Hybrid work is here to stay, but context is key

Panellists discussed how hybrid work can’t be one-size-fits-all, at the HR Indaba Online.

Attendees in the virtual auditorium enjoyed an insightful discussion on “Hybrid carbon copy: Think twice before replicating hybrid work models” during HR Indaba Online 2022.

Due to Covid-19, many organisations have switched to hybrid work models, and now this flexibility is non-negotiable for many employees. However, from fully remote arrangements to a structured in-office/work-from-home schedule, no hybrid work model is (or should be) the same.

Desereé van den Berg, executive head of human capital at Risk Benefit Solutions, Dieter Veldsman, thought leader at Academy to Innovate HR, and Nicola Tager, global head of careers at Investec, offered expert insight into how it’s crucial to choose a hybrid work model that best aligns with your organisational culture.

Beyond an organogram, and asking why

Desereé opened the floor by highlighting three interesting yet unexpected findings she made while doing her MBA, which focused on remote and hybrid work models. “I interviewed many HR practitioners and organisations, and I didn’t expect to find that we’re post-pandemic, but organisations are still not making clear decisions on hybrid models, as the government no longer dictates to companies. We’re also not making decisions at the right level – they should be made at strategy level, but it’s often pushed down to HR teams. Finally, there’s still a struggle with what organisation design means – beyond just an organogram,” said Desereé.

Dieter added that he’s seeing various categories of organisations: some have a line-in-the-sand approach on hybrid work, while others base their decision on the type of work, which highlights why organisation design is so important.

“Organisations doing well are asking why they want to work hybrid or remote, and what that means for the organisation and who they want to become,” Dieter explained. “It depends on the culture, the leadership style, and how and where the work gets done. It works well if hybrid work hasn’t been viewed in isolation, or if it’s not based on a reactive decision. For organisations where it’s not working well, they haven’t made a clear decision yet and are extremely uncomfortable. This creates ambiguity and breaks down trust.”

Nicola expanded on this by saying that Investec initially allowed its employees to “test out” what they thought it meant to return to the office. But then the leadership team made a clear decision on the way forward: to be in-office for three days a week, as most of the work time needs to be in-person. “We’re trying for the best of both worlds, but we still need the benefits of in-office, especially for integrating new hires, building existing relationships, and innovation and learning needs,” said Nicola.

She added that if Investec feels that something isn’t working, they’ll adjust and be agile, because lines of communication are open. “So far, so good; people are readjusting and we’re learning as we go. We’re an open and honest company, and this principle is right for our culture and clients, because we’re a culture of getting the work done and delivering quickly.”

Trust is more than a word on a wall, and fairness is key

The panellists agreed that trust is essential for any hybrid work model to be effective. “If your culture has trust as just a word on a wall, any hybrid model won’t work. Trust should be a key value in the culture,” noted Desereé. “Were you worried about culture before remote work?” asked Dieter. “I think hybrid work has highlighted challenges that were always there. Culture is a living thing: if an organisation didn’t trust its employees beforehand, why is it different now that they can’t see them in person?”

For Nicola, trust and strategy can’t be separated. “Investec has a strong culture of trust, flexibility, and high-performance output. Now that we’re living in a hybrid world, we’re seeing aspects that our culture is missing, as the pace of change is much quicker in-person.

“Fortunately, we also have a culture of care and concern, which has helped us through such a critical time – and it’ll allow us to adapt our hybrid-work strategy.”

The topic of fairness was also discussed – in a large organisation in retail or manufacturing, for example, different rules apply for head office and frontline workers. How does HR navigate that? For Dieter, there’s no easy answer, but it’s critical for the organisation to ask how they can still create an employee experience that allows for choice and freedom, and it should be principle-based.

“We’re seeing a lot of this, especially in professional services versus production; some get the benefits of hybrid work, while others don’t. Organisations need to set out what their principle for hybrid work is, and how it’ll play out for different people. It must be fair, and it might need to be innovative,” said Dieter.

What will the future of work look like?

To conclude, the panellists took out their proverbial crystal balls to give their thoughts on how the world of work will look in five years’ time.

“There will be a big shift in the employer-employee relationship, and it will settle somewhere in the middle, between in-office and asynchronous working,” said Dieter.

For Nicola, work will fundamentally change into a blended workforce. “We’ll bring everything we’ve been testing in the past 30 years, like the gig economy, and it’ll create a different workforce spectrum and organisational design. People will also choose organisations based on the culture and what personally resonates with them. The models will get more sophisticated, and successful organisations will be principle-led and not policy led.”

“Organisations that think hybrid work is going away have their blinkers on. It will increase, and I’m hoping to see lots of innovation,” predicted Deseree. “But for now, beware of a cookie-cutter approach and copying what others are doing. Organisations must consider their strategy and the internal, as well as the external, environment context.”