Your top three questions about hybrid work answered

Business leaders struggle with a number of questions around hybrid work, but there are answers in optimal organisational design, productivity, and workplace culture

Hybrid work is here to stay, if a plethora of recent industry surveys on employee working preferences are anything to go by. Yet despite being forced to adopt remote working arrangements for well over two years through the pandemic, many organisations and their managers still struggle with flexible and hybrid working arrangements.

Some leaders have concerns about engagement and productivity, while others argue that time in the office is better for collaboration and organisational culture. These sentiments are reflected in a trend in which some companies are asking workers to return to working in the office. And it is often HR that is stuck in the middle between demands from leaders for employees to return to work, and employees who are determinedly unwilling to give up the option of working from home (and its associated benefits).

To help address these issues, UNSW Business School’s expert academics, Dr Christian Criado-Perez and Dr Bradley Hastings, lecturers and Research Associates at the UNSW Business Insights Institute, together with Dr Andrew Dhaenens, lecturer in the School of Management and Governance and Karin Sanders, Senior Deputy Dean (Research & Enterprise) and a Professor in the School of Management and Governance, came together to answer some questions from business leaders who will be attending the upcoming UNSW Business Insights Institute lunch briefing on Redesigning Work for a Hybrid Workforce.

UNSW Business Insights Institute lunch briefing on Redesigning Work for a Hybrid Workforce.

Q: Why should employees come back to the office?

A: In answering this question, it is important to understand why some organisations want to convince teams to come regularly into the office. One reason is to promote informal engagement. Research shows significant benefits of informal engagement between leaders and their followers (through the likes of “watercooler conversations”, for example). A recent study of 79 cases organisational change showed that this informal engagement was a predictor of whether transformation was a success, read more here).

Another important reason relates to early career development. What online work misses are those “learning moments on the job”, for instance by overhearing others in conversation, or tuning in to a conversation about a difficult project. Online, these learning moments are limited and research suggests this has adverse effects for career development.

Involving employees in this discussion and in the collection of evidence to assess what works best for a particular organisation can be powerful in mitigating the resistance to change. It can also help to challenge some of the assumptions that organisations make about the impact of working from home in a particular organisation. Understanding their constraints and taking an evidence-based approach to this issue is important because the appropriate solution can vary significantly.

Read more: Managing the micromanager in a new world of hybrid work

Q: What is the correct “mix” for hybrid work?

A: Recent research we have conducted into hybrid work has found that there are significant differences in preferences to work remotely. Most knowledge workers prefer to spend the majority of their time working from home; however, team leaders prefer to come into the office. We also found that women spend and prefer slightly more time working at home than men when given the choice to do so. These preferences are important to keep in mind because working from home can impact an employee’s experience, and their career, potentially creating a less equitable workplace. This research also uncovered differences between regions around the world in the preferences of managers to have their staff back to the office.

In general, providing staff with the choice to work from home or from the office is associated with many positive outcomes. For example, more time working from home is generally associated with improved wellbeing and a more positive perception of the working culture. However, there is often a tipping point. Those employees that spend approximately 80 per cent of their time or more working from home are more often disengaged, disconnected from their team, don’t feel psychologically safe, rate their organisational culture and their team more negatively, receive less career opportunities and are more likely to be considering quitting their job. Interestingly we found that most of these negative consequences are driven by lower levels of engagement. This data suggests that spending some time together as a team is still important, and that organisations need to learn what is best for their organisation.

Most knowledge workers prefer to spend the majority of their time working from home.jpg
Most knowledge workers prefer to spend the majority of their time working from home, however, team leaders prefer to come into the office. Photo: Getty

Q: Should all staff have the same working from home arrangements?

A: Regarding the issue of having a single policy for all teams or leaving it to the discretion of the manager, it’s important for the managers to assess the needs of each employee but an increasing lack of homogeneity in the policy can add a lot of pressure on the manager and can create feelings of unfairness. In the end, employees are employed in the same organisation. Some organisations are providing guidelines or common policies that each team can adjust based on their needs.

For instance, they might ask teams to agree on one or two days of the week as fixed ‘anchor days’ to have time face-to-face and facilitate collaboration. On the other hand, some organisations lack some clear guidelines and are afraid to lose employees when they ask them to be in the office for some days a week. From data about interviews, we know that there is some evidence that people will leave the interview and the organisations when they have to be in the office five days a week. In the current situation, these employees have the labour market on their side.

It is therefore important to communicate to the employees what is driving or supporting management decisions to return to word. Talent attraction and retention can suffer if a return to office is pushed too far without compelling reasons.

Unfortunately, there is no company that has a perfect policy that other organisations should mimic. A team of lawyers or academics will likely require a different work environment from a team of architects or engineers. However, some organisations have been outstanding in taking the time to find an office design and hybrid policy that works for them. Sweeping mandates without proper consultation will likely have negative ripple effects. Those that instead take an evidence-based approach and learn from what is working and what is not for their staff will have a great advantage.

Read more: What are the three biggest challenges facing organisations?

Business research that works

On Wednesday 13 September the UNSW Business Insights Institute will be launched with a lunch briefing event on Redesigning Work for a Hybrid Workforce. At this event, a panel of industry leaders and academics from the UNSW Hybrid Work Leadership Lab will discuss how to thrive in this era where “Thursday is the new Friday", including the impact of evolving workforce preferences on organisational design, productivity, and workplace culture.

For the first briefing event we focus on hybrid work. A panel consisting of the following people will answer questions from academics and industry partners:

  • Ranna Alkadamani, General Manager, People & Culture at Frasers Property Australia and Frasers Property Industrial
  • YingYing Mai, Experienced HR Advisor/ Business Partner at the Art Gallery of NSW
  • Paul Nicolaou, Executive Director at Business Sydney
  • Associate Professor Philip Oldfield, Head of School, UNSW Built Environment
  • Dr Andrew Dhaenens, UNSW Business School (panel facilitator)

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The Business Insights Institute, as part of the UNSW Business School, serves as a concierge for industry and government partners who want to harness the power of research to create brighter futures. The Business Insights Institute focuses on bringing business research to life in a way that positively impacts our partners and results in new research. Our focus is on global research evidence, in this way, the Business Insights Institute is very different from a consultancy firm. Our institute is connected to research labs and knowledge hubs within the UNSW Business School. Within these labs and hubs, academics from different schools work together with industry partners to generate global and local knowledge on specific topics as media engagement, AI, economics of education, metaverse, auditing and assurance, and digital sustainability. 

For more information please visit the UNSW Business Insights Institute.


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