The emerging hybrid workforce

Gartner VP advocates for giving employees flexible work arrangements after a survey shows a majority want the option.

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There are significant and meaningful benefits of moving to a more flexible work environment in a hybrid model that is semi-remote and with the option for employees to be fully remote, according to data recently released by Gartner.

"It's not about where work gets done but when and how work gets done," said George Penn, vice president, advisory, in the Gartner HR practice. "We don't want to limit ourselves to just one location."

A May Gartner survey of 2,500 employees that found 78% of respondents want to work remotely for some of their workweek and 56% want to work entirely remotely was a surprise finding, Penn said.

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"The lesson organizations have to take from here is to capture the data for themselves," he said. "This is going to be something the labor market and your own employees are going to be looking for — specifically, the ability to work in a more flexible arrangement."

The data is based on employees who are currently working in some form of remote capacity right now, Penn added. "What's happening is they're performing, they're performing well and it's setting an expectation in their mind that 'If I can do this well today why can't I do this well going forward?' Don't be surprised if expectations are high among employees that I want this to be part of my work environment in the future."

There are benefits on the employer side as well. Forty-nine percent of the 328 HR leaders surveyed reported that cost savings for the organization are the biggest benefit of incorporating remote work, according to Gartner. Twenty-seven percent said improving productivity was the biggest benefit.

In conversations Penn has with executives, he said there are both organizations that view the hybrid work model as a strategic advantage and others that view it as "a potential barrier to returning to the old ways of working."

The hybrid work model is certainly not new, Penn added, but since the pandemic began, organizations have been "forced to see the benefits and build a business case around that … to create consistency in alignment and long-term success. We're seeing organizations both take it seriously and to build very explicit approaches to addressing it that is actually very heartwarming."

Leadership mindset challenges

Yet, one of the challenges as organizations move to this more flexible world is leadership mindset and manager skill sets, he said. Often, leaders will ask if this is feasible for the long term, which is a mindset issue, Penn said.

There is overwhelming data that shows employee engagement increases within a hybrid work environment, which can help overcome leader mindset, he said.

And, he noted: "If you struggle with remote management, you struggle with management. Great management manages to outcomes rather than time spent."

"It's not about time spent in the office or facility, it's the outcomes the individual drives," Penn added.

While this is supported by data, when organizations think about productivity "it's about when did the person punch in and out," he said.

But remote management is not very different from standard management practices, Penn insisted. It's about connecting with employees, setting goals, and "applying them in a slightly contextualized way. It's fascinating to see how some organizations view it as a distinct advantage and others as a challenge."

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Gartner data from June shows that the No. 1 concern leaders have (30%) is maintaining culture. Penn said he expected to see this based on regular conversations he has with leaders at Fortune 500 organizations.

"In these discussions, as I pick away at what do they mean by maintaining culture, my conclusion … was that in some instances it was actually code for control. It was code for potential mistrust."

When he asks managers what specific attributes of remote work they are concerned about, "it gets to that time spent and activity rather than outcomes."

"For organizations that weren't worried about culture there were much high levels of trust between employees and leaders in the ways they interact," he said.

It comes down to quality and progressive thinking in the executive suite, Penn said. Those leaders who are tuned in to the labor market and have high talent management or acumen are "true talent champions who recognize this is an opportunity, and those that are not are obviously going to struggle, especially in the post-COVID world."

Looking toward the remainder of the year, the question employees and potential candidates are going to be asking is "What is your organization's position on remote, flexible, and hybrid arrangements?" Penn said, "and they have to be prepared to answer that clearly."

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