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How to unlock hybrid working’s new world of opportunities

“When will we be able to go back to the office?” That was the question on everyone’s lips in the first few months of the pandemic, as lockdowns swept the world and employees were forced to adapt. But as time has gone on, the question has changed. Now, it is “Will we have to go back at all?”

Some companies have announced ‘work from anywhere forever’ policies — Fujitsu, for example, has done so for its 80,000 Japan-based employees and also for its Global Delivery Centre teams across Europe and Asia, where more than 16,000 employees are working remotely. But most companies are considering a mix of working from the office and remotely. This approach is known as ‘hybrid working’, and it will ripple through the world of work in the coming years.

For organisations, it opens up significant opportunities — and some challenges.

The opportunities of hybrid working

Increased access to talent 

“Talent is the biggest opportunity,” says Tim White, corporate executive officer and executive vice president at Fujitsu. “We were fighting for talent, and all of a sudden these boundaries and borders have opened.” Hybrid or remote working enables organisations to access talent from anywhere in the world, and for Dr Leonie Lethbridge, chief operating officer of the Commercial Bank of Qatar, “Nowhere is out of bounds.” 

Openness to new geographies may encourage a search for talent outside the traditional range of sectors. “We have actually diversified the sectors from which we look for staff,” says Lethbridge. “So if you want people who understand what great client outcomes look like, then, for us, the increased diversity may actually be in different sectors.” 

Better risk mitigation

Looking for talent in different locations and sectors can mitigate risk by enabling companies to diversify geographically. For example, if there is an issue in one region that temporarily stops employees from being able to contribute, companies can more easily rebalance by using talent located elsewhere. 

“This is about making sure you don’t rely too heavily on one geography over another,” says White. “So that if something were to happen in Russia or China, you could move work to, say, India and the Philippines and keep continuity of service.” 

Greater efficiency 

Hybrid working also enables companies to use buildings more efficiently. Offices, of course, have always been better for tasks that require collaboration, teamwork, and motivating groups, but they have traditionally been seen as the location where all work should be done. That is now changing.

Hybrid working shifts the question from “How do we accommodate everyone at our locations?” to, “Which are the functions that really need a physical location?” Companies that answer that question strategically can save money, improve efficiency, reduce health and safety risks, and radically cut their carbon emissions. 

Hybrid working is not all good news

But these new ways of working can also cause new problems for businesses. 

In late March 2021, Citigroup chief executive Jane Fraser sent an internal memo to staff calling for a “reset” of how they work. The blurring of lines between work and home, she wrote, is “simply not sustainable… When our work regularly spills over into nights, very early mornings and weekends, it can prevent us from recharging fully, and that isn’t good for you nor, ultimately, for Citi.” She also called on staff to make sure they take their holiday days. In the long term, says Fujitsu’s Tim White, “you need to be proactive at keeping up morale.”

Another challenge is adapting the onboarding process to the needs of a dispersed workforce. Businesses may find they need to provide new starters with additional support and information about the organisation — its culture, quality expectations, and ways of working. The wider the pool of territories from which they recruit, the more effort they will need to make to maintain a coherent organisational culture. And it is especially difficult to onboard staff who throughout their time at the company may never meet their colleagues in person. Remote working also increases the need for new administrative processes and policies to deal with employees who move from country to country while working for the company. 

Talent is the biggest opportunity of remote working. We were fighting for talent, and all of a sudden these boundaries and borders have opened

Finally, hybrid working also increases organisations’ reliance on technology for every type of collaboration and interaction, and it will take time and investment to find the best technology for each. Some teamwork is structured, for instance, while some is unstructured; some benefits from face-to-face interaction, and some from written chat or comments written directly into a project or document. Technology also facilitates the social and informal interactions that will give companies their cultural and social cohesion, and may be needed to overcome the language barriers of a dispersed workforce. 

How to dodge the difficulties and unlock the opportunities

Unite people around a strong company culture and purpose

A dispersed workforce reaffirms the importance of uniting employees, and a strong company purpose and culture is the best way to do that. Success, says Leonie Lethbridge, “hinges on having the right kind of collaborative structure and culturally embedded appreciation of creativity in the first place. If you give people the opportunity to build their career around doing amazing things, almost everyone will sign up to that.” 

Balance short- and long-term planning

Tim White says that a move to hybrid work is always a two-stage process. First, there is the short-term adjustment. But then it needs long-term attention so that the workforce can grow and thrive within the new circumstances. The distinction is useful as a reminder: the transition may bring irritations and inconveniences at first, but these are just temporary consequences of a shift that in the long term can enable greater efficiency, effectiveness and even comfort. 

Listen to the workforce

Organisations need to allow employees to feed back to improve the transition, learn lessons and improve continuously — and quickly. “It does not matter where the idea comes from,” says Lethbridge. “It might be a client idea that comes from one of the coders or a product idea that comes from someone in marketing. The key to successful hybrid working is expecting good ideas to come from all parts of the company.” 

White echoes her sentiment. “It is about making sure your workforce has a voice,” he says. “Wherever they are in the organisation, people are sitting there thinking, ‘I can make this better.’ It is about making sure those voices find their way back to the leadership so that the organisation can continuously use the opportunities of the new model to learn, improve and thrive.”

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