Hybrid work: Seven issues boards should consider


    The Business Times, 10 February 2023

    HYBRID work is here to stay. There is a sense, however, that organisations are implementing “workaround” solutions until they work out how hybrid work will play out. At the centre of this uncertainty is a clash between leaders, who mostly want everyone back at the office; and employees, who seem happy to spend a significant part of their lives working from home.

    Hybrid work – also called remote work, tele-work, work-from-home or work-from-anywhere – is a flexible arrangement that supports a blend of in-office, remote and on-the-go employment. It offers individuals the autonomy to choose to work wherever and however they are most productive.

    In the face of the global pandemic, businesses were forced to adopt this mode of working. Emerging from Covid, many companies may face the problem of a lack of systems and skills to effectively manage and lead in a hybrid way. If left to fester, corporate governance could crack under the unexpected and unresolved future of work.

    This is a serious matter for boards. As CEOs and management press the hybrid button, what processes should be put in place to ensure the hybrid work strategy is equitable, delivers shareholder returns and enhances the delivery of the organisation’s strategy?

    What we know about hybrid work today

    Clearly, the workforce is in no hurry to come back regularly to the office. They value the reduced time and cost of commuting and greater flexibility. This plays out differently across Asia-Pacific, but is a strong trend overall. While most organisations are asking how to attract the workforce back to the office, others are assessing whether (or which) workers should ever come to the office.

    There is strong evidence that traditional workplaces underperform. In a 2021 global study, workplace survey specialists Leesman identified that 50 per cent of home workplaces scored the same or better as the top 10 per cent of office workplaces measured globally. To attract people back to the office, the experience of getting to work and doing work needs to minimise friction and incorporate the advantages of home working. Convenience, control and acoustic privacy are key.

    Are workers more productive at home? Surveys suggest employees think they are, but there are growing concerns amongst leaders that “soft productivity” measures such as learning, culture and error oversight are compromised and that innovation is sluggish.

    Key considerations

    In reviewing and approving hybrid arrangements, boards should consider the following:

    1. Unseen workforce – With some employees working substantially from home and some jobs entirely virtualised and potentially moving to low-cost geographies, the onus is still on the company to monitor working conditions and employee health and well-being.
    2. Data protection – Employees love working anywhere, anytime. So do cyber criminals. Organisations must ensure their systems and processes are protecting the data, in particular, customers’ data. Consider how social interaction and opportunities for overhearing and data leaks are amplified in remote work locations.
    3. Diversity, equity and inclusion – The pandemic has normalised working from home, removing a long-held (and often prejudiced) belief that people can’t juggle family care and work responsibilities. This perspective opens the possibility of attracting a diversity of talent across a breadth of geographies.
    4. Social responsibility for cities – Decisions about the balance of work at home and office, and the location of the workplace, impact the life energy of cities. Organisations that consider the environment and community around them should take into account opportunities to work in partnership with cities to create better places to live, meet and work and build a brand.
    5. Carbon neutral footprint – While reduced commutes may reduce consumption, heating/cooling both homes and office can increase consumption. Organisations should have systems to track and measure the impact of hybrid work on carbon neutrality.
    6. Rigid real estate – The real estate situation remains fluid. Cities and precincts are dynamic, and corporations must remain sensitive to trends, and in touch with their employees. Workplace design concepts, environmental factors and general economic and social patterns can drive or curb work performance.
    7. Corporate governance and leadership capability – Finally, the organisation must have the governance capability to support hybrid working. Leaders and managers should put in place systems, tools and skills to track cultural health and work performance. Corporate leaders have to set the cultural agenda and build a solution around that, rather than react to day-to-day circumstances.

    The role of the board

    Companies should ask themselves – and their leadership team – if they are ready and prepared for hybrid working. At the helm, boards must start building strategies and capabilities to strengthen corporate governance and chart the course forward.
    Board members cannot ignore these issues, and must identify and mitigate new risks and likely areas where processes have to be strengthened. Resources and training should be provided to ensure that the organisation seizes opportunities to take advantage of hybrid work to build a loyal, engaged and high-performance workforce.

    The writer is a member of the governing council and chair of the SID directors bulletin committee of the Singapore Institute of Directors