the mindsets of leaders and managers away from outdated ideas that timesheets, activity logs, and facetime are the best measures of productivity. Instead, they must focus on establishing more effective goals and outcome metrics. It’s about driving performance, not purely activity. 

Another mindset shift required of leaders is to view the hybrid work environment as the norm, not an anomaly or a bridge back to the pre-Covid work environment. Gartner’s 2020 ReimagineHR Employee Survey revealed that at typical organizations where employees work a standard schedule of 40 hours per week in the office, only 36% of employees are high-performers. Yet when companies shift from this environment to one of radical flexibility where employees have some choice over where, when, and how much they work, that same finding rises to 55%.

Beyond mindsets, HR leaders will need to ensure managers are equipped with the right skill sets and associated behaviors to encourage and instill trust in their workforce. People thrive in environments built on trust. This requires managers to focus less on schedules, work hours, and tasks. Instead there should be more of a focus on employee wellbeing, change communications, goal-setting, and outcomes. Productive work can happen well outside the boundaries of a classic 9-to-5 workday. 

Managers must trust their employees to be effective and productive, while employees need to be flexible and comfortable being mobile. This means coming to a mutual understanding that work and life cannot be treated as two separate constructs. They are inextricably interwoven. 

The Benefits of a Hybrid Workforce Model

Although hybrid workforce models have existed for decades in some form, in the past they’ve been constrained by the limits of technology. Right now, there is a clear shift to take advantage of hybrid work in a much more expansive and creative way.

Hybrid workforces exhibit higher performance and effort. Understandably, many leaders who resist the idea of a hybrid workforce express concerns about employee performance, particularly individuals’ ability to collaborate and connect in a hybrid environment. However, one of the most compelling data points to emerge on the hybrid workforce is that remote and semi-remote employees have meaningfully higher levels of both discretionary effort (22% or more higher) and enterprise contribution (54% or more higher).

Employees’ sense of inclusion grows. Another surprising finding from our data on the global workforce was that hybrid workforces reported higher levels of inclusion: 55% of semi-remote and 49% of fully remote employees agreed they had the ability to express their true feelings at work, compared to only 27% of employees who never work remotely. This suggests a remote or semi-remote workforce can be much more connective and collaborative than conventional wisdom would suggest.

Work-life balance improves. Work-life balance, a major factor in employee well-being, is higher among hybrid workers. Gartner research finds that roughly 60% of semi-remote and fully remote employees say they maintain a healthy balance between work and life, compared to only 44% of employees who never work remotely. This comes as no surprise: Not having to commute and having more control over time are two of the benefits that remote workers value most.

Making the Case for a Hybrid Workforce

As organizations continue to build and deliver business cases for hybrid work with their key stakeholders and executive teams, several critical lessons have emerged:

  • Use a data-driven, evidence-based research approach to influence key stakeholders. There’s power in numbers. Analyze internal and external data to determine the potential benefits of a hybrid workforce model and align them with business needs priorities. Calculate the potential cost savings from real estate, compensation, and all other costs associated with recruiting, learning, and retention.
  • Identify and prioritize the critical components. There are many components that make up the hybrid workforce roadmap, such as economics and the employee experience. In the early stages, decide which components are most critical, and focus time and investments on those select few.
  • Clearly segment roles to adapt hybrid strategies and policies. Evaluate your organizational structure and identify which jobs can be done in a flexible environment, either based on location or schedule. Be clear on the parameters and rules of engagement for those that qualify. Even more importantly, explicitly state roles for which hybrid work is not allowed. 
  • Establish critical questions and metrics to monitor for success. Think about what questions your executive team has about hybrid workforce: How will performance be impacted? Productivity? Retention? Engagement? Based on those questions, establish a set of critical analytics to track consistently. Doing so will help identify trends, patterns, and variances.

HR leaders need to understand where their leadership teams and the broader workforce are in the maturity curve of hybrid work. Gartner research suggests that many employees are still learning how to effectively navigate remote and flexible environments. Managing a workforce that doesn’t know how to disconnect from work may be an even bigger challenge than ensuring high levels of productivity and performance. 

However, if organizations are sensitive to this risk and in turn design their hybrid work programs effectively, the potential impact on work-life balance may in fact be even greater than predicted. 

Even if it is possible for employees to eventually go back to working the same way they used to, the pandemic exposed a future where large-scale disruption can become more frequent. Dynamic organizations leveraging hybrid models have the potential to help reduce the negative impacts of the next big event — be it a pandemic, an environmental catastrophe, or socio-political crisis. 

In the new normal that emerges from this disruption, the hybrid workforce model will be an essential tool for many organizations as they recover and build anew.  

This article is part of a series called COVID-19 Coverage.