“Distributed work” or a mixture of physical presence and remote interaction. Over the last year we have experienced the efficiency and limitations of so-called “smart” working, and after a gradual return to offices management now has to reorganize a dual model of relations of human resources, in both virtual and physical spaces. But what are the advantages and disadvantages of hybrid work? And how will the office be transformed on the basis of this model? We asked Gianpiero Petriglieri, Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior at INSEAD, the Institut européen d'administration des affaires of Fontainbleu.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of mixed working relationships, involving both physical presence and remote connections?
It they are mixed by choice, instead of by necessity, then there are more advantages than drawbacks. Remote work is focused, and therefore very efficient, but we know that people start to miss all those informal occasions that are the connective tissue of working life, and which hold the structure together. For example, at the end of a meeting there is often a moment of conversation and interaction in the hallway, which allows us to iron out the minor conflicts that may have emerged during the more formal discussion, but also to come up with other ideas. A work relationship, in fact, is composed of all the transactions and elements that permit us to establish relations not just between two roles or positions, but also between two people. When the informal relationship, without mediation, is missing, remote working can still conserve its usual efficiency, but it comes at an excessively high psychological and relational cost. Mixed work may also have a disadvantage connected with rhythms: if two people work in a hybrid model but do not coincide in terms of time, the relationship develops only at a distance. In any case, apart from procedures, if there is no control or choice over methods people will feel constrained, or even lose their motivation.
What are the main challenges in the management of hybrid working?
We know that productivity at a distance does not diminish, and that there is a greater cognitive burden on people, because of the lack of a series of non-verbal signals that are useful to decode the messages of others. The activity demands greater physical and emotional effort, and in fact we hear people talking about “Zoom fatigue.” We know that these work modes have been dictated not by choice but by the circumstances of the health crisis. It has been a forced transition. So I believe that most of the work of managers in this moment lies in trying to transform these circumstances into choices, making the mental wellbeing of the worker the central focus.
Office work is guided by an alternation of moments of solitude in which to complete particular tasks and moments of social contact. Although these shifts can still be possible in remote working, what is lacking are the transitions. They are too abrupt: we switch from one moment to the other without having the chance to freshen up, to change the space or the state of mind. Furthermore, we are unable to reiterate those little routines of the workplace that are essential, not so much for productivity as for reassurance. This is important because work is often a source of doubts and stress, and each person finds their own forms to get help in the connective tissue, in a way that is not explicit. During remote work, if you need help you have to plan a call, making a formal appointment out of what was once an informal query. So the challenge for management is to humanize mixed working, recreating those informal moments, above and beyond issues of productivity. Because the emotional price people pay for remote interaction can be enormous.
How will the office be transformed by hybrid working methods?
The office will continue to make sense due to its way of fostering social contact and relationships: it is a place of exchange, for things that cannot be done online, no longer a place of efficiency. Nevertheless, we are still in a sort of limbo between the traditional conception that dates back to Frederick Taylor (1910), as a place for concentration and production, and a more contemporary perspective according to which the office is the place of “collisions,” of unencoded exchanges that boost creativity. The interior design of the office, the structural form of management, will coincide with correct balancing of productivity and efficiency, on the one hand, and innovation, creativity and inclusion on the other. The office has to become a third space between the model of the assembly line and that of the home, a place in which to nurture your own working identity.
From a practical standpoint, the office requires private spaces in which to work without distractions, and public spaces of sharing, with a minimum of constraints and barriers. And it requires the possibility of shifting from one situation to the other at a low “cost.” These needs are now joined by a new layer of complexity, caused by the mixed communication between physical presence and remote connection, between people in proximity and people at a distance. We have to generate spaces that are simultaneously convivial and efficient. Technology, in any case, cannot transcend the sensory and physical aspects of the experience.
One of the challenges of hybrid working is to avoid creating two classes of workers, those physically present and those working from outside, because the mixed status could creation distortions during teamwork, with consequences in terms of personal relationships. Furthermore, we should try to prevent the “aristocraticization” of physical space: in the future, what is done in physical presence will convey a very strong signal, as a more “robust” action. With the growth of precarious employment and relations with freelance professionals, we run the risk that physical spaces will become increasingly exclusive, meaning that for most workers access will be more and more occasional or not programmed at all.
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