Meeting in the middle

Hybrid working is not, well, working, but things also can’t go back to the way they were. So what lies ahead for the confused business and fractured workplace?
By Tamsin Oxford
Johannesburg, 18 Apr 2023
Hannes van der Merwe, Itec.
Hannes van der Merwe, Itec.
What is hybrid working?

This model has gained traction since 2021 as it allows for both the employee and the business to meet in the working framework middle. It lets people choose where they want to work, but also asks that they get themselves back into the office for certain days, meetings and events. How this framework operates and the rules it enforces tends to depend on the type of company, the type of employee, and how well remote working ended up, well, working during the pandemic

Is it working?

Not really. There’s plenty of excited hype about how hybrid working gives everyone the best of both worlds, but when you dig down under the surface, it’s not there yet. Companies and employees are struggling with boundaries and planning and performance in ways that none of them could have predicted. For example, remember when Twitter was one of the first to announce its work from home policy in 2020? That was ditched in November 2022 when Elon Musk told everyone to get back into the office. And if that example is too close to the ‘yes, but the new broom sweeps clean’ thinking, take a look at Salesforce. The company’s co-CEO, Mark Benioff, recently started a hotly discussed conversation around the effectiveness of hybrid working and whether or not productivity was influenced by the lack of office culture. The responses to his question highlighted some of the biggest challenges facing the management of the hybrid model today: engagement, energy, onboarding, overwhelm and lack of culture.

What are the biggest hybrid challenges?

These vary from business to location to industry to gender. Yes, gender. The Deloitte Insights Women @ Work Survey 2022 found that women are experiencing a worse work/life balance, more stress and less visibility compared to life in the office or, interestingly, a fully remote workforce. More likely to feel stressed and burned out , women shoulder the bulk of the childcare burden, which adds to the challenges they experience. More concerning, white men and people without kids are more likely to opt into the office, which means they benefit from the proximity bias – those seen are those recognised, remembered and promoted.

Hybrid isn’t the flexible wonder workstyle people thought it would be because it’s the business that dictates when you’re in the office, when you’re out the office, and what hours demand what presence.

It's also not just women who are exhausted – everyone’s tired. The TinyPulse State of Employee Engagement report found that 80% of HR executives are saying that the hybrid model is tiring people out, more so than fully remote or fully in the office. Gallup believes this is because there is limited control over time – hybrid isn’t the flexible wonder workstyle people thought it would be because it’s the business that dictates when you’re in the office, when you’re out the office, and what hours demand what presence.

What’s causing the problem?

It’s the lack of focus, and the fact that many companies aren’t centring people in their hybrid regulatory decision-making. For example, writing in Slate, an employee explained how they drive to the office for mandated days, only to be the sole person there. They commute for hours and end up online anyway. Status dictates when a person can be in the office, so it just creates bigger gaps and hierarchical issues. Then there’s the lack of visibility and transparency into why certain policies are in place, a dwindling workplace culture, and limited control.

So, hybrid is out, then?

No! Actually, hybrid still offers more benefits than it does disadvantages, it just needs better controls and management. This is fair – companies are still trying to figure out the best ways of making hybrid work for them and there’s no perfect solution that anyone can use. With unique people, environments, needs and teams, every company has to find its own way. But, as Gallup points out, there are far more advantages to hybrid work than there are challenges, especially when it comes to employee flexibility, improved wellbeing and productivity, more freedom, improved collaboration and better access to company resources.

The benefits directly contradict the challenges.

Yes, they do. Gallup found that there is less burnout or fatigue when people work in a hybrid space whereas other research undertaken at the same time finds the direct opposite. This doesn’t mean each resource is wrong; it means companies have to find better ways of managing their hybrid policies and processes.

Instead of one person in the office, use the hybrid model to prioritise in-person connections and events as this is one of the key benefits of in-person office working. Hybrid workers can then benefit from their in-office interactions while maximising their remote working time to action tasks and connect with customers. Leadership should focus on how it can maximise the benefits of hybrid by creating processes that make sense to the business. Getting stuck in old mindsets, not providing transparency, and limiting control will just alienate people and reduce their engagement, whether they are full-time in the office or not.

What’s the final call?

There isn’t one. It will work if the business is open to collaboration, has clear policies that make sense, empowers people with technology and visibility, creates workspaces that foster collaboration, recognises the risks of proximity bias, and allows for teams to flourish within hybrid environments that work for them.

The tech uses anonymised data from people and teams about their experiences, relationships and outputs, combined with project KPI info, which the software then analyses to provide early warning signals about problems, before conflict can destroy a whole team.

Martin Dippenaar, Global Kinetic

As the Atlantic points out, offices have created cities, ecosystems, and communities. Offices are where hierarchies and dreams go to thrive or die, and they have defined how people value themselves and one another. So, if hybrid is to work, it needs to step away from the giddy freedom of remote working and the rigidity of office working and become something more relevant to the modern organisation.

Ways of working

Brainstorm: What have you implemented to drive productivity and collaboration for employees in your hybrid workplace?

Nicol Myburgh, HR Business Unit head, CRS HR and Payroll Solutions: We implemented Envolve, a cloud-based employee engagement tool based on the SCARF (Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness) methodology. It tells employees what outcomes they are expected to achieve and they can live-track their metrics to see what their contributions are to collective goals.

Alison Palmer, head of HR, Dariel Software: We use Teams, Yammer, Discord, WhatsApp and emails to encourage engagement. Instead of introducing new tech, we’ve increased our usage of existing tech. Code repositories such as GitHub, GitLab and Atlassian Cloud enable us to work collaboratively on a single code base, and tools such as JetBrains Code With Me provide an integrated platform for remote live coding.

Insaaf Daniels, Human Capital business partner, redPanda Software: We use platforms like Microsoft Teams to allow staff members to stay in touch with one another and feel they are a part of a team or virtual groups that build community internally, even when they are working from home or another country.

Martin Dippenaar, CEO, Global Kinetic: We developed a cloud platform to minimise workplace conflict and optimise team performance, which we tested on ourselves. The tech uses anonymised data from people and teams about their experiences, relationships and outputs, combined with project KPI info, which the software then analyses to provide early warning signals about problems, before conflict can destroy a whole team.

Avsharn Bachoo, CIO, AfroCentric Group: We consider human-centric design to carefully recreate some elements of an in-person onsite experience. Although AfroCentric’s default technology is Microsoft Teams, many similar technologies exist and we are always exploring new ways to cement this into our ways of working.

Ronnie Cloete, executive head, DVT: In a remote first world, Digital Employee Experience must be top of mind when establishing and influencing company culture.

Brainstorm: What do you believe is mandatory to empower hybrid working?

Colleen Leclercq, MD, Connect EQ: It’s not about the technology so much as how it’s implemented, how people are trained to use it to enable comfort and confidence to use all the features as designed, and to maximise adoption to support the ability to connect, engage and increase productivity across the organisation.

Rob Godlonton, CEO, +OneX: It’s time to retire the term hybrid work and focus on real flexibility instead. We’ve spent so much time thinking about where people work that we haven’t focused on what truly matters – how and why people work. Flexible working is about giving people autonomy and giving them the freedom to decide when, where and how they will work.

Andrew Bourne, regional manager, Zoho Corp: A large part of bringing about this culture is ensuring that employees have access to hybrid-work tools that connect them to one another and foster a great sense of company culture and productivity.

Caron Reynolds, head, Human Capital, Altron Karabina: What matters as much as the technology is the culture you instil and how you use the technology. Mental health is a double-edged sword in a hybrid environment. Some people prefer remote or hybrid working, as it suits their lives. Then, there are people who need interaction and connection with people. If this person lives alone, mental health may become a challenge. Then there’s a spectrum in between, and how a company manages that from a people perspective is crucial.

Shareen Aly Momade-Chagan, senior IT manager, Mondelēz InternationalUnderstanding the hybrid workplace environment starts with creating a secure, easy-to-use technological structure that empowers teams to collaborate seamlessly and scale the flexibility that a hybrid environment offers.

Mark Seftel, co-founder and CTO, Workshop17: We’re building a culture of connectivity through our digital service offerings that impact our members in a positive way – allowing them to be more productive, connect and interact fluidly with one another in both the digital and real-time space.

Rianette Leibowitz, cyber wellness expert: Do you send messages to your team after hours and expect a response? Do you send a quick voice note early in the morning before office hours to ensure you share that idea or quick briefing for the day’s activities? Do you send emails over the weekend and flood your team’s inboxes before the week begins? Do you ask for ‘just a quick favour’, requiring your colleague to log in and ‘quickly’ do some work during their personal time? Don’t. Instead, re-evaluate expectations, put boundaries in place around operating hours and protect your people.

How Itec used tech to make hybrid work, work

There’s office work, there’s hybrid work, and then there’s what Itec did.

Itec, a South African technology implementation company in Cape Town, still has most of its work taking place in the office. It’s the rule of HR thumb, says Hannes van der Merwe, pre-sales: Enterprise Communications, at Itec, but it has given freedom to users who are more productive in non-office environments as long as they deliver. If they serve the business and the customer, then they can work from anywhere.

“We have close to 900 staff across 46 offices in the country. When the pandemic hit, we were geared for this already, so it wasn’t immensely disruptive to us as we had one quarter of our workforce already working from home,” he says. Today, the company still has a hybrid policy in place, but one that’s been tempered by time and practice.

“The whole world went crazy, and people jumped on the bandwagon without thinking long-term,” he adds. “They didn’t think of endpoint protection, IT policies, how people use technology, and standards of uniformity. What we did is we tried to create uniformity across our offices using technology that was cohesive across all employees.”

We’ve spent so much time thinking about where people work that we haven’t focused on what truly matters – how and why people work.

Rob Godlonton, +OneX

The company also focused on creating robust IT policies that covered device security, network access, and continuity so that every environment shared processes, policies and solutions. This approach significantly mitigated risk and ensured that security and accessibility weren’t an afterthought.

Trusted technology

“We implemented Microsoft technologies across the business as this was in use across most of our customers so it ensured our service was cohesive, and we wanted to create uniformity and ease of use across our staff,” he says. “We migrated our Microsoft ERP to the cloud and are in the final stretch of deploying our Microsoft CRM.”

The company focused on building an ecosystem that allowed for employees and customers to connect easily using a trusted technology that had a low barrier to entry. This has facilitated its ability to connect with users across multiple locations.

“Our people are hard workers and we wanted them to have a solution that worked for them, no matter where they were based,” he says. “The challenge was to create an ecosystem that delivered uniformity between our internal staff and external parties and we went through a lot of testing across different platforms before implementing Microsoft.”

Now the company has a cohesive ecosystem that allows for people to work from home or adopt a more hybrid approach, even with its preference for in-office working.

* This feature was first published in the April edition of ITWeb's Brainstorm magazine.


* Article first published on