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Insight 14 April 2023

Hybrid Work: What Employees Want and What L&D Leaders Need To Know

Recently, Insights Learning and Development carried out a global study into working arrangements across seven countries, which established that hybrid working was the most popular arrangement — and an average of 60% of respondents wanted that to continue in the new world of work.

We asked more than 3,000 office workers across North America and Europe about their existing working arrangements, their preference for future work and what they felt they needed in order to be supported and successful.

Hybrid Is Here To Stay

The majority of respondents who were part of a hybrid team said they worked remotely most of the time, while 30% felt they performed better since switching to hybrid work.

When we asked these same workers what they would prefer moving forward, seven out of ten said that they would like to keep the hybrid set up for the rest of their careers, two would prefer to work fully remotely, while only one would indicated a preference for the office, making office-first is the least attractive option.

This research is backed up by an Accenture study, which found that most employees want the future of their company’s work to be hybrid: 83% of employees surveyed said a hybrid work model is optimal and that this should be a permanent part of company culture.

Deloitte’s hybrid work survey found that only 21% of surveyed companies expected their employees to fully return to the office in the new world of work. Additionally, 54% thought employees preferred working from home.

Creating the Right Culture

However, hybrid is not without its drawbacks: Workers appear to be missing the deeper human element that comes with being in an office. In our survey, 45% of respondents stated social connection has become harder since hybrid was introduced. Indeed, 30% worldwide said they felt less connected to their co-workers than before the pandemic.

It’s hardly surprising then that 29% of global respondents wanted more opportunities to connect with colleagues and more one-on-one calls with their supervisor.

Certainly, our experience from reopening our newly refurbished offices last year is that employees relish the chance to reconnect with colleagues face-to-face a few days per week and have missed the chance for those “water cooler” moments you simply cannot replicate online. However, they also relish the flexibility to set working patterns in a way which suits them and their whole lives.

This is consistent with external research into future workplace skills, which found that interpersonal skills will grow in importance as businesses modernise and achieve efficiencies, and in the context of globalisation and the spread of technology.

It is certain that although hybrid is here to stay, organisations still have work to do to bridge the gap between remote and in-person work to create an optimal company culture. In fact, only a quarter of global workers said that hybrid working had made a positive impact on their team culture. One reason for this could be that only 20% of companies are currently dedicating time to exploring dynamics and culture to improve team performance.

So, what do learning and development (L&D) professionals need to do to nurture the right kind of hybrid company culture? Here are some focus areas to ensure your organisations are heading in the right direction and your people are supported and enabled.

1. Intentionally explore team dynamics and culture

Ultimately, an intentional exploration of culture is what builds a unified and cohesive community — the foundations for longer-term innovation and business success. Indeed, for the 20% of teams globally that are proactively investing in exploring team dynamics and culture, this is “low hanging fruit” that impacts the majority of pain points identified in shifting to hybrid working in teams. Spending dedicated time exploring culture helps team members get to know one another and feel connected, informed and included.

People need to be as comfortable at home as they are in the office; they need to readily share information whether they’re sitting at home in a far-off country or at a desk next to a colleague. In order to work at optimum levels, they also need to feel connected to the company and share a collective sense of purpose.

Creating a strong sense of community centred around a common purpose is key to employee empowerment in this environment. It’s essential that, even in a virtual space, employees can share their brilliance with others, feel valued within a community and operate as part of something bigger than themselves.

To help create this sense of community and connection, team leaders and colleagues need to consider how they replicate the “human” touch. In a physical office space, things like handshakes, high fives, fist pumps and looking people in the eye are more natural when it comes to acknowledging good performance and good behaviour. The physical acknowledgement added to the words symbolises a deeper level of acknowledgement. Just saying “great job” doesn’t have the same level of impact, and emojis can quickly become an overused shortcut in acknowledgement.

It is culturally important to go beyond the “good job” style of positive affirmation and use more of a storytelling approach to feedback.

These “4 D’s” of acknowledgement enrich the conversation. Consciously deploying them in a hybrid team environment can both strengthen and deepen the importance of a successful moment.

Exploring team dynamics and culture can help to improve not only connections, but also the interaction between and performance of hybrid employees. You can enable this by spending dedicated time cultivating the right workplace climate and culture, which includes being clear about outcomes and deliverables, establishing — and following — the right processes, and attracting and retaining good people.

2. Embrace technology

It may seem as though the whole working world has embraced Zoom and Teams; however, our research found that this is not the case. In fact, one-third of global hybrid teams told us that they don’t use digital tools such as Slack, Teams or Zoom to overcome the challenges of working in a hybrid team. Instead, many continue to rely on more traditional communication channels such as email, telephone or in-person meetings.

The danger with this approach is that it risks creating the wrong kind of culture — isolating remote employees who have no idea what is going on in the office and encouraging cliques to form, with an “us versus them” mentality.

In our research, when asked to identify the skills or support needed to better connect, 36% of managers and 28% of employees identified the need for upskilling in digital collaboration and communication tools. The onus is upon organisations to adopt new communication methods that are suitable for hybrid working and ensure everyone is skilled and confident to use them. This may involve investment in digital training — however, the long-term benefits when it comes to nurturing a positive company culture are well worth it.

My personal belief is that the only barrier to technology is an individual’s willingness to embrace it. So, encourage employees to be curious, be vulnerable and explore the digital collaboration tools available. Share experiences and learn together. The ability to overcome barriers and successfully use the tools available to continue innovation — regardless of working location — will be immensely valuable for everyone.

3. Embed wellness initiatives

Loss of relationships and loneliness are two hybrid work challenges, yet only 26% of companies globally with hybrid teams have initiatives to support the general health, lifestyle and behaviours of employees. Besides physical health, fitness or nutrition, these can address mental aspects like mindfulness or stress management. Leaders and managers must incorporate wellness initiatives for hybrid teams that accommodate their different workplaces and flexible schedules if they hope to develop a supportive hybrid culture.

At Insights, we encourage our people to practice self-care. Self-care is a lot like putting on your own oxygen mask first — it’s not about self-preservation, it’s about looking after yourself so you can do what you need to do, and then providing support to others if necessary. Encourage your people to start each day by centring themselves, urge them to access the gift of renewal by taking regular breaks to refresh and refocus, and ensure they switch off at the end of every day. Make sure that you encourage leaders to do the same, as our research showed that employees in management positions expressed significantly more need for support than regular employees, in areas including relationship building and training in digital tools.

4. Awareness is key

Where team dynamics and culture-building are concerned, awareness is key. As one example, at Insights, we use the Discovery awareness model’s common language of colour to help make it easier and more memorable for people to understand themselves and others. Talking about issues in a non-judgmental, non-confrontational way, in a manner that is underpinned by mutual respect and positive regard, will build trust and cohesion. In this way, when the team comes under pressure in future, they will use the strength of their connections to weather the stormy waters.

Hybrid teams are here to stay. What that looks like exactly and how successful it will be in the new world of work is down to human resources (HR) and L&D professionals to create the ideal environment and culture — backed by the right training — for team members to flourish.

If our own experiences can change so dramatically in the last three years, then maybe our view today is not quite the answer for tomorrow. Not only should we be focusing on making hybrid teams work more efficiently now, but perhaps we also need to reframe our thinking to look beyond the term “remote” and consider how we create closeness for colleagues in the future through the use of technology to build relationships.

Marcus Wylie

By Marcus Wylie, Insights Head of Culture

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