Hybrid working: The new (work) normal?After tending to his plants first thing in the morning, Michael Ramos checks his calendar for meetings and emails before taking on his daily tasks as marketing and communications officer at Knowledge Channel Foundation Inc. (KCFI). He buys lunch at midday or sometimes prepares it himself, bookending the day with some exercise (“dancing, cardio or resistance training”).
Ramos, who also handles events and PR for KCFI, is on a “semi flexi” arrangement, noting that the foundation is not very strict about sticking to a traditional schedule.
“What’s important is that we produce our expected outputs, attend meetings and stay productive throughout the day,” he explained.
The setup has given him more time for work and rest; with no transportation expenses to factor in, he spends less as well.
“I enjoy work from home (WFH) because there’s no stress due to traffic and the daily commute which takes up to four hours of my day,” he said.
But Ramos, who is in his 30s, worries that he ends up sitting for hours. And with no office to go to, he’s had to say goodbye to bonding moments with colleagues and even to having a dedicated workspace. “I miss doing fieldwork as well,” he added.
Anina, a senior marketing associate for PR and communications based in Marikina, had to adjust to the WFH setup when the lockdowns began.
“We work from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. I’m able to keep my schedule on track even when I’m at home since our team tries to keep all our projects moving as much as possible,” she stated.
But she had been mallbased pre-pandemic and thrived in the daily hustle and bustle of retail life, which is why a rejigged shifting schedule that now includes two weeks on-site per month has helped the twentysomething manage tasks better.
“Since I do PR, I write a lot of articles. In this aspect, working from home helps me focus more. However, part of PR also requires doing event coordination and logistics, which is much easier when I’m on-site,” Anina shared.
In Taguig, Sanny Fernandez (not her real name) typically spends her day answering emails and Viber messages, writing reports and attending meetings on Zoom. Her corporate communications team sticks to a 10 a.m.-7 p.m. schedule, but they are allowed to log off early when they finish a big report or presentation.
She cited the upsides of working from home: “No need to travel, mas tipid, I manage my time better, I can multitask and it’s more convenient. As a bonus, the company provides food reimbursement for some virtual office activities.”
But Fernandez, 41, admitted it was easier to communicate with her teammates when they were all in one office, especially when they were in a rush to complete crucial projects.
Shift to hybrid
All over the world, companies are starting to make the shift to hybrid work or are considering doing so.
Joel Esguerra, in his presentation titled “Empathetic Leadership: Leading Virtually in a Hybrid Work Environment” at the Lopez Group HR Council’s third-quarter general membership meeting on Sept. 30, shared how his company made the transition.
Esguerra is currently the talent management and organization development lead at Novartis Oncology in Basel, Switzerland.
When the COVID-19 pandemic was declared in early 2020, Novartis responded by shutting down their offices and distributing masks and disinfectants to their more than 100,000 employees.
It then rolled out programs for everything their employees might conceivably need. These ranged from extending financial assistance so they could set up home workstations to leveraging virtual-working technologies (Miro, Microsoft Teams) and other team tools and resources to boost effectiveness.
Going big on learning
With schools and learning centers shut down, Novartis went “big on learning” by encouraging employees to enroll in online courses on NVS Learning, Coursera and LinkedIn, and extending the offer to their family members, Esguerra noted.
The pharmaceutical company took a more input- and feedback-focused approach to performance management that emphasized check-ins and coaching over ratings even as it preached “Choice with Responsibility”—to balance flexibility (“the choice to decide how, where and when they work”) and accountability (“taking personal responsibility to inform managers and align with teammates”).
To identify pain points that might come up, the company regularly conducts engagement surveys and pulse surveys, Esguerra said.
Novartis has made hybrid working in the time of COVID-19 more enticing with schemes like open bars/cafés, game nights, meeting-free Fridays, meeting-free weeks during the Christmas and summer breaks, shorter (25 minutes) and less frequent calls, asynchronous work where team members have different “shifts” during the workday instead of everyone working from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., and monthly team check-in with managers. However, “FOMO” (fear of missing out) becomes “JOMO” (joy of missing out) as employees may opt out of joining some meetings.
Esguerra said companies could carve out time for wellbeing check-ins to give struggling employees an opening to ask for help.
“At first you’ll get canned answers, but eventually people become more open,” he noted.
While hybrid working has somewhat freed employees from traffic jams, jostling crowds, floods and other discomforts of life on the road, the shift to hybrid working has not been obstacle-free.
Top sources of stress
In the 2021 hybrid work employee survey conducted by Gartner, respondents pointed to digital distractions as the number one stressor in the hybrid working setup; these include personal emails, PMs or private messages, unscheduled personal calls and social media notifications. Per Gartner, hybrid employees are 2.54 times more likely to encounter these diversions compared to in-office workers.
On top of these are work distractions (work emails, unscheduled work-related calls, work instant messaging notifications and meeting requests) and personal distractions (housekeeping responsibilities, for example).
Virtual overload, where employees feel “cognitively drained” from being on air or on screen for huge chunks of time is the second top stressor; as a result, employees are1.12 times “more likely to feel they are working too hard” than their counterparts in traditional setups.
Respondents specified being “always on” as the third top stressor, with hybrid employees being 1.27 times more likely to have a harder time switching off. How does an employee get off work when his or her home is the workplace? Can one be “Dad” or “Mama” while he or she still has their HR or finance hat on?
Esguerra pointed out that not being able to engage in quick chats with coworkers resulted in slower decision making, while the lack of face-to-face interaction and unclear directions meant lower accountability on the part of employees.
Now, almost two years into the pandemic, the focus should not just be on the “wheres,” but also the “hows” of working in the new normal.
According to Esguerra, if companies in 2020 (“past”) were focused on addressing their employees’ needs, the “now and next” step this year is for leaders and teams to make new choices and to redesign how they work together. By 2022 (“later”), these “hows” should be brought to scale across the company so the “where” and “when” are clearer
He cited the Gartner survey which indicated that 67% of employees agree that they have higher “expectations for working flexibly” and 55% agree that “whether or not they can work flexibly” will factor in their decision to remain with the company.
Given this mindset, some of the “hows” to ask then include: How can we master more hybrid ways of working—virtual, face to face, synchronous and asynchronous? How can we transform the way we meet and collaborate, and become way more efficient, effective, connected and creative? How do we leverage the different digital tools and platforms that are available to us?
“Try to experiment which will work, share so it will be replicated,” Esguerra added.
Meanwhile, more than a year into their adjusted work environments, Anina, Fernandez and Ramos look forward to the new work normal, whatever it may be.
“I’m really optimistic about returning to the regular work setup soon. As someone who works in the retail industry, working on-site really helps us get a feel of our market, in turn allowing us to come up with initiatives that will be more suitable to them,” Anina stressed.
Fernandez said she is “more productive, less distracted and more focused” as her energy is used for working instead of traveling. But when things normalize, she hopes to return to a hybrid workplace. Maybe two WFH days and three in-office days, she offered.
“Following a hybrid work setup would be ideal as this will be the future of work. Work will no longer be limited to one place. As long as you have your laptop with you and an internet connection, you can work anywhere. At least for a profession like mine,” Ramos affirmed.
The work setup of senior marketing associate for PR and communications Anina
Michael Ramos, KCFI marketing and communications officer, says he enjoys WFH but misses doing fieldwork
Lopez Group HR Council chair Cedie Lopez Vargas awards a certificate of appreciation to Joel Esguerra
Hosts GI Fernandez of First Philippine Industrial Park and Jimbooh Como of First Philec lead the Q&A session