Zoom backwards on hybrid? I don’t think so

Reports of the death of hybrid working have been greatly exaggerated. Zoom’s apparent ‘volte face’ on home working is nothing of the sort, but a sign of the balancing act that comes with the strain of managing remote teams and meeting workers’ expectations at a time of full-employment.

Last week Zoom – the video conferencing platform that formed the glue that held the professional world together during the crisis of the pandemic – set tongues wagging after issuing an edict calling for workers to return to the office.

“Those workers who live near an office need to be on site two days a week, to interact with their teams,” the company stated. “We’ll continue to leverage the entire Zoom platform to keep our employees and dispersed teams connected and working efficiently.”

“Life isn’t ‘one size fits all’; each individual is empowered to work with their manager to find the balance that works for them and their team”

With tongues firmly in cheek, media hooted ‘oh the irony’ and others asked if the glorious experiment with remote and hybrid working that was born in the pandemic is coming to an end.

Well, I’d say steady on a minute. Zoom was calling for people to come into the office two days a week for better collaboration – it was hardly an end to remote working culture that people are trumpeting. And people who live nearby.

But it does point to the strains on a business by not having people talking face to face.

Anchored in trust

Many people who do work in a hybrid working environment do so via various interpretations of hybrid. Some return to the office one day a week on an ‘anchor’ day and work the remaining four days a week at home. Others work two to three days a week. Others have to be in the office and that’s it.

Hybrid is viewed as a winner in terms of work life balance. The issue, however, for businesses like Zoom and many others is that you still can’t beat the collaboration, creativity and communication benefits of people being in the same room.

Businesses that try to get to grips with the thorny subject of returning to the office a little bit more run the gauntlet of upsetting some workers but it is also a reality that in a time of ‘full employment’ potential recruits are opting for jobs that offer remote or hybrid over full-time presenteeism.

It’s a tightrope walk. Another aspect to consider is that many young staff members such as college graduates are missing out on the advantages of working alongside older, more experienced colleagues who can impart vital cultural and professional wisdom.

I know people who are leaving roles because hybrid is not on the cards and are seeking jobs where it is an option. I know employers offering the four day week as a way to assuage the requirement of being in the office more regularly.

There are businesses such as Tekenable in Dublin that have actually downsized to a smaller head office to reflect the fact that much of the workforce at any given time will be working remotely, yet crucially giving them a place to coalesce and create when required.

Will hybrid endure?

According an EY global index of over 15,000 people in over 20 countries, more than half (52%) of workers report some form of hybrid work – up significantly from the one in three (33%) reporting hybrid work pre-pandemic. For those working in a hybrid manner, one-to-two days remote per week was the most common arrangement (almost 50% of remote workers surveyed), as hybrid norms begin to stabilise.

“We can see that flexibility remains to be of significant importance to our workforce, with varying forms of hybrid working enduring across all sectors,” Tim Bergin, EY Ireland People Consulting Partner.

“Organisations are developing a more mature understanding of how to use workspaces effectively to support collaboration and relationship building, to make trips to the office worthwhile. Ultimately, the focus is on creating a great experience that can span multiple locations and create cohesion and belonging, as opposed to the wholly remote working arrangements which were prevalent during Covid-19 and which sometimes led to a sense of disconnectedness. And underpinning all of this must be a clear focus on sustainability, inclusion and societal care, which is of increasing importance to younger generations joining the workforce and which can be seen by rising preferences for public transport.”

New LinkedIn data indicates that Ireland has one of the highest shares of hybrid job postings in Europe, second marginally to the UK.

Nearly half (42.2%) of all paid job postings in April on LinkedIn offered hybrid working in Ireland, compared to an average of 33% across EMEA in the same month.

LinkedIn’s data also revealed a sharp decline in the availability of fully remote roles in Ireland, with only 10.5% of job postings offering remote options in April – down 48.2% year-over-year. Despite the downward trend, Ireland still has one of the largest shares of remote job postings in EMEA and these roles remain fiercely competitive.

Applications to remote roles in Ireland accounted for 18.6% of all job applications, which means remote roles received 1.78x the share of applications compared to jobs available.

“Our data reflects the growing trend of companies offering hybrid options as a solution to balancing employees’ need for greater flexibility, while at the same time ensuring you don’t lose that element of collective culture and community that is hard to establish with a fully remote workforce,” said Sharon McCooey, country manager at LinkedIn in Ireland.

“With an Irish labour market that is effectively at full employment, giving the option of hybrid can be a crucial factor in attracting the best talent available.

“Our additional research highlights that flexibility is a topic that job applicants are proactively bringing up themselves in interviews, particularly mid to senior level professionals who are more likely to have caring responsibilities. It’s a case of getting ahead of the curve by ensuring hybrid is an option rather than being left behind in this new world of work.”

While some firms are tentatively maintaining remote and hybrid working practices that kept the ship afloat during lockdown while others have issued clear edicts on returning to the office full-time or for a certain amount of the week.

Cultural realities

For nationwide technology player Viatel, the decision has been to make flexibility not only a virtue, but a permanent reality.

In recent months the business revealed that its strategy is to embed flexibility as a central pillar of their work culture and operations. The leading provider of cloud, cybersecurity and digital services is committed to creating a healthy and supportive working environment for its growing team of 310 employees. 

CEO Paul Rellis explained that Viatel actively listens to its team. “Our people told us flexibility is a top priority, and we are responding. We have fully embraced hybrid work, with no mandated number of in-person days. Life isn’t ‘one size fits all’; each individual is empowered to work with their manager to find the balance that works for them and their team.”

“Many companies have backtracked on flexibility, returning in whole or part to traditional work practices and locations. In contrast, we are fully committed to embedding flexibility in our strategy, our culture and our operations. We are transforming our office spaces into regional hubs, with hot desks and collaborative areas for when colleagues choose to meet face to face.”

As Viatel has shown, many professional environments employ professional people who ought to be trusted to do what it takes to get the job done.

Hybrid is definitely not a one-size-fits-all set up and depending on the nature of the business – manufacturing or construction, for example – it is an option for many but not all.

But it is still a tough line for business owners and managers to walk.

Further data from LinkedIn reveals that flexible working remains a key priority for Irish professionals, with almost three in five (58%) workers surveyed stating if offered a new job or promotion, but the position required them to be in the office full time, they would reject the opportunity in favour of a hybrid/remote work policy.

The greatest challenge to businesses that wish to support what staff want but remain true to their values is ensuring culture survives as hybrid looks here to stay.

As John Tallon from Storm Technology wrote recently about the challenge of keeping company culture alive/articles/company-culture-crucial-hybrid-era/ in the hybrid era. “Company culture is defined as the system of beliefs, values, experiences, and physical traits that a business cultivates, all of which shape the way employees and customers view and experience the organisation through its various touchpoints.”

Tallon cited the 2022 National Remote Working Survey conducted by the University of Galway and the Western Development Commission, 91% of organisations surveyed confirmed their future working patterns will adopt a hybrid or fully remote model. Keeping culture alive in this hybrid/remote working environment has therefore become a priority.

With 91% of organisations that have confirmed their future working patterns adopting a hybrid or fully remote model, according to the 2022 National Remote Working Survey conducted by NUI Galway and the Western Development Commission, keeping culture alive in the hybrid workplace is paramount.

Some recent statistics found in a recent Work Trends Index indicate a breakdown of team spirit, with 44% saying new ways of working have made it difficult to build trust with colleagues and 33% saying team culture had deteriorated and they felt lonelier. Furthermore 37% said hybrid working made it difficult to be innovative, while 23% admitted to feeling removed from company culture and senior leadership.

“Despite these worrying statistics, opportunity exists for those businesses willing to invest in understanding and enhancing their existing workplace culture.

“By viewing the Great Resignation as an opportunity to re-evaluate company culture, organisations can reinvigorate their workforce and transform customer experience. The success of a company’s culture often comes down to two things: a strong sense of connection and values, alongside an effective technology strategy,” said Tallon.

In essence, hybrid working can only work depending on trust, culture and flexibility. How it succeeds is probably a bit like a marriage; it depends upon how much work you put into it.

John Kennedy
Award-winning ThinkBusiness.ie editor John Kennedy is one of Ireland's most experienced business and technology journalists.