Professors Jonathan Trevor and Matthias Holweg offer solutions conducive to company culture and innovation capability affected by flexible work
Tensions between employers and employees emanating from hybrid work have ramifications on companies’ organisational culture and innovation capability, which poses a real threat, warns new research from Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford.
Hybrid work has been an indispensable part of work life since COVID-19 has upended traditional work patterns. However, pros and cons of hybrid work is an ongoing debate both employers and employees juggle with. Managing tensions emanating from it proves to be a challenge.
Defining hybrid work as 'flexible balance, with working hours divided between a company location and elsewhere, typically a home office,' Jonathan Trevor, Associate Professor of Management Practice, and Matthias Holweg, American Standard Companies Professor of Operations, both from Oxford Saïd, studied market leading companies that have adopted the hybrid work practice over the two years during COVID-19. Among them were Aon, AXA, Barclays, DHL, IBM, Shell, Unilever and Vodafone.
'The imperative to support hybrid working is largely workforce demand. Employees — pointing to their strong performance when they worked from home during the worst of the pandemic — are reasonably demanding greater flexibility to work where and when they want. Leaders know they have to offer flexible working arrangements to attract, retain, and motivate top talent,' say Professors Trevor and Holweg.
Companies studied also reported visible benefits: 'For example, 90% of the companies we studied experienced modest productivity gains in the first year of pandemic-induced remote work, thanks largely to readily available conferencing and collaboration technologies. Additional reported advantages include improved communication among managers and team members, accelerated delivery of results against short-term goals, and reduced presenteeism (that is, showing up at the workplace despite illness),' say Professors Trevor and Holweg.
However, they add that managers must meet employees’ immediate demands for greater flexibility without sacrificing culture-building and innovation, which they identify as the 'cornerstones of long-term competitive advantage.' Pointing out such employer-employee tensions are reduced to debates over the ideal number of in-office days, but blanket policies generally are not viable, Trevor and Holweg offer a more nuanced approach to hybrid work: matching tasks to work environment.
They identify four categories under such an approach: individual procedural tasks, focused creative tasks, coordinated group tasks, collaborative creative tasks.
'Such a model explicitly links social and creative tasks with work performed best in the physical office environment. And it encourages in-person informal interactions that forge close ties among colleagues. These ties enhance the performance of innovation- and culture-focused tasks, even when some of those tasks are done remotely,' they say.
Calling it a 'watershed moment' in the future-of-work debate, Professors Trevor and Holweg say:
'The global pandemic heightened the urgency with which companies must revisit tired assumptions about managing work for value. Yet discussion about hybrid work focuses too much on how many days employees should spend in the office versus working from home. That lack of nuance contributes to tension between employees, who demand flexible work, and employers, which have legitimate concerns. Both sides can justify their competing claims.'
Their research has striking findings that both employers and employees will contemplate on as their research indicates that 'remote work is not conducive to all tasks. Hidden costs — appreciable over the long term — might significantly harm company culture and the ability to innovate.
'A more constructive approach is to focus on the individual task being performed and why it does or does not require an employee to be physically present. That shifts the narrative away from blanket policies.'
Making an interesting analogy Professors Trevor and Holweg conclude: 'Like online dating applications, virtual work is an efficient means of sharing information and connecting. But it is a superficial experience, no matter how sophisticated the technology. Humans are social animals. The goal is to capitalise on meaningful in-person interactions so as to catalyse collective effort, creativity, passion, and enterprise in both the real and virtual worlds. Those are the ingredients of both culture and innovation for which there is no substitute.'
You can find more research and insights from Oxford Saïd academics on the future of work and the workplace on Oxford Answers.