Hiring and Thriving in a Hybrid Workplace

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Tuesday, January 3, 2023
By Marie Wilson, Connie Zheng
Photo by iStock/Courtney Hale
As more companies adopt flexible work arrangements, new recruits struggle to fit in. Five strategies can help recent hires quickly become productive.
  • During the pandemic, employees became accustomed to working from home, and companies realized how many core functions could be performed remotely.
  • Both employees and employers appreciate flexible work arrangements, but there can be negative consequences if companies don’t have clear strategies for hybrid workplaces.
  • In particular, managers must ensure that new workers have chances to interact with colleagues and become familiar with company culture.

The COVID-19 pandemic rapidly accelerated changes in the workplace, particularly when it came to working remotely. Across countries and in all sectors except healthcare, between 15 percent and 25 percent of employees increased the time they spent working from home (WFH). As WFH changed the meaning of the word “workplace,” companies embraced the use of digital technology and adapted their notions of business as usual. Three years later, organizations are still determining the best way to accommodate requirements and requests for flexibility in the workplace.

For many employers and employees, the new preference is for hybrid arrangements, where employees work remotely for a portion of the week and spend the rest of the time in the formal workplace. While many organizations have offered flexible arrangements for years, they previously had required many core functions to be performed on site. But during the peak of the pandemic, managers discovered that employees were able to handle these tasks without interruption, even while working from home. As a result, both employees and employers began to radically rethink what was possible.

Even so, WFH presents several challenges to employers—including how to handle the benefits, costs, and consequences of this mode of work, as well as how to onboard employees.

We’re exploring these challenges at the Centre for Workplace Excellence at the University of South Australia (UniSA) in Adelaide, where we host several major research projects that focus on the working environment and the outcomes for individuals and teams. We have five research streams, including the Psychosocial Safety Climate Global Observatory. As part of this work stream, we observed the transformation of work during the pandemic. In the process, we uncovered new questions about the impact of increasing flexibility in the places, times, and methods of working.

To answer those questions, in 2021 we launched The Future Workplace project with a multidisciplinary team that includes experts in the fields of architecture, management, organizational psychology, and design. Together, we began assessing the nature of hybrid work and restructured workplaces and how they impact performance, productivity, and well-being.

Pros and Cons of Hybrid Work

Today, an increasing number of surveys and reports suggest that both current and new employees are seeking flexibility in when, where and how they work—and that there are negative consequences to firms and workers when that flexibility cannot be accommodated.

According to Microsoft’s 2022 Work Trends Index, 53 percent of employees are more likely to prioritize health and well-being over work, while 47 percent are more likely to put family and personal lives first. The headlines heralding the Great Resignation highlight that employees are rethinking their level of organizational engagement and commitment. At the same time, employees are putting less priority on “organizational citizenship” and they are losing trust in institutions and their leaders. To keep these employees engaged, organizations and their leaders will need to intentionally implement practices that optimize flexibility.

For these reasons, hybrid work has become the preferred choice of many companies. And yet, 72 percent of organizations lack clear hybrid-work strategies. Additionally, unless employees spend time together in person, there can be negative consequences for both workers and companies.

Evidence shows that sharing a workplace with colleagues enables an employee to form a social identity, develop effective networks for collaboration, and make productive contributions to the organization. Sharing a workplace is also essential because almost all forms of workplace learning are social, from seeking feedback to observing role models to learning from others. To be engaged and successful, employees must be able to understand both the expectations of their roles and the norms of the company culture.

Sharing a workplace with colleagues enables an employee to form a social identity, develop effective networks for collaboration, make productive contributions to the organization, and learn from others.

While a hybrid approach allows employees to share a physical place, they still will experience lack of continuity in social interactions and limited access to workplace learning. That’s because both flextime and WFH arrangements make it less likely that co-workers will have the casual interactions that support network development and individual learning. Employees also will have reduced opportunities to consult on expectations and innovations. Additionally, online and hybrid meetings are demonstrably poorer options for promoting innovation, collaboration, and relationship development.

During the pandemic, these drawbacks were particularly evident during the onboarding phase for new employees. Anecdotes abounded of new hires who did not have personal or place-based interactions with their employers for more than a year. Many new recruits characterized their onboarding as limited or insufficient. Some reported that they felt isolated and anxious about their “fit” and performance, and many contemplated quitting. As one employee stated, “There was no ‘there’ and no one.”

For that reason, as more workplaces transition to hybrid arrangements, employers will need to revamp the processes they use to integrate new hires. They will need to expand the onboarding timeframe to cover the whole period from when a new employee accepts a job to when that employee is well-versed in the role and the organization. This can take anywhere from a few weeks to more than a year. During this time, employees are determining if they want to keep the job or if they want to quit, and managers are assessing whether or not workers are learning to perform well or are failing to reach their potential. The phase is so critical that it’s essential for companies to handle it correctly.

Five Key Strategies

Here we share five steps that companies can use to onboard recruits during the new normal of hybrid work. These suggestions are drawn from practices and strategies that organizations used successfully during the lockdowns and lockouts of the pandemic.

1. Communicate the importance of collaboration and community. Consistently acknowledge that work is a social environment and that this is a time of transition. Realize that everyone can contribute to making new co-workers feel included, engaged, and part of the social fabric of the workplace.

For instance, during the pandemic, many universities maintained regular rituals such as brown-bag research seminars, celebratory lunches, and virtual town hall meetings. They focused on maintaining aspects of their cultures such as routines, stories, histories, and icons. Administrators made sure that speakers avoided or translated acronyms and short titles during any presentations where new employees were in attendance. During online technical meetings, presenters used the chat function to help new staff members contextualize the content.

2. Revisit your work design. When hiring new talent, consider how employees bring value to the company and explain those processes to candidates. Communicate what aspects of the job require collaboration and teamwork, and describe the role of creativity and innovation. When new employees understand the requirements of their roles, they are likely to understand how much time they will need to spend physically in the workplace.

For example, we observed a major consultancy firm that had engaged in distributed work and activity-based workplaces for years before the pandemic. Their experiences suggested that some activities required group interaction in purposefully designed physical spaces. These included client interactions to brainstorm new ideas, resolve problems, and handle disputes. As COVID restrictions emerged, this firm needed to highlight the types of activities that could not be conducted virtually. The company now has made hybrid time/space design a standard part of its practice, integrating it into project management procedures for new staff.

Another firm in the same industry has redesigned work to make it less dependent on teams and physical collaboration so that staff members who are working remotely can still perform effectively.

Ask for and give frequent, fair, and informal feedback to employees. This helps all staff build a shared understanding of the organization and their roles within it.

3. Clarify role requirements. Fully discuss the responsibilities of each position and task, and regularly check in with employees to evaluate their progress. When feasible, start new employees with projects that require them to work with and gain feedback from others. Ask for and give frequent, fair, and informal feedback to new and existing employees. This helps all staff build a shared understanding of the organization and their roles within it.

For example, before the pandemic, a multinational engineering firm had rotated new hires through a series of roles so they could gain an understanding of the entire organization. But as new staff members worked from home during lockdowns, these rotations left them feeling disoriented and confused because they weren’t getting strong physical or visual cues to help them determine the differences between various business functions.

In response, the firm identified longer-term projects that required employees to work with others across the organization. When new graduates were brought into these projects, they worked with other recent hires as well as established leaders who could act as mentors. As a result, the newcomers not only learned directly about organizational structures, but also were integrated more strongly into the company.

4. Make optimal use of shared work times. Reserve core work hours for activities that require connection, collaboration, and creativity. Get agreement on what activities reflect the culture of the organization, and ensure that all staff can be part of these organizational culture-building processes. For instance, use shared time to welcome new recruits, say farewell to departing employees, and celebrate achievements.

An innovative community bank serves as a good example. The bank had spent years pioneering flexible work arrangements, including creating an activity-based workspace in its headquarters and holding periodic hybrid meetings. But during the pandemic, an analysis of these hybrid meetings showed that they were ineffective for promoting worker interaction and building a sense of culture and community, especially for new recruits. As a result, the bank now reserves two core half-days during the weekly calendar for physical gatherings at the workplace. Collaboration and knowledge-sharing have become part of all work arrangements at the organization.

5. Help employees find navigators and connectors. As mentioned above, new hires commonly learn how to navigate and excel within the organization through informal interactions with colleagues, but such opportunities are limited when most employees are working from home. Employees can acquire technical knowledge through online modules and training guides, and they can gain essential professional expertise from mentors who are assigned to them. But it remains important for them to receive the support of co-workers who will help them understand procedural requirements, local norms, informal protocols, and company expectations.

We observed a large mining firm where several professional facility management teams struggled to integrate newcomers into the organizational culture as work became more distributed and flexible. In response, the company moved away from its prior buddy system. It engaged the work teams to identify the knowledge resources and “soft” process information that employees needed to get work done. Each newcomer was assigned two or three experienced colleagues who would maintain contact with the new hire to ensure that the first six months progressed smoothly. The results of this connecting approach have been extremely positive.

Overcoming Challenges

As more organizations embrace remote work in the post-pandemic era, they face ongoing challenges in maintaining employee engagement, productivity, teamwork, and collaboration. In a hybrid work environment, onboarding new recruits requires managers to redesign their work structures, clarify employee roles, make the best use of shared time, and promote connections among workers.

All these tasks will be more successful when managers clearly communicate expectations right from the recruitment stage so that even employees who are working from home understand everything their jobs entail.

Marie Wilson
Professor in Organizational Psychology, UniSA Business, University of South Australia
Connie Zheng
Co-Director, Centre for Workplace Excellence and Associate Professor in Human Resource Management, UniSA Business, University of South Australia
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