Is the time now right for a ‘structured hybrid’ approach?

As organisations struggle with lost collaboration after the pandemic, a University of Toronto research study is seeking participating companies to explore the potential of a new model

It has now been well over a year since organisations first introduced mandates to return to office. Many employees are still resisting coming to the office at all, while mental health claims are escalating. Where is this headed?

Many seem to have forgotten why offices were created in the first place: to bring people together, to create synergy, to collaborate….so that one plus one equals more than two. This article asks whether a ‘structured hybrid’ model can enable organisations to recapture collaboration, while allowing individuals to work partly from home and partly at the office, and introduces a research study on the topic.

The challenge of lost collaboration

Organisationally, one of the biggest consequences of the Covid-19 work-from-home phase was the loss of collaboration, especially on a cross-functional basis. To recapture this lost collaboration, many organisations are mandating that all members of specific departments or teams come into the office on designated days.

This is a step in the right direction, but it does not capture the second-level collaboration which takes place between teams and is critical for their performance. Individual teams or departments lost less in collaborative strength within the team during the pandemic than they did in terms of their relationships with other teams and departments.

The stagnation of personal networks

Another consequence of the pandemic was the stagnation of personal networks. With limited opportunities for in-person interactions, forging new business relationships became a daunting task. By bringing back employees on designated days, the opportunity for serendipitous encounters is created with individuals on other teams and departments. New relationships bring new knowledge and ideas.

Return-to office-challenges

The return to office has brought about its own set of challenges. Mandates to come back to the office have led to increased attrition and mental health claims. Employees have become accustomed to the flexibility and autonomy that remote work provides. A ‘structured hybrid’ approach acknowledges these concerns by maintaining a balance between remote and in-office work. This way, organisations can provide the benefits of both worlds while also addressing the wellbeing of their employees.

Commutes and office adjacencies

Pre Covid-19, research confirmed that the single biggest contributor to increased collaborative performance was proximity. After the pandemic, pairing designated days in the office with adjacencies (who shares space with whom) is the path to assuring increases in collaboration. With more relevant and valuable discussions taking place in-office, employees will see the value and will likely undertake the commute more frequently.

Persona-centric design

Organisations are confronted with two critical questions: how much space is really needed, and what should that space look like (how should it be designed)? The effectiveness of a particular space is a function of both the design of the space and who uses the space. Space used largely by individual contributors looks very different than space used by highly collaborative employees. This does not mean that each space should be designed for each individual group, but that there should be a mix of spaces that reflect the mix of personas regularly using the space.

Role of data applications

In today’s world of application data, there is no excuse not to know how people work and with whom they use their space. Implementing a booking system is a start to build an understanding and database of how people are working and how spaces are being used. Adding application metadata takes this to another level in terms of being able to optimise adjacencies and track changes in collaborative performance over time.

By allowing employees and teams to reserve office space on designated days, organisations can ensure that collaboration is purposeful and well-coordinated. Additionally, a booking system offers transparency and flexibility, empowering employees to plan their work week in a way that aligns with their responsibilities and preferences.

What people forget is that collaboration is a collective behaviour, part of an organisation’s culture. In early 2020, when everyone was sent home in response to Covid-19, it was unrealistic to expect that all existing relationships would continue at the same level, as it would all depend on some form of technology. Some organisations had already developed strong, matrixed, remote working cultures prior to Covid-19, and lost significantly less collaborative performance, but they were rare.

University of Toronto research project

A University of Toronto research team is currently recruiting up to 20 organisations to participate in a research project to study the changes in collaborative performance since early 2020. The aim is to establish the pre Covid-19 baseline, track the change during the move to remote, then track what happened over time while working from home. Ultimately, what happened as people started going back to the office?

The objective is to widely distribute the findings. Many individuals feel they became more productive and effective while working remotely, but we need to gain insight into what happened at the organisational level. Participating organisations will receive detailed information on their people, groups and spaces. They can use these insights to structure their workplace strategies. We are advocates of sharing this data with employees.

In conclusion, the ‘structured hybrid’ work model emerges as a potential solution to the challenges brought about by the pandemic. It offers a balanced approach that promotes collaboration, optimises office spaces and supports employee wellbeing. As organisations navigate the evolving landscape of work, the structured hybrid model presents a compelling framework for a more adaptable and resilient future. The time to embrace this innovative approach is now.

Peter Smit is a lecturer at University of Toronto and part of the research project team looking at collaborative performance. He is also the founder of Collabogence, a data analytics company focused on helping organisations be more collaborative. He can be reached at: [email protected]
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