More flexibility, more problems: The pitfalls of managing a blended workforce

Like it or not, the hybrid working model is here to stay, and the pressure is on corporate leaders to ensure on-site and remote employees are treated equitably.

blended workforce

In a recent poll on Blind, an anonymous online network for professionals, one in three employees said they would quit their job "if WFH ends." And in a survey of more than 16,000 workers conducted by Ernst & Young, 90% said they wanted flexibility in when and where they work post-pandemic.

Like it or not, the hybrid working model is here to stay, and the pressure is on corporate leaders to ensure on-site and remote employees are treated equitably. As Brian Kropp, chief of HR research for Gartner, told the Wall Street Journal: "The job of a front-line manager is arguably going to be harder than it's ever been before."

Team leaders can save their companies hundreds of thousands of dollars in turnover costs if they’re able to navigate these challenges of managing a blended workforce.

Deciding which team members get to work remotely

The first (and probably most obvious) challenge of managing a hybrid team is establishing who works in the office and who works from home (and when) while avoiding the appearance of favoritism.

It’s a task many seem ill-prepared to take on: One recent survey found that decision-makers were almost evenly split as to whether they’ll use specific criteria to determine who is allowed to work remotely or give all employees the option.

Seniority is a major factor managers will need to consider: in a PwC remote-work survey, employees with the least amount of professional experience said they wanted more time in the office, as they’re more likely to benefit from company training programs and meetings with higher-ups.

“Establishing a permanent hybrid working arrangement is going to be an iterative process.” - Lorna Borenstein


Job function is another. Bill Dollins, CIO of a remote-first SaaS company, told us: “I have the IT team under me, which requires staff to be located near our headquarters, for proximity to physical equipment inventory.” But “even those staff can work from home most of the time.”

Then, Dollins said, for every person who prefers WFH, there’s another who prefers to come to the office at least part-time. He believes organizations that are able should support the choices of individual team members.

“Absent a physical need for an employee to be in the office, I don't see any value in an organization making it a requirement,” he said.

Forbes Human Resources Council member Lorna Borenstein advises management teams to commit to flexibility. “Establishing a permanent hybrid working arrangement is going to be an iterative process,” she said.

Monitoring productivity of remote employees

Right or wrong (psst: it’s wrong), there’s a perceived relationship between productivity and visibility. In a 2020 Harvard Business Review study, 41% of managers were skeptical of remote workers’ ability to stay motivated (another 17% said they were “unsure”).

Perhaps that’s why 78% of managers surveyed said they use software to "track employee performance and/or online activity.”

Yikes.

Not only is that creepy, it’s unnecessary: after studying various metrics of 7,000 workers, productivity software company Prodoscore Inc. discovered that overall, employees were more productive in 2020 — when the percentage of remote workers increased from 17 to 44% because of the pandemic —  than the year before.

“If you have a culture of accountability, that leads to productivity whether employees are in the office or not.” - Frank Weishaupt


Remote employees also tend to work longer hours, whether it’s because they have a hard time establishing boundaries between their work and home lives or because they’re worried about being perceived as unproductive.

Studies show that organizations with high-trust cultures are more financially successful. As CEO of Owl Labs, Frank Weishaupt, told Fast Company, “If you have a culture of accountability, that leads to productivity whether employees are in the office or not.”

Dollins said, “You need to be concerned with both results and people.”

“One advantage of remote work,” he continued, “is that it doesn't support micromanagement well. Ultimately, I think remote work does a far better job of exposing unproductive managers than it does of exposing unproductive employees.”

Ensuring equity in pay and promotions

In a study of UK workers, remote employees were less than half as likely to be promoted as those who worked on-site.

Said Gartner’s Kropp: “There’s still this belief that a lot of senior leaders have which is, ‘I want them in person.’ It’s not founded in science or data. It’s all founded in personal belief and personal experience.”

One CEO even went so far as to not-so-subtly threaten her employees that their status could change from “full-time” to “contractor” if they didn’t want to come back to the office. (Again, yikes.)

Today’s blended workplace has put companies’ inclusivity practices under the microscope. Research shows:

Managers must take extra care to avoid proximity bias — employees in closer physical proximity receive better treatment —or risk creating a “two-tier” hybrid workforce where remote employees with caregiving responsibilities, disabilities, or financial challenges are shut out.

“Without intervention,” said Kropp, “what’s likely to happen is those gender wage gaps are likely to get worse, not better.” Kropp advises that companies start analyzing the compensation of remote and on-site workers the way they now analyze pay by gender.

Keeping remote workers up to date and in the loop

Remote employees can’t “shoulder-surf” or lean over to ask the person at the next desk how something is done, which puts them at a disadvantage. In a blended workforce, institutional knowledge can quickly become privileged information, with on-site employees being “in the know” and remote workers being left out.

Juniper Square CEO and Co-founder Alex Robinson told Digiday that hybrid-team leaders must think digital-first: “By making digital the default mode, you level the playing field for employees and ensure that everyone has the same access to information, regardless of location.”

With Scribe, your employees can capture and share institutional know-how in seconds rather than spending minutes (or hours) conducting walk-throughs on video chat. Our intelligent application automatically generates editable, visual step-by-step guides simply by watching your team members work. (You can try it out for free here.)

“By making digital the default mode, you level the playing field.” - Alex Robinson


Some organizations even take a documentation-first approach, like all-remote GitLab, where employees self-serve information through the company’s always-evolving 3,000-page digital handbook.

“Remote work implies remote collaboration,” said Dollins. “That means using chat tools like Slack, calendar tools like Google Calendar, document sharing tools like Google Workspace, workflow tools like GitHub, and countless other tools that have been designed for distributed teamwork.”

Building (and preserving) company culture

Some fear that without regular face-to-face interaction, hybrid companies will struggle to maintain a vibrant organizational culture. Tia Graham, Chief Happiness Officer and Founder of Arrive At Happy, told Fast Company: “Leaders need to be clear on what the company’s mission is and identify how the internal culture will support this.”

Graham suggests conducting team-building exercises such as happy hours or lunch-and-learns through video-conferencing platforms. “The biggest mistake is leaving virtual workers out of activities,” she said. But there are even smaller ways you can foster cohesion in a blended workforce.

“We have more ways to communicate now than we’ve ever had.” - Bill Dollins


For example, at Atlassian, all employees — including those in shared spaces — are required to call into video meetings from separate computers, so remote workers don’t feel left out, CIO Archana Rao told the Wall Street Journal. Here at Scribe, everyone has a photo in each of our communication channels. It’s a small thing, but it helps conversations on Slack feel more personal.

Dollins thinks the assumption that remote work makes connecting difficult is misguided. “We have more ways to communicate now than we’ve ever had: email, chat, SMS, social media messaging, and more,” he said.

“Because of the pandemic, I have co-workers that I hadn't met in person for the first year we worked together, but I knew about the ghost peppers they grew in their gardens, the rescue dogs they fostered, and the trips they took.”

The benefits of a blended workforce

Organizations that embrace hybrid work will benefit from a deeper talent pool and happier employees. Successfully managing these blended teams and maintaining a positive workplace culture will be critical for retention.

In a TechRepublic story about building company culture among blended teams, Josh Christopherson, CEO and co-founder of iCÜE and the CEO of Achieve Today, said: "Embracing technology and then giving your managers the training and tools to succeed will be what sets your company apart.

“Talent will come and stay,” he continued. “You will see changes to your bottom line and it will be big. It won't happen overnight but the numbers have proven time and time again, if you care about your employees, they will care about you."