Is hybrid culture becoming, well, less hybrid? Deciding whether to keep the workforce flexible in terms of working location is under discussion given upcoming office lease renewals and business leaders are battling with tough investment decisions. Should they revive the in-office mandate to justify the expense of their real state and leases but then risk employee dissatisfaction? Or should they continue to pursue long-term hybrid- or anywhere-work policies, thus downsizing office space but maybe affecting collaboration, innovation and controversially… productivity in some eyes?
Flexible working hours are becoming more normalized as shown by the UK government’s new legislation to protect a ‘diverse workforce’ and new data suggesting that a four day work week will be the new normal. However, with the C-suites at Twitter and Starbucks enforcing strict return to office mandates this year, the case for hybrid appears somewhat under threat. Particularly when businesses are managing new tensions of hybrid work like remote surveillance, team culture and workplace innovation.
Yet, employees accustomed to hybrid working are not eager to work for companies mandating strict office-only policies, even with comparable salaries and benefits to those which don’t. With empty office space doubling in London in the last three years, business leaders find themselves at a crossroad: to renew or terminate their big city leases.
Some have already made their decision. Our research shows that since the pandemic, one in ten businesses in EMEA have completely gotten rid of their physical office, and more than half have reduced office space. What should other business leaders consider before making their renewal decision?
The innovation conundrum
The hybrid model is designed to support a distributed workforce whilst still recognising the value of in-person connections. However, our data reveals that almost two-thirds of respondents say their work is more innovative if they are in their employer’s buildings. Employees expect a culture of freedom, but this can be at the expense of commercial gains and of the hybrid model in the modern business.
The innovation conundrum builds a case for renewing real estate leases. Whilst this may not be what home workers want to hear, there is a harsh truth that businesses must address. If teams are not empowered to come up with creative ideas remotely, the successful rise of hybrid work will fail to become a reality and the longevity of their organization will be threatened.
Spencer Pitts is Digital Workspace Chief Technologist at VMware.
The hybrid way, or the highway
To label flexible working as a failure in response to innovation decline would be very wrong. Distributed teams are the new reality as an overwhelming majority of the EMEA workforce (81%) report a higher job satisfaction if they can work from anywhere. Of course, this depends on the nature of the employee’s job function.
Post-pandemic anywhere-work policies have resulted in positive impacts across the board with improvements being felt in communication with managers, morale, and collaboration. Gone are the days of traditional office culture where employees would expect surveillance by managers as ‘part of the job’ or accept grueling long days at their desks.
Business leaders cannot afford to doubt the value of flexible working as they risk their employee retention plummeting and their recruitment efforts stagnating. We all saw the backlash that can happen when Elon Musk demanded Tesla workers to return to the office.
However, open plan spaces should not be blindly scrapped in response to the hybrid craze, nor should hybrid workplace alternatives. The answer lies in the advantages of technology, culture and our people; equipping and enabling them to do parts of their role in the best place that works for them and the organization, be that exclusively at home or at the physical workplace.
Reviving innovation with a digital-first approach to productivity
Creativity and technology are not mutually exclusive assets. Technology has enhanced every channel in business, every aspect of daily life. If given the right foundation, digital creativity can thrive.
Organizations need to take better advantage of the tools designed to facilitate innovation. Accelerating secure access to corporate intelligence for all employees regardless of location will be instrumental to enabling digital creativity. Commitments to a workplace ‘refresh’ should leverage technology whilst also taking upskilling programs, remote work security and corporate purpose to the next level. This will spearhead a cohesive culture of authenticity and collaboration. For the workforce to truly benefit from the power of digital tools, they must first have this foundation.
Digital transformation for creative outcomes
Introducing mandated in-person ideation sessions would be a doomed approach to the innovation conundrum. Innovation and productive output don’t need to suffer because employees aren’t in the office. Companies that are thriving are setting up as ‘remote-first’ with no second class citizens at home or in the office. Working from anywhere is now cemented as an integral part of modern corporate DNA and cutting back on physical space may be needed to make room for the inevitable digital-first future. What leaders need to focus on is the investment that is right for the longevity of their business.