6 minute read 21 Jan 2022

Why back to the office in hybrid working will (not) solve all people issues

By Pieter Nobels

EY Belgium People Advisory Services Executive Director

People Innovator. Curious mind, practical focus. Building a Better Working World. Passionate about purpose, education and future of work.

6 minute read 21 Jan 2022

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  • Future of Work | Qualitative study to work organisation trends in Belgium post-Covid

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A hybrid working model will not solve employers' challenges around employee engagement and retention. Unless it is part of a bigger picture.

In brief

  • The workforce is raising the bar for employers, starting with hybrid working. To succeed, organizations need to balance collective goals and individual needs.
  • The final objective of hybrid working should be employee experience designed by starting from a people-centered approach, regardless where your employees “do work”.
  • In the new era of work, organizations need to foster the employee experience through a culture that enables trust, connection, and productivity.

Many organizations are anxiously awaiting the big return to the office after a long series of workplace lockdowns and restrictions. Concerns around losing connection and people engagement are being fueled by increasing numbers of turnover. Generally employers are conscious of the appreciation of their workforce for the gained flexibility. It is therefore not surprising that in an attempt to get the “best of both worlds”, our research shows that a large majority of employers plan to transition to a permanent hybrid working model, mostly in a 2 to 3 days office setting.

However, today’s employees define the Future of Work far beyond hybrid work, especially considering it is often applicable to only a fraction of all organizational functions and levels. To avoid the organization's efforts resulting in the “worst of both worlds”, a future-oriented employer must ensure that the Future of Work strategy is a total approach that creates added value for the entire workforce. Therefore, new ways of working will successfully integrate people, space, and technology, and transform how people work.

While some employees come to the office for social interaction, their opposites search focus time in a professional environment. These preferences should be the starting point in creating a successful Future of Work strategy.

Flexibility: a key word for collective and individual goals

Employees are demanding ongoing flexibility in where, when, and how they work. In our global “Work Reimagined Employee Survey”, 54% of the employees would consider leaving their current jobs if not provided post-pandemic flexibility, with millennials twice as likely to quit as baby boomers. Employee willingness to change jobs in the current economic environment is a gamechanger. 

With early concerns around productivity in working from home generally eased off, the majority of employers have now embraced the idea of not having their workforce on site the full work week. However, the approach taken by employers defers from a very strict company defined schedule to a free choice of the individual employee. And although the pandemic has proved that the overall productivity is preserved, we find organizations and their managers struggling with a (perceived) lack of control or availability of their employees. As such, employee preferences are sometimes at odds with business considerations or client needs. Moreover, certain tasks, functions or roles will still be better supported in the office, especially when it requires a lot of interaction. When left to chance, the probability that a team is present in the office on the same day drops significantly (even below 15% in a 2 to 3 day office schedule).

We see organizations that succeed best in this difficult balancing exercise are often tying the individual flexibility to a collective goal, which is embedded together with ways of working and agreed guiding principles in a team charter. When facilitating the sessions to co-create this charter, it’s important that leaders are well aware of the diverse spectrum of personas in ways of working. 

To give one example, organizations are reimagining the workplace to suit the Future of Work and are implementing moderate to significant changes to the offices. As can be expected, these changes go from redecorating for more collaborative workspaces, reducing real estate footprint, to opening or onboarding new office hubs.

However, employers should be mindful that the preferred function of the office can vary strongly among employees. Our experience shows that while some employees come to the office for social interaction, their opposites search focus time in a professional environment. These preferences should be the starting point in creating a successful Future of Work strategy. The key to success lies in the right combination of getting your employees on board with the collective goal while paying attention to individual preferences. This provides a unique opportunity for organizations to move in a new direction toward a people-centered mindset in their Future of Work strategy.

An effective Future of Work strategy requires organizations to embed flexibility beyond choosing where and when to work. It is worth including flexible work schedules, flex rewards and even personalized communication in a broader framework of choices that employees can make.

Future of Work: a people-centered approach

This approach to hybrid work is illustrative of how the most successful organizations manage the right balance between what employees want and what the organization needs.

Different groups of employees will have varying preferences, needs and priorities that organizations will have to consider, making the workplace a complex and evolving landscape. Mapping personas could enable leaders to better understand individual preferences. Each of these personas, drafted based on the actual workforce, have distinctly different characteristics, preferences and needs. Analyzing these personas across the different typical work events of an employee, called employee journey, allows organizations to embed flexibility beyond choosing where and when to work. After all, flexibility has many aspects: employers therefore need to invest in building broader choices that employees can make. Potential elements here include flexible work schedules, flex rewards and benefits, customized career paths, personalized communication... 

The secret ingredient is that employers respect the employee as an individual with unique talents, needs, preferences, and priorities, without having to dive too deep into the context of each individual.

In addition, it allows organizations to redesign their processes and tools used by their workforce in a more user-friendly and integrated way, contributing to the overall employee experience up to customer-grade standards.

When employees understand how their work contributes to the organization's goals and purpose the physical environment or where and when employees work is of little significance.

Why culture, trust, and connection matter

But can all this really replace the pre-COVID shared in-person experiences that were building organizational culture, trust, and connection? After all, was it always easy to establish trust and connection between coworkers and leaders when everyone was working psychically in one office building? Just as we saw teams struggling with trust and engagement before COVID, we now see organizations thriving in establishing fully remote teams. On some of our projects, we’ve even gathered feedback from managers indicating they’ve developed a better connection with their coworkers than before.

In the new way of working, organizations need to create a culture based on trust, transparency, and empowerment. Employers will need to consistently re-assess conceptions of productivity and the impact on their culture, ensuring their teams approach for the in-person and hybrid work experience. As such, it is key that goals and purposes are understood and followed by all team members. Sharing information freely and doing so effectively are crucial, as are clearly identified tasks and reliability. 

Regardless where employees are working, organizations need to continuously keep these topics on their agenda. As an example, we have seen cases where the employer was putting deliberate effort into communication and connection during the lockdown period, to the great appreciation of the employees. However, when temporarily returning to the office and assuming things would go back to normal, employees were voicing their disappointment about not experiencing the same level of connection.

Trust-based leadership in building and transforming can’t be overemphasized. Employees need to be trusted and empowered to structure their work and decide on how to best perform these tasks. To do so, employees must understand how their work contributes to the organization's goals and purpose. Once an organization achieves this goal, the physical environment or where and when employees work is of little significance.

Show resources

  • Download our "Future of Work report. A qualitative study about post-Covid work organization trends in Belgium."

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Summary

Successful organizations thrive in the Future of Work by inspiring their workforce through trust and purpose and engage the individual through a personal and seamless employee experience. This can be achieved regardless where work is done.  However, because of the increased complexity in a flexible hybrid working schedule, extra attention should be paid to balancing the individual needs with the collective purpose.

About this article

By Pieter Nobels

EY Belgium People Advisory Services Executive Director

People Innovator. Curious mind, practical focus. Building a Better Working World. Passionate about purpose, education and future of work.