The hybrid work tug of war: balancing employee flexibility and company culture

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In this exclusive CHRO thought leadership piece, Kea Hammond, CPO at new-age solutions and systems integrator +Onex, explains why navigating the hybrid work landscape requires a fine balancing act.

The pandemic may be over, but the South African workforce hasn’t reverted to the 2019 normal.

Instead, challenges such as persistent loadshedding, slow economic growth, and decaying public services mean that organisations and their employees continue to face challenging times. But even in a climate of high unemployment, companies are struggling to attract and retain the best talent, impacting organisational performance.

On the flipside, employees are fatigued and frazzled, a picture that has remained unchanged since the pandemic. Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace report shows that nearly half of respondents from sub-Saharan Africa feel stressed at work every day. Disengagement levels are high among South African workers, with a Bateleur survey finding that only 53 percent feel engaged in their jobs — compared to 70 percent of employees in neighbouring countries.

Meanwhile, the tug of war continues between employees who want more flexibility, and companies (and managers) who want more of their people in the office for more of the time. Whether organisations choose a fully remote, completely in-office or hybrid model, it’s key to get buy-in from their talent. Against this backdrop, employee experience and engagement are emerging as key priorities for South African businesses this year.

For those organisations that have a mix of in-office, remote, and hybrid teams and employees, getting employee experience right is still a delicate balancing act. It’s about juggling employee flexibility with the need to build a strong company culture and drive productivity. Although it has taken some time to get there, organisations have a better understanding of the best practices it takes to run a productive and engaged hybrid team.

Why hybrid still make sense

One of the themes of work in 2023 was the great return to the office. From banks to big-tech companies, many multinational companies started to ask more insistently for their employees to return to five-day working weeks. A cooling global job market no doubt helped. With many companies retrenching people after the pandemic hiring frenzy, power has to some extent shifted back to employers.

In South Africa, loadshedding has given companies more reason to get people back into the office. Many employees simply don’t have the connectivity and back-up power to work at home during power outages. Other reasons that companies want people to come into their place of work are that they believe that remote and hybrid work can erode company culture and is poor for employee engagement, wellness and productivity.

Our organisation believes that remote and hybrid are the right match for many roles and teams, although not all. When managed well, remote and hybrid workers can be as engaged and productive as their office-bound counterparts. Indeed, the Bateleur research shows that 62 percent of remote workers and 60.5 percent of hybrid workers feel engaged in their roles, compared to just 44 percent of people in entirely office-based roles.

As a company that was founded during the pandemic, +OneX was born as a largely remote company. However, we rapidly transitioned to a hybrid model when the economy opened up, culminating in the move to our new Johannesburg headquarters in the second half of 2022. Through this journey, we have developed a range of best practices to ensure engagement and good employee experience for our teams.

It’s not about where people work, but how

One of the most important lessons is that it’s not about where people work or even which hours. It’s about giving people, teams and managers the autonomy to negotiate arrangements that work for everyone. Employees value the ability to create balance across their work and personal lives – knowing that there is a give-and-take depending on deadlines and other commitments. People are held accountable for KPIs, not which hours they work in a particular place.

While physical presence in the office isn’t required for all roles, what we also found is that people wanted face-to-face contact after the pandemic months. Collaboration can suffer when teams are scattered across different locations; many employees feel disconnected and isolated. This is not an insurmountable challenge, provided you develop strategies to manage it.

One way we build culture and connection is by encouraging collaboration among different teams and across different business units. We allow people from different teams to work on shared projects, letting them work outside their silos and get a wider perspective on the business. For example, people from our software development, cloud and data teams often collaborate on projects with a shared client.

We hold monthly sessions where speakers from teams and business units can share their work and thinking with the rest of the company. This creates an environment where different teams cross-pollinate ideas; it also helps to catalyse career opportunities and help employees feel connected to a wider purpose. In some instances, these collaborations have even led to people reskilling for a new role in a different part of the business.

Recognising exceptional performance

Another factor that is key in remote and hybrid work environments is recognising exceptional performance. People who spend most of their time out of the office don’t get as much exposure to leaders as office-bound peers, for example. We use forums such as CEO breakfast sessions to celebrate higher performers and give them time with our leadership team.

As I noted earlier, one of the potential downsides of remote and hybrid work is that some people can feel alone and disconnected. Many of them might be reluctant to discuss with their direct managers when they are stressed, anxious or lonely. In addition to frequent check-ins with team members, we have found that our employee assistance programme (EAP) has been a game-changer.

Each of our employees has access to the Panda app. This app destigmatises seeking assistance for mental health concerns and gives employees anonymous access to a range of wellness resources, including webinars, coaches and counselling services. Many employees feel more comfortable seeking help in this way than from a colleague or a manager – even when there is a sympathetic ear and an open door.

In the end, collaboration and employee wellness are critical success factors in the world of hybrid work. Organisations that foster a culture of collaboration, invest in career development initiatives, and prioritise employee wellbeing will be able to drive better productivity and employee engagement. As the landscape continues to evolve, these strategies serve as valuable guideposts for businesses seeking success in the new era of work.

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