By: Dave Page, CEO of Actual Experience,
The face of business has been turned on its head over the course of the last 18 months, and while initially for the worse, we are easing into steadier waters and learning to adapt. As we do so, the rise of hybrid working is offering businesses a new opportunity to improve employee experience, strengthen business performance, and attract and retain talent.
While hybrid isn’t exactly the ‘new’ normal anymore, and many businesses have adapted swiftly, the real challenge is now to make sure that hybrid works well, for everyone. If you get hybrid working wrong, a business faces threats to sustainable growth, the risk of workforce inequality, weakening cultures, and disengagement.
Companies that thrive in a hybrid world will need to adopt a holistic, joined-up approach to employee experience, engagement, culture, productivity, and performance, involving total synergy between HR and IT functions.
In an office setting, the working environment is homogenised. While remote employees are generally provided with a standard laptop, that’s usually where the provision of being given the tools to do their job ends. Employee experience of hybrid working will underpin the most important drivers of business success and this is where the role of HR and IT become intrinsically linked, with an opportunity for CHROs and people leaders to act as a lynchpin within the organisation.
We conducted extensive research of European business leaders, where we surveyed and interviewed a mix of CEOs, CIOs and CHROs from across Europe, 70% of which said they’re shifting to a new hybrid working model.
With less need for bricks and mortar office space, many companies are taking advantage by reducing their office footprint and saving money. With just 18% of respondents expecting to make a full return to the office.
Approach all employees as individuals with different needs
When we asked business leaders in our survey about the biggest challenges in migrating to new ways of working, respondents cite the impact on commercial property as their biggest concern (31%). However, this was closely followed by understanding employee requirements (29%). The two are closely interlinked.
Many companies have jumped to the conclusion that, in a hybrid world, the office should now primarily be a place for collaboration. However, this ignores the wider needs of many employees, some of whom do not have comfortable set-ups at home to work and welcome a return to the office to enable them to work more productively.
Digital inequality is a real issue
There’s a very real danger of a new equality gap arising from this now-not-so-new way of working, which will become problematic for staff, HR or people teams and overall business performance. Hybrid working only works if employee technology does. And for many employees, it simply doesn’t.
Equality problems are emerging between those who have access to good digital services and those who don’t. Many employees will be working with digital limitations. Limitations that have nothing to do with job performance or personal ability.
Those in more rural areas with poor internet connectivity are naturally at a disadvantage. The same applies to those who can’t afford faster broadband provision or Wi-Fi booster technology. Even employees on higher incomes may struggle at home with several family members online simultaneously causing a lack of bandwidth.
What is for certain, is that it will become increasingly important for HR and IT to work collaboratively to identify where those disadvantages lie. They will need to implement the small changes that can make significant differences to productivity, employee wellbeing, and the bottom line.
The bottom line
According to our data, on average, the bottom 10% of a company experiencing the worst digital inequality, will spend 6 hours a month trying to catch-up – the best part of a working day!
For these employees, it can mean increased frustration and reduced wellbeing caused by lagging load times, connectivity delays, and interrupted conversations. This might lead to falling behind or having to catch up during their personal time. Deadlines and targets may not be hit, impacting performance and potentially the future of individual careers.
While frustrations build, members of staff can become disconnected and unmotivated – never good news for a business.
Our research found only 19% of business leaders believe they have a ‘very effective’ understanding of the link between digital tools and employee wellbeing. 24% said they were either ‘not very’ or ‘not at all effective in this area, a worrying statistic.
Businesses often stop short of settling the matter because firstly, they don’t know how to identify who is struggling, and secondly, they don’t know where the root cause sits within their broad infrastructure of digital tools. It’s understandable then that over two thirds (67%) of the business leaders we spoke to are becoming increasingly concerned about the impact of digital inequality on employees.
The ability to accurately measure a hybrid worker’s digital environment is critical. Most businesses have IT-level monitoring in place to analyse the technical performance of their technology. Far fewer understand the critical need to quantify the human experience of using it and the organisational-level impact that it can have.
It’s all about the micro-moments
The term ‘micro-moments’ refers to small experiences customers have that play a disproportionately large role in shaping their perceptions of a brand during the customer experience. It’s been argued the same principle applies to employees, particularly as companies experiment with new hybrid working models.
These positive micro-moments might include returning to the office and having a seamless connection to technology or receiving a welcome pack from management. Negative ones might include coming to the office to find it full without space to work, or not having the correct equipment available to do your job. With 58% of business leaders stating that digital experience is much more than just an IT issue, there needs to be a collective effort across teams to ensure these micro-moments are considered.
Businesses must identify these micro-moments both physical and virtual and redesign work around them, otherwise, the impact on engagement and ultimately retention and performance will be significant.
Ensure employees feel connected
Since the pandemic first struck early in 2020, companies have been vocal about expressing their broader purpose. Business leaders have been more accessible than ever and communicating purpose has been key to interactions with employees. This will continue to be important in helping to ensure workers feel connected to the business while potentially cut off from traditional work structures.
Asked about the main benefits of shifting to a hybrid model, business leaders in our survey pointed to a stronger link between employees and corporate purpose as offering the greatest potential (38% agreed).
Despite the challenges businesses now face in the hybrid era, improved alignment between customer experience and employee experience was seen as another key benefit (36% agreed).
Up until now the focus of most companies’ digital transformation initiatives has been the customer. Yet, as digital working becomes more embedded, companies seem to be trying to draw on lessons from the customer experience that they can apply to the employee.
To achieve this though, it involves thinking carefully about employee journeys and building emotional connections with them from the moment they first engage with the organisation to the moment they leave.
This will be dependent on a greater understanding of employee requirements, both digitally and personally. 29% of the business leaders we surveyed claim this to be one of the top challenges management now faces.
Adjusting an entire business to new ways of working will take time, and employees will understand that. What is becoming clear though, is that greater levels of collaboration between HR & IT departments is a crucial link to providing the direction required to improve both business performance and employee experience simultaneously.