4 ways organization design can enable the hybrid workplace

The COVID-19 pandemic has permanently shifted the workplace, as it’s become clear that remote work is viable for many workers, and the workforce will not likely go back to the way it was before the pandemic. Gartner research reveals 48% of workers will work remotely at least part of the time after the pandemic, compared with 30% before COVID-19. As remote work increasingly becomes part of the norm, more organizations than ever are adopting the hybrid workforce model.

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Unlocking Hybrid Opportunities by Rethinking Organization Structure and Role Design

Rebecca Lane, Gartner

At the start of the pandemic, HR leaders were forced to examine which roles in their organization were viable in a remote setting. The shift to a hybrid workforce is an opportunity to reevaluate roles and the organizational structure that underpins them, rather than only considering which preexisting roles and structures can be done remotely. HR leaders should consider the following ideas:

Centralize support functions virtually to increase accessibility.

Traditional organization design is built upon the assumption that workers group together in a physical location and interact in person. As more organizations embrace a hybrid workforce, centralizing support functions virtually can make them more accessible and help avert exclusion and redundancies. For example, instead of locating HR business partners (HRBPs) with teams across various physical settings, centralizing HRBPs virtually–via portals, inboxes, conferencing and messaging apps, networks, etc.–increases accessibility for both on-site employees and those who work remotely. Centralizing support functions also offers opportunities for efficiencies of scale.

See also: 4 culture strategies for creating a successful hybrid workplace

Increase work location flexibility by shifting to an outcome-based organizing principle.

An organizing principle is an element of organization structure that shapes the coordination of work by grouping employees and resources into departments, based on either task or outcome. As opposed to a task-based organizing principle, which groups people doing the same tasks (e.g., marketing, finance, IT), an outcome-based organizing principle groups employees together based on specific outcomes to be achieved (e.g., by a certain product or customer type). Redefining your organization structure based on outcomes can open up hybrid opportunities for more employees.

For example, a clothing retailer could embrace a hybrid workforce model by allowing the task-based segments of workers who don’t need to be on site–such as customer service representatives–to work remotely. In this scenario, the store sales team still works entirely on site. However, under an outcome-based organizing principle, the retailer could decide to organize around the outcome of selling blue jeans. “Blue jean experts” might spend part of their time in store and part of their time working remotely to answer customer questions about their product.

Driving Performance in the Hybrid Workforce Through Workflows and Organization Structure

Many leaders are still concerned with ensuring quality of work and overseeing employees without the organic oversight that happens in a co-located workforce. In fact, Gartner research finds that 64% of managers believe that office workers are higher performers than remote workers. In fact, the opposite is true: Full-time remote workers are 5% more likely to be high performers than those who work full time from the office. HR leaders should focus on setting up the right systems and processes to help employees perform their best from any location via the following tactics:

Increase employee autonomy by formalizing where workflows can flex.

HR leaders should reorient managers to think about performance and productivity around outcomes instead. Workflows designed around outcomes operationalize the shared ownership aspect of a hybrid workforce model by giving workers a higher degree of decision-making autonomy and cultivating trust between employers and employees.

Andy Karr, Gartner

Increased employee autonomy works best when accompanied by formalizing where workflows can be flexible via clearly defined processes, procedures, rules and policies. But formalization carries a double-edged sword, slowing decision-making by requiring too many gatekeepers and trapping employees in rigid processes. Formalizing where workflows can flex is critical for a hybrid workforce that cannot rely on walking over to their manager’s desk for approval every step of the way, or who need to act quickly and take a non-standardized approach that serves customers well.

Tailor spans and layers to workflows, not the reverse.

In a hybrid environment, HR leaders must take a critical eye to the number of layers in the organization and the spans of control, which is the number of direct reports each manager has. A good starting point for adjusting spans and layers to enable a hybrid workforce lies in the following questions:

  • How will a greater degree of employee autonomy and formalized flexibility impact the need for day-to-day managerial oversight?
  • Subsequently, can spans and layers be tailored based on the change in day-to-day oversight?

The breadth of an organization’s spans and the depth of its layers should facilitate workflows, not dictate them. For instance, it may make sense to have a manager have fewer direct reports if they are tasked with complex workflows and a high degree of management complexity (the manager has many expectations and demands on their time).

Related: How remote work is creating a new role for managers

Enhancing Cultural Values in the Hybrid Workforce

Many organizations are concerned that adopting a hybrid workforce model with less face-to-face interaction could cause organizational culture to falter. However, the perspective that equates culture with in-person contact is shortsighted. Not only can culture be cultivated through virtual means, but leaders can use the shift to hybrid as a chance to evaluate whether or not cultural priorities were truly supported in the first place.

Embed cultural values in processes.

Many organizations focus on ensuring leaders communicate and personally demonstrate cultural priorities–and fear that a hybrid workforce will make this more difficult. Gartner research reveals the most impactful thing leaders can do is update the processes and workflows in their part of the business to support cultural priorities.

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While 83% of organizations say leaders consistently communicate the importance of culture and 29% behave in a way consistent with company culture, only 19% of organizations have leaders who manage processes based on culture. To assess whether elements of workflow and role design are supporting your cultural values, HR should consider these types of questions:

  • If your organization prioritizes innovation, how does the degree of formalization in your workflow processes enable or hinder this?
  • If your organization prioritizes collaboration, how does your organization’s degree of role specialization–the diversity of different tasks that make up role designs–help or hinder this?
  • If you strive to prioritize the hybrid imperative of shared ownership, how does the degree of employee autonomy support this?

When workflows allow employees to enact cultural values, HR leaders can use the transition to a hybrid workforce as an opportunity to redirect or strengthen organizational culture.

 Maximizing Skills Development Through Virtual Networks

Leaders have questioned how to ensure their employees maintain and develop key skills in a hybrid workforce. HR can facilitate learning and development in a hybrid workforce by leveraging the opportunities virtual networks offer.

Build skills through virtual networks instead of in-person events.

The hybrid workforce presents an unprecedented opportunity for employees to include a more diverse array of people–and tap into pockets of skills that weren’t previously accessible–via virtual networking. The biggest barrier is a lack of visibility around networking opportunities. Increasing the visibility of virtual networks will help ensure that employees, regardless of location, can find the right connections to help achieve their performance and development goals.

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The COVID-19 pandemic has precipitated an unprecedented revisioning of work. Remote work has become commonplace, turning most workforces “hybrid,” whether or not the shift has been conscious. Purposely installing a hybrid workforce model–enabled by organization design–can unlock a world of advantages and opportunities for maximizing and rethinking organizational priorities.

Rebecca Lane and Andy Karr
Rebecca Lane is research principal and Andy Karr is senior principal, Advisory, in the Gartner HR Practice.