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The Future of Work and “hybrid” work models

From the TR&I Working from Home series

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A recent article in The Irish Timeshas suggested that a “hybrid” model of working – where team members work in the office for some days of the week, and remotely for others – may result in the office being almost empty on Mondays and Fridays. The article cites research by the Advanced Workplace Associates management consultancy, which suggests that employers will need to offer incentives “such as celebrity chefs being deployed to attract staff to attend.” Neven Maguire may find himself in Trinity College Dublin before 2021 is out.   

In The Virtual Business Guide from December 2020, Helen McCarthy and Danny Mansergh write that many of the myths around remote or hybrid working – such as the assertion that people are less productive at home, or more likely to slack off – have been debunked: “The genie is now out of the bottle, and companies all over the world are asking their people how they want to work.”

While an assessment of data from nearly 7,000 employees by Prodoscore, cited in the same Irish Times article, states that workers were less productive on Mondays and Fridays in 2020, the levels were basically the same as 2019, prior to the pandemic. This suggests that it makes little difference whether staff are in the office or at home. Arguably, staff could be more productive at home, as workdays during the pandemic have often involved various complications and demands which are unlikely to intrude on a “normal” day, such as childcare, health issues, loss and grief, space issues, and anxiety or worries about COVID itself.

However, there are several factors which complicate this assertion. At Trinity College Dublin, Dr Na Fu, who specialises in strategic human resource management (HRM) at the Trinity Business School, has found that workplaces, post-COVID, will benefit from a person-centred approach. Dr Fu, who is Director for MSc HRM at Trinity Business School and the Digital Workplace Lead at the Trinity Centre for Digital Business, has worked with both the private and public sector in relation to HRM and the effect that organisational structures have on employee attitudes and behaviours.

Specifically in Trinity, Dr Fu ran a survey in 2020 for all Trinity staff and students, which formed the basis of a report and was presented to the Provost. Some key issues emerged, including communication, infrastructure, wellbeing, and leadership. She points out that clarity and consistency in communication is essential. The uncertainty and unpredictability of the evolving COVID situation last year meant, and continues to mean, that it is difficult to provide clear plans. However, staff and students require clear guidelines of what to expect so they can adjust and adapt.

Another issue the survey identified was the necessity of access to IT services and to equipment like laptops, monitors, office desks and chairs. The need for greater flexibility in the working day was identified as a significant factor for remote work, although this will likely be less relevant once the pandemic has ended and employees no longer have to contend with lockdowns, close contact cases, and school or creche closures.

Dr Fu also contributes to the Virtual Business Guide mentioned above. She writes that leadership is going to be essential to success in the “new normal”. She provides several tips to leaders if they want to encourage teams working remotely to “excel amid uncertainty.”

She highlights that a change in terminology may help: While “managers” are focussed on tasks and projects, “leaders” have a vision for the team and the work, they are role models, and they empower members of the team to achieve shared goals and objectives. While working remotely, leaders communicate effectively and explain why different actions are taken and decisions are made.

A second point is that leaders are focussed on compassion and productivity rather than just productivity. They understand other responsibilities and demands experienced by members of the team, such as caring for family members or home-schooling, and they recognise the importance of work-life balance. Other pressures imposed by the pandemic should also be recognised, such as Dublin’s housing crisis and the necessity of living and working in small apartments, or loneliness and isolation for team members who live alone and are cut off from support systems.

Recognition of these issues is likely to make employees feel understood and heard, and thus foster a relationship with the team and the team leader, and encourage an employee to be more productive in the longer term. Dr Fu also points out the importance of adaptivity and creativity for leaders and teams, to learn from experiences and find creative solutions. Both leaders and teams should have the same goals and objectives, but also it should be recognised that they share the same needs, such as work-life balance and clear communication.

As for the team at Trinity Research and Innovation (TR&I), we continue to work from home. TR&I Director Leonard Hobbs states that “remote working will likely continue into the future and be an important part of a ‘hybrid’ model between home and TCD. When working from home, taking regular breaks and exercise is encouraged.” Similarly, according to Doris Alexander, Associate Director of European Engagement, “one of the ideas gaining traction is the concept of a meeting-free day,” used to catch up on documents and reading material: “Most people I have spoken to (outside of TCD) have some version of this and it is generally Friday.” This suggests that, in lieu of calling up Neven Maguire, staff could come to work but be allowed quiet, uninterrupted time on Fridays. However, remote working one or two days a week saves many team members large amounts of time previously spent commuting, which can be redirected to focussed work – or getting fresh air and exercise.  

In terms of productivity, rather than the pace of work slowing down or stopping during the pandemic and remote working, Doris suggests that the pace of work for colleagues at Trinity has increased:

“People are going from Zoom call to Zoom call to Teams all day with no cognisance of the need to have lunch or to do work outside of meetings. This is made worse in some areas where meetings are in different time zones. As we move forward we need to ensure we adhere to the Athena Swan guidelines and Trinity policies of not having meetings before 10am or after 4pm, and having a work-life balance. We now need to take the opportunity to ‘live our principles’.”

As well as this work-life balance, Dr Fu’s research has found that a high level of trust and transparency will be essential for this new “hybrid” model to work. This is a particularly difficult area to navigate for new staff, who joined the team during the pandemic. At TR&I, Mark Bennett is the new Director of Portal, the Innovation Hub at Trinity College Dublin. He joined Trinity while everyone was still working remotely: “Without a physical location, and seeing colleagues in their ‘work habitat’, it's harder to get an impression of the culture, and how you might fit in. Happily, after six months in post, and despite having seen the habitat but the once, I feel it's worked out!”

Mark is keen to get people into a room together. He says that, while working remotely, “we manage surprisingly well, but a nascent project like ours could benefit from in person and in situ discussions. There are great efficiencies and lifestyle gains from remote working but for me Teams is like decaffeinated coffee, it's similar, sometimes sensible, but just not as good as the real thing.”  

Another member of TR&I to join during lockdown was Carol Mc Cusker, who started remotely in the Contracts Office in June 2020:

“I’ve been working from home since and have not had the benefit of meeting my colleagues in person as yet! Although it was a unique and challenging way to start a new job, I was greatly assisted by the support I received from my colleagues in the Contracts Office. I had daily interactions on Microsoft Teams, whether it was through team meetings or a one-to-one check-in with management, all of which made the experience less isolating and more inclusive. The challenge that the pandemic presents to the office working environment has enabled us to develop and streamline the remote onboarding experience with access to systems, resources and virtual training from home. However, the social benefit of meeting your colleagues in person remains very important. Even though I have gotten to know my colleagues, via a computer screen, I am really looking forward to meeting everybody face to face when we return to campus.”

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This point is highlighted by another Irish Times piece, which states that, in addition to being places of work, the office can “become a destination for innovation, collaboration, networking, coaching, and socialising.” Any formal decisions about remote working and on-site working will have knock-on effects, such as discussions around hot-desking, quiet rooms, meeting rooms, collaboration space, and phone booths, as well as the maintenance of communication and team-work practices in a “hybrid” or “blended” environment.  

There is a risk of “the creation of in-office cliques where people who work at home are left out of decision-making and informal conversations.” Quoted in this Irish Times piece is Sonja Gittens Ottley, who is head of diversity and inclusion at Asana, the collaboration software platform. She states that gaining feedback and regular surveys from employees and team members will be essential for “understanding whether prioritising employee flexibility is coming at the cost of clarity, productivity, and employee happiness.” Staff training will also be essential, including courses on how to use new technologies, communication training, running meetings in hybrid or blended environments, and leadership training.

Dr Fu’s research has found that people withdraw their motivation (consciously or unconsciously) based on various factors, such as a change in culture in the team. Blended working models will need careful coordination and open communication in order to be successful. Technology and apps can be used to mitigate against the challenges, but more than anything continued communication and collaboration is key in order to achieve shared goals and objectives while also maintaining a sense of community.

Written by Dr Kate Smyth