Google Workspace recently commissioned Economist Impact to complete a global survey (October 2021)* on the state of hybrid work, including its challenges and opportunities. We already knew that the pandemic had fundamentally changed the world of work, but the survey emphasizes the scale, reach, and longevity of those changes..
Over 75% of respondents believe that hybrid/flexible work will be a standard practice within their organizations in the coming three years. Given that 70% of respondents said they never worked remotely before the pandemic, it’s clear that hybrid has become the dominant model for work and that it’s here to stay.
But it’s also clear, as we’ll see below, that hybrid has some serious gaps that need to be addressed if it’s going to be sustainable and successful in the long term.
Defining hybrid work
As part of our work on the hybrid work survey and a broader project with The Economist Group, we interviewed a group of experts across research, consulting, business, and the advocacy world to arrive at a definition of hybrid work that captures all ways work is changing.
As Brian Kropp, one of the interviewees and vice president at Gartner, puts it: “Hybrid work is not just about different locations, but also different timings and different schedules.”
Harriet Molyneaux, managing director at HSM Advisory, a future-of-work research and advisory group, adds to this notion by describing the time-location work spectrum: “At one end of the spectrum is everyone in the office, nine till five, so both restricted time and location. And then at the other end of the spectrum is anywhere around the world at any time. So no restricted time or location. A hybrid is anything that sits in the middle of that.”
I agree with Brian and Harriet’s views. Flexibility in both location and hours is a core part of our working definition of hybrid work: a spectrum of flexible work arrangements in which an employee’s work location and/or hours are not strictly standardized.
Given this definition and framework, how is hybrid work faring and what lies ahead?
Individual wellbeing is coming at the cost of organizational connection
Early on in the pandemic, productivity remained steady or even increased for many organizations. But it came at a cost, with levels of burnout spiking as employees juggled caregiving, homeschooling, and other demands in their personal lives with work responsibilities.
Based on the survey data, wellbeing has made an upward shift, no doubt aided by things like students returning to schools in many regions and fewer demands being made of working parents. The majority of respondents said that hybrid work, based on their own experiences, can have a positive impact on the physical, mental, financial, and social wellbeing of employees.
But it appears that individual wellbeing is coming at the cost of organizational connection. The majority of respondents said they feel disconnected from their organization and co-workers (57%), that limited networking opportunities negatively impact career growth (62%), and that limited social interactions with co-workers has had a negative impact on their mental health (54%).
To be sustainable, hybrid work models must address this sense of disconnection in real and tangible ways. And it won’t happen just by increasing the number of virtual meetings. Although 72% of people say that virtual meetings improve inclusion and participation, 68% also say there are too many virtual meetings to begin with. We need new ways for people to connect spontaneously.
Hybrid workers are often using tools built for a bygone desktop era
When asked about the most important conditions needed to achieve the long-term success of hybrid work models, the number one choice globally was “new technologies that allow for time and location flexibility.”
Naturally, it was gratifying to see this, since Google Workspace is built on a cloud-based platform that empowers collaboration from anywhere, on any device, but the survey answer also highlights how much organizations have had to scramble to meet the demands of the pandemic. Some had to take legacy, office-centric systems and make them work for a distributed workforce overnight, often leveraging less-than-ideal technologies like VPNs that introduce digital friction.
As a result, top technology concerns of respondents include:
unreliable internet access (if only all our WiFi connections were hybrid-ready!)
reliance on slow or outdated tools
accessing and maintaining files in multiple places
relying on too many applications in order to get work done
Hybrid work, it seems to me, doesn’t need more applications and collaboration surfaces. It needs deeper, more meaningful connections in the tools and surfaces we already have.
As organizations assess their tech stacks, they should consider whether they can shape the behaviors they want from hybrid employees (e.g., real-time collaboration, ease of information sharing) with the tools they have in place. Or are the limits of the technology determining hybrid employee behavior?
The management and culture gap
In the same way that tools have often been built for a shared physical workspace, organizational culture seems to lag behind the hybrid moment. The majority of respondents said that a lack of face-to-face supervision creates a sense of distrust among managers and employees, and that they feel stressed by increased monitoring associated with flexible work. And more than 62% said that limited networking opportunities with senior employees and co-workers has a negative impact on career growth.
Strikingly, more than 70% of respondents indicated that the culture of trust between managers and employees needed improvement. Training and management best practices (60% of people want more of both) might help fill some of the gaps, but a manager can’t build trust with their hybrid teams by going through a training program.
The role of manager must itself evolve to meet the demands of a hybrid model. How can we empower managers to be the bridge between the “office of one” and the “office of many”? And as I discussed previously on Forbes, driving towards impact rather than output is a more sustainable metric for team engagement and productivity. It also dispenses with monitoring as a core part of a manager’s role, freeing them up to be a coach-and-connector.
How Google Workspace can help bridge the hybrid work gaps
No one has all the answers for how to make hybrid work successful, and I suspect we will see iterations of the model into 2022 and beyond as organizations—including Google—experiment with the right mix of location, culture, processes, and tools.
On the technology front, Google Workspace is uniquely positioned to bridge many of the emerging hybrid work gaps. Over the last year, we’ve delivered a set of innovations that are designed to deepen collaboration experiences while strengthening social connections within and across teams.
For example, we launched smart canvas to bring new collaboration capabilities to the places where people are already working together, helping to keep them connected, rather than having them switch tabs or open new apps. And we delivered Spaces as a central place for collaboration, where teams can share ideas, work on documents together, and manage tasks from a single place. Because all their work is preserved for future reference, team members can easily jump in and contribute at a time that works best for them, seeing a full history of the conversations, context, and content along the way. Spaces helps people maintain individual wellbeing while preserving the health of a group project.
In Google Meet, we’ve introduced real-time captions in multiple languages (in preview now), the ability for people to customize their video tiles, including being able to turn off their own to help with meeting fatigue, and we’ve implemented automatic light adjustments and noise cancellation. These changes help ensure that everyone can be seen and heard.
Meanwhile, features like hand-raise, Q&A, and polls have helped make meetings more inclusive and companion mode (in preview) can bring these to life in hybrid settings, to help ensure that there’s one cohesive conversation between the people in the office and their colleagues working somewhere else. We view companion mode as a bridge between the office and “somewhere else.”
On the personal wellbeing front, we launched Focus Time, which lets people block out their calendars for uninterrupted focus work, and Time Insights in Google Calendar, where employees can look at how they’re spending their time and adjust as needed.
As hybrid work continues to evolve, Google Workspace is committed to supporting wellbeing and seamless collaboration with tools that can remove digital friction and help people maintain connections—to each other and the organizations they work for.
*Survey details: The survey, completed in October 2021, polled a total of 1,244 employees and managers in four regions (North America, Europe, APAC, and Latin America), from more than 15 industries, in every age group, and from both small and large organizations. The focus was on knowledge workers, though it’s important to note that some of those people have been working on the frontlines; 20% of respondents indicated they haven’t worked remotely at all during the pandemic. This includes people in hospitality, retail, transportation and logistics, and healthcare.
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