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3 ways to redesign knowledge work for a hybrid world

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Alexia Cambon
Alexia Cambon is a research director in the Gartner HR practice. She works with clients to solve challenges around hybrid work design, employee experience, improving organizational culture and creating a compelling employment value proposition.

When the COVID-19 pandemic forced organizations to shift to remote work, the majority of them did so by virtualizing their existing office-centric design–which is characterized by consistent work experiences–enabling organic interactions and providing managers with direct visibility of employees’ work patterns.

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However, leaders did not account for three fatigue drivers that occur naturally in a remote work environment:

  1. Digital distractions: Email notifications, messaging pings, etc.
  2. Virtual overload: More meetings and virtual interactions to try to ensure connectivity
  3. Always-on phenomenon: Employees struggle to disconnect from work

Gartner’s 2021 Hybrid Work Employee Survey of more than 2,400 hybrid or remote knowledge workers revealed that fatigue has a dangerous impact on organizational outcomes. Fatigue can reduce employee performance by up to 33%, reduce effective team collaboration by 38% and reduce the likelihood of employees staying with their employer by 54%.

Organizations cannot afford to continue operating with a virtualized office-centric design that is exacerbating fatigue if they are to protect employee performance, wellbeing and retention.

Related: 6 strategies to improve the onboarding process for hybrid workers

There is no disagreement that the future work environment will be a hybrid one. Ninety-nine percent of 227 HR leaders responding to Gartner’s Workplace Reopening Amid Vaccine Rollout Webinar Poll in March 2021 reported that they expect at least some of their workforce will be hybrid after the COVID-19 pandemic ends, and 42% expect a majority of their workforce to operate in a hybrid model.

Moreover, Gartner’s 2021 Hybrid Work Employee Survey revealed that organizations that return to their prior in-person environment and force employees back into an office-centric work model could lose up to 39% of their workforce.

To align with the realities of the hybrid environment, organizations must evolve their work models from an office-centric design with location at its core to a human-centric design that is modeled with the individual as the main pillar. A human-centric design is a better fit for a workforce that will no longer operate solely in a single office location but, rather, will move fluidly among multiple locations.

Human-centric design also reduces employee fatigue by 44 percentage points, increases their intent to stay by 45 percentage points and boosts their performance by 28 percentage points.

HR and other executive leaders can take three key actions to shift from an office-centric design to a human-centric design:

Provide flexible experiences

Traditionally, organizations strived to provide consistent employee experiences. In reality, consistency in employee experience is not possible–all employees are different and have individualized needs that cannot be accommodated by a one-size-fits-all approach.

In the hybrid world, HR leaders must provide employees with flexibility by developing principles, not policies, that help employees create their most productive work patterns. Radical flexibility allows employees to rethink not just where and when they work, but how, with whom and how much. It increases their ability to harmonize their personal and professional goals, which may be particularly important for talent populations that have traditionally struggled with a one-size-fits-all approach–for example caregivers, parents or employees with a disability. In fact, Gartner analysis found that employees with high levels of flexibility in their work are nearly three times more likely to be high performers. In addition, 66% of hybrid or remote caretakers report that, in the last 12 months, their ability to manage childcare responsibilities has improved, while one in two women who were fully on-site prior to the pandemic, but have been remote since, said the level of safety they feel while working has improved.

Many organizations fear increased flexibility may have an adverse impact on productivity. But Gartner’s 2021 Hybrid Work Employee Survey found that, compared to before the COVID-19 pandemic, knowledge workers who are remote or hybrid are 1.46 times more likely to report an increase in productivity since the beginning of the pandemic, compared to their on-site counterparts.

Enable intentional collaboration

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Pre-pandemic, most collaboration among employees happened when they were co-located. With the recent shift to a remote environment, organizations have primarily invested in new tools for virtual meetings in order to enable distributed, synchronous work. This overreliance on synchronous modes is draining for employees, as it increases virtual interactions.

Asynchronous modes of collaboration are just as important as synchronous modes for achieving innovation because they enable employees to dedicate time for deep focus and restorative moments.

Expanding access to, and quality of, all work modes is not only vital for driving innovation but also essential to inclusion. In fact, Gartner research shows different talent segments thrive in each work mode. For example, introverts who are given opportunities to collaborate outside meetings are 2.15 times more likely to agree their team comes up with creative solutions to challenges compared to extroverts. Observing colleagues interact in the physical space is 25% more important for junior-level talent to complete their work compared to their more senior colleagues.

Becoming more intentional about where, how and when teams collaborate will be essential in the hybrid environment to achieve innovation. Employees who operate in environments with high intentional collaboration are nearly three times more likely to agree their team has a high level of innovation, compared to employees who report a low level of intentional collaboration.

Drive empathy-based management

Managers struggle with visibility into employee work patterns in the hybrid environment. To avoid a skewed understanding of performance without context of the employees’ unseen struggles and hidden challenges, organizations must equip managers to contextualize performance in a low-visibility environment via empathy.

Related: The importance of wellbeing, empathy in a remote workplace

While empathy is an established tenet of management, it’s a more important priority today than before the COVID-19 pandemic: According to Gartner’s 2021 Hybrid Work HR Leader Survey of 75 HR leaders, 89% reported it is more important to lead with empathy in a hybrid environment.

However, organizations face three key barriers in driving empathy-based management:

  • Skill: Managers may not have the skills required to be empathetic.
  • Mindset: Managers may resist the requirement to be empathetic, believing it is not their job.
  • Capacity: Managers may not have the time to prioritize empathy.

Shifting to an empathy-based management philosophy requires HR and executive leaders create a holistic strategy that invests in addressing all three of these barriers via several tactics:

  • Create manager training programs that enable managers to navigate vulnerable conversations.
  • Review role design to delineate team health and psychological safety from project manager responsibilities.
  • Provide extensive prioritization criteria that make space for managers to prioritize wellbeing.

Ultimately, organizations’ work models with office location at the core are unsustainable for the hybrid future, creating employee fatigue and retention risks. Employees will work better, stay at their organization longer and remain healthier if they are placed at the center of the work model.

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