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Though restrictions have eased to some degree in many regions, the prolonged pandemic lockdowns have forced many organisations to reimagine the workplace of the future. Business leaders need to find the right balance between employees who want to work from home full-time, those who want to return to the office and those looking for a hybrid approach.

A recent McKinsey report shows a disconnect between how employers and employees envision the post-pandemic return to work. McKinsey survey results show that employers expect workers to be back in the office three or more days a week, while most employees want to go remote at least three days a week. Employees have become accustomed to the many personal benefits of working from home, while employers worry about productivity and maintaining organisational culture when employees aren't together in person.

In an RBC survey, respondents reported being just as productive working from home as they were in an office, with one-fifth suggesting they were significantly more productive when working remotely. The widespread use of technologies such as cloud-driven work-sharing tools and video conferencing has made working remotely easier and more accessible for employees across many sectors.

Despite technological advancements, employers are struggling to figure out the best hybrid arrangements for their workers and their businesses.

According to the latest RBC Megatrends report, “We are in the process of a generational shift in the way in which we work... COVID-19 has given employers no choice but to adapt, and this has accelerated the process.”

Preparing for a hybrid model

A hybrid model is more complex than one that is fully remote. Employers will need to overhaul organisational structures while also ensuring equal opportunities and inclusivity for employees in the office and at home. According to the McKinsey report, “it will be an unprecedented event in which all kinds of norms will be put to the test.”

Simon Smales, managing director, sales and relationship management for RBC Wealth Management in London, sees many potential benefits to the hybrid model, if done correctly.

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For instance, he foresees the office becoming a place of increased collaboration, which is likely to foster more creativity and boost employee engagement. “You could see a situation where people go into the office to meet colleagues and go home to work,” he says.

Having remote workers will also expand the geographic reach for companies seeking specialised talent. “Your talent pool can be much wider because you can recruit people from very different parts of the country, or even across borders.”

Increased use of technology can provide greater flexibility for organisations that need to quickly pivot and scale in today's rapidly changing business environment.

How small businesses might have an advantage

Small businesses could have an advantage in the shift to hybrid work, given they typically have a closer connection to staff compared to many larger organisations, says Katherine Waller, a relationship manager at RBC Wealth Management in London.

“Small business owners often build up their businesses with their people, so it's a much more personal experience,” Waller says.

The closeness enables small business owners to consult individually with employees regarding which hybrid arrangement best suits their needs. It also allows businesses to be more flexible.

“Small businesses can make the decisions more collaboratively,” Waller says. “It's a different approach compared with that of a large corporation that can't go out and ask every single employee what they prefer.”

Stronger employee engagement can be an advantage when it comes to attracting and retaining talent. Results from a recent Microsoft survey show that 41 percent of workers globally are considering leaving their current employer this year, and 46 percent are planning to move to a new location this year because they can now work remotely.

Waller says business owners who adapt quickly and cater to their employees' needs will attract the best people.

Using technology to boost collaboration

Businesses can also take full advantage of hybrid work arrangements by continuing to invest in technologies that empower employees to connect whether at home, in the office or on the road, Waller says.

“The consideration for all businesses will be 'How do you make it work when some people are in the office and some are not?'” Waller says. “If you've got five people in a room and five people on the screen, you have to make sure everyone feels included in the conversation.”

The good news, particularly for small businesses, is that many of these tools, such as video conferencing and cloud-based software platforms, are accessible and relatively affordable, Waller adds.

Many businesses have already put them to use. For instance, the RBC Megatrends report shows video-conferencing penetration increased 163 percent from pre-pandemic levels, while eSignature services and workplace messaging increased 68 percent and 62 percent, respectively. “Future growth is expected in these areas as we move more permanently towards a work 2.0 world,” the report notes.

What's more, two-thirds of the global workforce – namely, Gen Y and Gen Z – have grown up with technology as a core part of their lives, which means it will be easier for these employees to adapt to new technologies.

Ensuring inclusivity across the workforce

Employers need to be careful not to make assumptions about which employees are more likely to want to work at home, Waller notes.

For instance, she says there's a misconception that mothers want to be at home with their children and fathers want to be in the office. She says some mothers may find it easier to focus on their work in the office and prefer to come in at least part-time. Also, fathers may want to work from home more to be closer to their kids.

Waller says it's important to ask employees what they want, instead of assuming. “We need to get away from the fixed mindset,” she says. “As a business owner, you need to understand where people are coming from and how their needs may differ.”

Business owners also need to ensure that employees who choose to work remotely more often have the same career-advancement opportunities, adds Smales.

“I think that's going to be a challenge for business leaders,” he says. “You don't want to create a two-tier system where people who are coming into the office are the ones who are going to get rewarded and have their careers progress more quickly.”

Smales says employers will need to ensure the measures they use to evaluate employee performance are updated to reflect the new hybrid workplace reality.

Overall, he believes the hybrid workforce will create both challenges and opportunities for organisations of all sizes. As employees re-evaluate their relationships with work, Smales says employers will need to develop their own arrangements that best suit their employees and their business.

“I think it's going to come down to figuring out what people want out of their working lives and finding the right mix,” Smales says.