Company execs grapple with hybrid workplace complexities

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Lillian Barnard, Microsoft South Africa CEO.
Lillian Barnard, Microsoft South Africa CEO.

As more organisations introduce hybrid workplace models, company executives are grappling with the “hybrid work paradox” of striking a healthy balance in meeting the demands of employees who want more in-person time with their team, but still wish to keep the flexibility of working remotely.

This was the word from Lillian Barnard, Microsoft South Africa CEO, giving a keynote presentation at the recent Future of Work Summit, organised by the company.

Unpacking some of the key findings of Microsoft’s Work Trend Index, Barnard noted South African organisations are faced with the “next great disruption” of restructuring the workplace for a blended working model, premised on accommodating employees at the workplace while others work from home.

This complexity, she pointed out, catalysed by the COVID-19 pandemic, is what Microsoft refers to as the “hybrid work paradox”.

The index, based on a survey of hundreds of company executives, found that 88% of surveyed business leaders in SA are looking to implement a more hybrid approach to working for the longer term. It further found that 58% of employees who plan to spend the most and least amount of time in-office are doing it for the same reason – to get more focused on their work and become more productive.

“It seems there is no doubt the future of work will be hybrid. The blended model of some employees spending time at the workplace, while others are working from home, is something we’re all still learning to navigate, and one of the areas where leaders are battling to determine what hybrid will look like for their organisation. Meeting employee expectations, not just to attract and retain talent, but to enable personal well-being, will be a challenge for every leader and every organisation across South Africa,” explained Barnard.

The digital transformation of the last 18 months has given rise to more styles of working and organisations that accommodate these different approaches to work will thrive, she added.

The people factor

Placing employees at the centre of the process of introducing the hybrid working model will help guide business leaders in their decision-making.

Because hybrid work is not a one-size-fits-all, business leaders will need to take purposeful steps to finding their organisation’s unique fit, she continued.

“One-on-one conversations between managers and employees can also create trust and give people the confidence to embrace their version of flexible hybrid work.

“At the end of the day, employee experience is crucial for leaders looking to retain and attract top talent and skills − so it is important to understand what your employees are wanting from a hybrid work approach.”

Creating policies to empower people for extreme flexibility lies at the heart of introducing hybrid working models. Microsoft, for instance, has decided that employees can now work from home up to 50% of the time.

She further highlighted the important role of technology in introducing hybrid workplace models and connecting the physical workspaces to the digital.

Meeting rooms, according to Barnard, need to be set up with the right technology to enable this, and employees need to be trained on how to manage this hybrid meeting approach.

“Moving forward, office space needs to bridge the physical and digital worlds, and meet the unique needs of every team and specific roles. Meeting room cameras deliver high-definition video streams and optimise the view by framing the people in the room or following the active speaker. Intelligent speakers identify who in the room is speaking, and individual names and profiles are represented in meeting transcripts.

“It’s really about how to handle that messy middle − when some people are physically together, and others are joining virtually, that’s going to be a challenge.”

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