The future of work is hybrid

The challenges, pitfalls & opportunities to synchronise a dynamic workforce with workplaces that matter

By Erwin Chong, MD, Group Head of CRESA, DBS

Covid-19 has brought many unintended consequences in the workplace. Beyond public health and safety improvements, the way people work has altered. Most spent the last 1.5 years collaborating with colleagues, fuelled through digital ‘windows to the world’. Thus, the debate on whether people should return to normality in the office versus staying fully remote has polarised the workplace community and kept CEOs challenged. For DBS, our analysis shows that the Future of Work will be a hybrid one, where we envision our employees to spend at least 60% of their time in the office. We firmly believe the office will continue to be the ‘soul of the company’. The challenge, however, is how people work and adapt in hybrid situations.

Naturally, managers – who are lamenting the loss of collaboration and innovation, cementing culture and improving a sense of belonging — have a strong motivation to bring people back to offices. Yet, employees may argue that working in the office brings various inefficiencies, with in-office distractions coupled with time-consuming commute. Many, have gotten used to the conveniences of balancing life and work. It is tempting to view hybrid working as only a nice balance between the two. Hybrid work is often confused to just mean working in a physical location versus virtual or flexibility versus permanence.

I am of the view that design is required for teams and companies to thrive in this new normal.

The essence of working in a hybrid nature needs an evolving blueprint for synchronous balance between when people are working as ‘individuals’ and when they collaborate as ‘collectives’.

This requires work: between managers and employees, policies and employee engagement strategies, flexible versus permanent spaces, tools that blend virtual and physical interactions. Hybrid work needs to be developed, tweaked and made adaptable.

Creating synchronicity is vital to making hybrid models work. The challenge is creating an operating model – for scheduling, engagement and purposeful interactions – that balances when employees should engage as collectives, and when they operate as individuals. Another challenge is on sustaining the model. How nimble can the operating model adapt to the evolving needs, organisational objectives and project timelines while granting employees serendipitous moments to interact with others? This requires constant calibration to form a synchronised rhythm — between people, tools, and spaces — to help teams achieve this balance.

A simple way to illustrate on how synchronising work rhythms matters: For example, a kind gesture of gifting may become suboptimal, when working in a hybrid nature. Physical gifts for employees in the offices will leave those at home left out. A voucher, though less intimate, might work better as it is fair for all. Hence, organisers and companies must consider the duality of hybrid when making decisions.

Another important synchronisation tool is for managers & employees to schedule when intact teams come back to office. If done right, should balance when teams need to collaborate seamlessly in a physical location and when focus is needed, granting individuals sufficient time to work creatively and be free of distractions. When managers learn their team’s pace and find the right working tempo, not only will the team camraderie be improved, employee retention and business objectives KPIs may also be met.

Making hybrid models work with people requires management attention and constant calibration between hardware and heartware. Solutions that make duality work are balanced policies and curated spaces for teams that form the hardware of hybrid working. Making available activity based workspaces, to support productive individual work and optimised ‘phygital’ collaborative spaces, will help build synchronicity. However, to truly harness the best from a high-performance hybrid team, shaping the heartware with managers winning people over with empathy is required. Leaders that establish a good balance of this synchronous nature will yield better employee outcomes, as this balance is what makes hybrid special. It allows employees to cope with commitments at home while giving them opportunities to develop social support structures in the office, and remove the sense of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out).

Employees that are able to form new habits and mindsets to stay on the beat of working in a hybrid system will thrive. Take on a conscious approach to identify where and how they work best, what are the tools and spaces they need to produce their best work, and plan accordingly. By optimising work environments at home, there are opportunities to balance “office time” for connections with colleagues with wellness and non-work responsibilities. If the workplace offers agile or free seating, employees should be encouraged to explore working on other floors or zones for a change of environment and meet new people. The need for companies to continue driving ‘water-cooler’ moments, is important, not just to spark innovation, but oftentimes to allow employees a chance to chat, or find mental breaks, to reduce the toil of working alone all the time.

With more companies recognising the upside of synchronous hybrid working, its effect might spill over to the surrounding eco-system supporting businesses and offices. The enhanced role of offices may emerge – augmented services and amenities (i.e. pet day-care centres, community centres for aged parents or childcare services) may find its place in future office design to aid employees when they are not working from home. Suburban centres may also transform — with added gyms, wellness studios and co-working offices to support home workers and rejuvenate the landscape beyond convenience or groceries. Decentralisation from city centres as a result of hybrid working, could ease issues such as traffic congestion and high-density living environments, or even reduce carbon footprint.

Hybrid working is best not left to chance — there is a need to design, plan, and adapt. Ultimately, meeting both the needs of individuals and collectives requires a strong and flexible bridge — a synchronised hybrid future of work solutions. It is one that can be created, if we focus on synchronising employee and organisation needs to drive mutual gains, trust and collaboration collectively. And it can be created, if we put design over chance, synchronicity versus serendipity.