What if we never go back to the office?

This is a question that I’ve asked myself a lot since the pandemic began. Not only would this be a seismic shift in the ways of working, it raises a tangle of philosophical issues. I often wonder how the loss of the comradery that comes from being together in person with coworkers would impact employee engagement and retention. Without this gravitational pull, would we make different decisions about the organizations we want to work for—or how long we stay?

The question that’s on everyone’s mind

 I’m certainly not the only one ruminating about the return to work. Especially in the United States. The vaccination rates here have moved us closer to “the end of the pandemic.” But I’m very conscious that this isn’t the case yet in many other regions of the world. And that even here, uncertainty remains about what’s around the corner.

Every day, my clients across public service organizations and higher education institutions in this country ask me about the return to work. They’re interested not just in what it might look like, but in how this moment is an opportunity to reimagine the world of work.

Hybrid wins by process of elimination

Let’s consider two alternatives for the return to work. First, there’s the return to normal. This is going back to exactly how they things were in 2019 as if 2020 were a bad dream. It’s like Dorothy waking up in Kansas to find that she imagined Oz. We all know that this option is no option at all. The pandemic forever changed work, even for frontline workers who face the public every day.

Second, there’s continuing in this purgatory of remote work—of never setting foot in office as I mention above. For most roles that weren’t remote by design before the pandemic, this isn’t a viable option either. We may be a digital society, but we still crave in-person connections.

By process of elimination, this leaves us with emergent hybrid models, which are all the rage now. It’s no wonder. I believe that the return to work runs through hybrid work models for many public service roles. These “productivity anywhere” models can take on many different forms. In basic terms, they’re doing less of what we did before. You go to the office, but not every day. You travel for meetings and conferences, but less often.

What’s fascinating about hybrid models is that they give organizations the wiggle room they need to navigate uncharted territory. The reality is that there’s a clear business continuity risk if organizations get things wrong here. Yet because they are so broadly scoped by their very definition, hybrid models offer the latitude that organizations need to flex and course correct.

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What employees and leaders think

 Accenture research reveals that employees are open to the “best of both worlds” aspects of hybrid work models, which offer the ability to work remotely between 25% and 75% of the time. In fact, 83% of workers across industries told us that a hybrid model would be optimal for them.

The results of new research into the future of work in public service organizations echoes this finding. Seventy-one percent of public service workers want to increase how much they work remotely. And a strong majority of public service leaders (91%) think that their organization is moving to a model where work processes are virtual, and people come together in person only when it adds value.

These findings don’t surprise me. The digital age has given employees the option to work from anywhere. With digital tools at their disposal, employees expect more flexible working arrangements. The pandemic only reinforced how effective these tools are. For employers, hybrid models are appealing because they can help keep their people safe, promote workforce satisfaction and productivity, and offer cost benefits in everything from lower travel budgets to a smaller real estate footprint.

 Raising tough questions

 In one form or another, hybrid models are the answer to the return to work. Even so, they raise tough questions for public service leaders. My colleagues have pinpointed what’s especially challenging about these models, which I couldn’t agree with more. Hybrid models require leaders to manage differences and complexity.

It won’t be easy to develop hybrid models that meet every employee’s needs at every moment. There are so many layered issues to consider—including ones we have yet to fully unpack. Take policy and process issues, for example. Working experiences won’t be standardized, and in most organizations, HR policies have been built around an in-person workforce. Issues of fairness will surely arise.

I’m also interested in the impact these models have on organizational culture. So much of culture is typically built on relationships that people develop when they are working shoulder to shoulder with others. When there isn’t regular, in-person engagement and relationship building, I think people will worry about becoming a faceless number not just to their coworkers, but to their organization as well.

Leaders will also have to navigate the intersection of hybrid models and broader human needs. Employees will have different feelings about going back to work. Some will struggle to feel safe at work. Others will have to shift personal responsibilities at home that they took on during the crisis. What’s more, human needs will be colored by very localized issues—things like vaccine rates in specific states and communities.

These human issues will have a ripple effect on the people that government agencies serve that can unwind very quickly. Imagine the DMV has a workforce shortage that prevents them from renewing all the driver’s licenses that need renewing. Is it fair then to penalize citizens for having expired licenses?

Making the vision a reality

While there are no easy answers to the questions swirling around hybrid work models, I am confident that agencies and institutions can work through them. That’s simply part of the process of bringing more tech-enablement and flexibility into how—and where—we work.

Let’s continue the conversation. Connect with me on Twitter and LinkedIn and stay tuned for upcoming blogs.

Ryan Gaetz

Managing Director - Consulting, Accenture Workday Education & Government​ Lead

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