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Collaboration, communication, and consideration: How to navigate the world of hybrid work

In the weeks following the unveiling of the UK government’s roadmap out of lockdown, businesses throughout the country have been contemplating what a return to the office will look like. While the pandemic has fuelled much uncertainty, we can say with confidence that our working life has been fundamentally altered. According to research from O2 business, only 10% of UK adults want to go back to the office full time, while some 31% don’t want to go back at all. Major brands including Nationwide have pledged that staff can work from anywhere, while stories about hybrid work are dominating the news agenda.

However, the move towards a hybrid workforce is not without its challenges. Although many are excited at the prospect of flexibility, fears around “office bias” or “proximity bias”, in which workers perceive those physically in the office to have advantages over those working remotely, are becoming increasingly prevalent. And not without reason; a 2015 study conducted by the Stanford Graduate School of Business in China found that while people working from home were 13% more productive, they weren’t rewarded with promotions at the same rate as their in-office colleagues. If this issue persists as we shift to a hybrid work model, there are also significant diversity implications. Commenting in The Telegraph last week, Nick Bloom, an economics professor at Stanford University who led the China study, stated that “while WFH ;managed well’ is potentially more inclusive – for example by reducing commuting pressures for disabled people – employers need to be careful not to discriminate against groups such as women with young children more likely to opt for hybrid working.”

Navigating the social components of a hybrid workforce also poses problems. Although in lockdown firms – Babel included – embraced Zoom quizzes, games, and happy hours to build team bonds, for many, the prospect of continuing to have virtual socials after lockdown has ended is far from an appealing one. But if team-building exercises don’t have a virtual component, there is a risk of excluding those who work remotely. Given the pertinence of the issue, it featured heavily during a panel discussion hosted by health benefits specialist Heka, which I was fortunate enough to speak on earlier in the month.

Communication and consideration to engage all voices

It’s clear from both the media conversation and the panel discussion that there isn’t a silver bullet that can fully mitigate proximity bias. However, by communicating with team members, considering their perspectives and circumstances, and leveraging technology to collaborate, we can help ensure hybrid working is a success.

In the first instance, having an awareness of the risk of office bias in itself is a positive step forwards and means businesses can have an open dialogue with team members about their concerns. As with remote working, different companies will have different things which work for them, and consulting with team members to source feedback and different viewpoints will be key. At Babel, we run regular forums for our consultants to provide an opportunity for the team to share feedback and ideas, and contribute to the development of the agency. We also run monthly wellbeing meetings to ensure team members are able to express their point of view and we can quickly adapt to help people based on their individual circumstances. This will continue as we head back to the office. And we’ll be trialling having a dedicated day for all team members to be in our central London office, making it easier for us to get face time with one another, plan any socials, and get pool tournaments back up and running!

Harnessing technology to collaborate from anywhere

Technology will also have a major role to play in helping teams adapt to hybrid work. Having spent the best part of a year working from home, most of us are acutely aware of what technology we need to feel productive and connected with our colleagues. Brainstorms, for example, used to feel challenging for remote team members, but since lockdown began we’ve found how we can make them work remotely via Zoom. With a hybrid workforce, these will likely continue to take place via video conference to ensure all team members can fully participate. Cloud collaboration tools like Google Suite will also continue to take precedence for content generation, ensuring we can efficiently work together, no matter where we are.

While hybrid work may present some new challenges, if the past year has taught us anything, it is that we are resilient, adaptable, and capable of finding solutions to problems. By maintaining a dialogue with one another, striving to understand different people’s perspectives and needs, and finding new ways to collaborate with each other both virtually and in person, we will be much better placed to navigate the months ahead.

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