How has the Covid-19 pandemic reshaped the workplace, and will it stick?
By Marouso Pappas / Matthew staff || Edited by Giulia Leo
In the year 2022 surprising re-evaluations of the remote workplace have revealed that, contrary to prior belief, hybrid work models have led to employment growth. Demand has changed the economy so radically that one can say it has mutated along with the virus variants. In fact, the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs report has estimated that by 2025, 97 million new jobs will emerge that rely specifically on the adapted virtual work model. But this does not come without its own set of limitations. Although numbers may be promising working in isolation is still a reality that has disoriented most. At what cost is the economy taking advantage of online efficiency and how can we make the hybrid model suit all our communication needs?
As society is slowly returning to normalcy (because of need rather than relief from the Covid-19 threat) there is still some apprehension when it comes to returning to the workplace at full capacity. With restrictions coming and going as they please, businesses have been striving to maintain at least some sense of stability within the ever-changing circumstances. That is why many companies and offices have established a permanent hybrid system. This gives employees the choice to manage their own working style and function on their own terms. For example, one employee may lack motivation when isolated and need the social stimulation of a collaborative work environment. While another may not be able to give up the freedoms the flexibility working from home may provide. Either way, whichever choice the employee makes will (hopefully) result in maximizing their productivity.
In this newfound hybrid world, many new responsibilities have surfaced. In the span of just two years from the pandemic outbreak in 2020, entirely new corporate positions have been created. BusinessTech went over such a position of “chief hybrid officer” with founder and CEO of The Business Exchange, David Seinker. According to Seinker, the role of a chief hybrid officer is “to manage the relationship between the workforce and the workplace in a hybrid environment.” Although this may sound simply like a “filler” position, chief hybrid officers require core skills in people management, navigation of social networks and rapidly changing technological advancements. Problem-solving and attention to detail are very important when processing employee data and composing a company’s virtual profile. It is the perfect combination of human and machine collaboration because although a program can arrange data, we need human intervention to motivate, understand and accommodate the needs of our co-workers.
Isolation and Boundaries
The pressure the pandemic has put on businesses to rapidly readjust has obviously created some flaws in these new systems. Even the best and most considerate attempts can never fully compensate for forcing employees to navigate this topsy turvy virtual world seemingly overnight. The Harvard Business Review published an article where they explore the boundaries needed to be set in the virtual workplace. They address issues such as respecting work hours, the invasiveness of virtual footprints, and flexibility biases. As workplaces are mutating it is important to always keep the employees’ needs in mind and try to be open to evolving mindsets. For example, if the hybrid model is provided by your place of work, it would be unfair to maintain a bias against people wishing to have more flexible work arrangements. In the traditional workplace long hours are associated with higher productivity, but in the virtual world that is no longer the case. High-performing individuals will take advantage of either arrangement, it is important for managers to exercise trust and treat either choice equally.
When it comes to availability, lines have blurred; often resulting in employees being made to work overtime. Making the distinction between flexibility and being available at all times is required for proper management. ITPro reported that studies have shown a 6-hour overtime average per week in 2020, this has led to a proposition for drafting legislation that would create a “right to disconnect”. A supporting argument for this proposition is HRDirectors report showing that over 800,000 workers in the UK would favor organizations that offer support for pandemic burnout. HR directors have been called to focus on performance management rather than productivity and engagement in order to help the mental health of their team members. To achieve this open communication and feedback mechanisms are key. In our attempt to create a better work environment for all we need to work together.
Going Big (or Small)
Some would argue that physical isolation has helped us establish better connections within a global network. For better or for worse the pandemic has created a relatively uniform way of existing when it comes to how we spend our time, especially in lockdown conditions. Having that relatability between employees from opposite sides of the world can eliminate discrimination and aid in promoting diversity within the work “collective”. Virtual companies are taking advantage of the cut in costs that remote work provides and are rather investing in human capital by building the best possible teams of international workers. Space and time are no longer limiting factors for the world of business. Promoting intercultural communication serves as an important way to establish globally successful businesses. A news story by the University of Arkansas did a profile on student Lydia Mollerup for her international work experience in the Virtual Corporate International Internship Program. During her internship, her responsibility was to identify companies to collaborate with the Costa Rican distribution company Coamesa. Even though she conducted all her work virtually she expressed that she felt like part of the company and developed important skills like international cultural literacy. Establishing connections in the virtual globe is an educational process to be valued!
A surprising development has also been the virtual rise of small businesses. Being placed on the same platform as their big-scale competitors, “the little guy” now has access to service provision like never before. Carolina Sanchez-Hervas, a small business owner that provides live interpretations for court cases, told Cleveland.com that by embracing remote work she has managed to diversify and grow revenue. “I can now find the best native translators and not just the ones close to me” she said. By hiring the best candidates, she has put her company on the map and will continue to grow her virtual services. EliteBusiness also points out how video communications have helped small businesses in developing countries as well. They covered the story of Olavo Medeiros, a tour guide in Sao Paolo, who began doing virtual tours during the pandemic. This allowed him to connect with clients he normally wouldn’t have, like the disabled and the elderly. By developing his “product” through the use of technology he managed to open a “digital door” between himself and the world. Overcoming physical limitations of face-to-face functioning has ensured an equal voice for smaller businesses that were used to a smaller scope of influence.
“The shift is likely to stick, and it’s good for democratizing access to opportunity.”Karim Kimborough, Chief Economist at LinkedIn
Nothing is perfect, especially nothing as new as the hybrid work model. But with a focus on strategies for better communication in the virtual workplace business leaders can develop a sustainable future for their companies. Keeping up with new technologies builds bridges between the physical and virtual world by equipping workers with the best tools. As we look to create a better future for work, we should not overlook the hybrid model’s potential to create a flexible, creative, and inclusive work environment for all.