Entering the fourth year of the post-COVID era, organisations are still experimenting with optimal ways of working while transitioning from traditional office-based, to flexible work. One of the key strategic imperatives for senior executives across organisations is to redesign the workplace structures, practices and norms that fit with these new working arrangements.
However, less than half of the respondents in our survey indicated that they had finalised a design with successful implementation. In her latest Harvard Business Review article, Professor Lynda Gratton looks at the recent research on hybrid working and the four questions for leaders to consider during this time of transition.
Despite the profound unknowns still in need of exploration, there have been some intriguing findings to help leaders navigate more effectively. Researchers from Harvard Business School found evidence of the vital role flexible working can play in embedding sustainable high performance. Knowledge workers who worked in a hybrid way demonstrated better job performance, and lower turnover rates, than their counterparts working full-time in the office. Evidence of the benefits of flexibility is not entirely new, however, with a 2013 study finding that home-based call centre workers to be more productive than their office-based colleagues.
Nevertheless, the same experiment also showed those who work remotely report higher levels of isolation and loneliness. It is not difficult to imagine why – working remotely requires a high degree of intentionality around moments of connection, to ensure people can build enduring, authentic relationships – even over distance.
The ability to form human connections has a lasting impact on collaborative and innovative efforts: Microsoft research team discovered that collaboration networks become more less efficient, with less feedback and guidance when people work in a hybrid way, in a 2022 study. Meanwhile, according to a study conducted by Columbia Business School, videoconferencing may inhibit people’s ability to innovate and generate ideas at work.
These findings point to a need for balance. When navigating the transition to a more flexible working model, it’s essential to consider how your model can augment, or impact, the work being done in the organisation.
To respond, there are four critical questions that the leaders can consider:
1. What are your overarching values and principles? Every organisation is unique and there is rarely a one-size-fit-all solution. Therefore, this question helps define your organisation’s DNA and establish the foundation for redesigning work. For example, Ascential Futures, a global intelligence company, named creativity and innovation as their 2 key values. Mars Wrigley, a multinational food manufacturer, highlighted quality, responsibility, mutuality, efficiency, and freedom as 5 principles to adhere to throughout their transition to a flexible model.
2. What is special about the people we employ, the jobs we do, and the customers we serve? Aside from the values and principles, leaders may also identify what makes their organisations special in terms of their customers, people and work. For instance, Mars Wrigley acknowledged the importance of wellbeing of their associate networks while ensuring business continuity. Accompanied by their values of efficiency and freedom, they introduced higher flexibility of time and place for their factory workers to achieve sustainable high performance.
3. What isn’t working, and what are the problems we’re trying to solve? This question gives leaders better clarity on the existing challenges and a more targeted approach to redesigning work. Company-wide and cross-functional listening can be leveraged to gather feedback: Transport for NSW, an Australian government transport agency, set up top leadership forums, livestream events and longitudinal weekly employee surveys to identify and address their people’s primary concerns, ranging from wellbeing needs to culture and belonging.
4. What experiments have we tried that we can share with others, and what are other companies doing that we can learn from? Leaders are encouraged to consider what they can learn within and outside of their organisations. Taking Ascential Futures as an example again, their executives interviewed the leadership teams of other organisations, to discuss the challenges and principles they adopted during their shift to hybrid. They consolidated the findings and sense-checked with their teams internally on what they do and do not want.
Read more about Professor Lynda Gratton’s latest Harvard Business Review article on redesigning how we work here.