Technology Transformation and Employee Wellbeing: Embracing a Hybrid Future

In the last year since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, our lives have been altered in ways large and small. The global pandemic resulting from this novel coronavirus was like pouring gasoline on the fire of technology transformation. Technology solutions with growing adoption rates prior to COVID-19 suddenly took off like a rocket and accelerated changes to how we work that are shaping our “next normal” in a post-pandemic world.

Necessity is often the mother of invention, and it was out of the necessity in responding to this new pandemic that workers got creative. Living rooms became virtual boardrooms, dining rooms became virtual conference rooms and bedrooms became remote offices. The barriers to widespread adoption of virtual options were stripped away as we jumped into a time machine to a new hybrid future.

For example, at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, as many people’s daily routine was instantly transformed, growth surged for Zoom meetings, perhaps the world’s most-used web conferencing platform. In April 2020, Zoom announced the milestone of 300 million daily meeting participants counting both free and paying users, an increase of 2900% since December 31, 2019, when 10 million daily meeting participants logged on.

The rapid adoption of technology to facilitate virtual work environments has allowed many people to create flexible work environments to help navigate the demands of the global pandemic, all while increasing productivity. However, this high level of productivity masks and exhausted workforce according to insightful new research from Microsoft on how the workplace changed during the pandemic and its implication for business leaders on how to manage the post-pandemic workforce. “We’re on the brink of a disruption as great as last year’s sudden shift to remote work: the move to hybrid work—a blended model where some employees return to the workplace and others continue to work from home,” states Microsoft in the report.

As a result of these increased levels of stress, isolation and burnout, it’s perhaps no surprise that more companies are prioritizing employee wellbeing as part of their overall ESG strategies. A new ING-commissioned study found that “employee wellbeing is the most urgent ESG priority for 2021.” This is true for corporations, which ranked it as a clear number one priority, as well as for investors, who ranked it as a top ESG priority for this year, behind only climate and sustainable supply chains.

One year ago, I argued that this moment of transformation is an opportunity to reinvent the default settings of how we live and make it better. Today, we see leading companies incorporating recent adaptations to our normal routines, fully embracing emerging technology innovations and making the choice to not reflexively snap back to business as usual.

A number of big tech companies, including SalesforceTwitter and Amazon, have gravitated toward a new “hybrid” model, in which there will be a combination of both working from the office and at home. Some places, like Spotify, are offering the opportunity for people to work from anywhere they’d like.

And it’s not just tech companies. JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon recently announced that remote work trends facilitated by Zoom and Cisco, and accelerated by COVID-19, are here to stay and the bank’s real estate will be reduced. His model for JPMorgan envisions “many employees” working in a location full time, “some employees” working under a hybrid model which allows them to split days between a work location and a home, and only “a small percentage of employees, maybe 10%, will possibly be working full time from home for very specific roles,” according to his annual shareholder letter.

Now that the talent landscape has fundamentally shifted and flexible work here to stay, here are three strategies to help your organization navigate this next great disruption of the hybrid work environment:

  1. Focus on flexibility within a framework. 
    One hallmark of the hybrid workforce model is flexibility. In an organization made up of people at various levels and different types of jobs, one size does not fit all. Employers will need to think through role-specific criteria and recognize that arrangements can also be driven by personal circumstances as options for “working from home” vary greatly. And while flexibility is key, flexibility does not mean anything goes. Businesses will need to figure out which employees should come into the office and how often and develop a framework that can be adjusted based on individual situations.
  2. Support front-line people managers. 
    Remote and hybrid work arrangements are not without potential downsides. There can be an erosion of the organizational norms that culture and performance rely on, such as trust, cohesion and shared experiences. There is also the risk of two divergent organizational structures emerging: one in person, one virtual. Employees can also end up feeling disconnected from the business and their colleagues. In a hybrid workforce, with various teams coming and going, the role of front-line people managers takes on renewed importance and can be the key to keeping teams feeling connected. Make sure they have the right tools in place to keep the lines of communication open so they are equipped to help people succeed in this new hybrid environment.
  3. Connect the change to the organization’s purpose.
    In a hybrid environment, it’s all too easy to under-communicate and nearly impossible to over-communicate. Make sure all team members, from senior executives to junior-level employees, are aware of the cultural shift and how it connects to the overall purpose of the organization. Motivating employees through meaning and purpose and connecting work to a larger sense of what the company is trying to accomplish will be critical to maintaining high levels of productivity and engagement. Business leaders can’t count on purpose, meaning, or innovation to arise organically within a distributed work environment. It’s hard enough to make that happen when everyone is in the same place. Intentionally designed programs to clearly communicate the vision for what’s next as the company formally transitions to a hybrid model will be needed.

As the public health threat of COVID-19 is contained, the workplaces of the future will slowly start to take on some resemblance to pre-pandemic days, but it’s clear the new normal will call for digital-first, hybrid workplaces that allow for both in-person and remote collaboration.

Companies that meet this moment with smart strategies will maintain an edge when it comes to attracting and retaining talent, and this trend of tech adoption will accelerate competitiveness now and into the future.