Hybrid work as a trend is here to stay, with a more empowered generation of employees appreciating the extra flexibility, free time and savings that regular work from home can offer. Three years on from the start of the pandemic, how are businesses consolidating these two approaches to work – and are we only beginning to see the wider impact on society? By Joseph Bradfield, Sussex Innovation
Ever since the lockdowns of 2020 and 2021 accelerated the growth of virtual technology platforms, we have lived in a hybrid business landscape. This new capability has helped to make most businesses more flexible, but it has also brought new challenges and tensions. This can be from interpersonal team dynamics and workplace culture, to mentoring and management, emotional support and wellbeing, and recruitment.
In business incubation
So how important is ‘face time’ – spending time together in the real world? When it comes to developing an innovative and high-risk business model, it turns out that it’s quite valuable.
Peter Harrington, an Entrepreneur in Residence at London South Bank University and the London School of Economics, describes startup incubators as an energy ecosystem. “[The] incubator has natural appeal and attraction. Like gravity, a startup incubator draws in the lost and lonely atoms. As the atoms are drawn in, so the sum ‘mass’ and thus collective energy becomes greater than the individual parts.”
Harrington explains that the most effective incubators can efficiently generate and transfer energy between their consultancy team, their resident startups and the wider business community. Unless personal relationships are continuously nurtured and driven by leaders and managers, trust is built more slowly, and many of the community’s problems and challenges are never brought to the surface.
Useful information and training programmes certainly can be delivered virtually, but deeper coaching and mentoring relationships - which often provide the most impactful insights and skills in moments of need – are built on these more intimate and private conversations that happen one-on-one.
In a hybrid world, successful business incubators are adopting a blend of the two practices, using virtual technology to communicate fundamental concepts to their audience in group training, and organising short, regular check-ins with entrepreneurs to unearth and unpick their specific challenges.
Gloria Mark, a professor of informatics at the University of California, Irvine, noted a rapid decrease in attention spans in her book Attention Span: A Groundbreaking Way to Restore Balance, Happiness and Productivity, published last year.
Mark has tracked attention spans among knowledge workers since 2004, as the number and prevalence of devices and digital distractions has increased exponentially in our work and home lives. In 2004, she found that workers switched between tasks every 150 seconds on average. By 2012, that interval had decreased to 75 seconds, and now it is just 47 seconds.
One of the biggest risks to our cognitive load (and thereby our attention) is when we fill our days with virtual meetings – the phenomenon of ‘Zoom fatigue’. During in-person meetings, we pick up on subtle non-verbal cues that can be more difficult to notice through a screen. This means that virtual meetings demand more active attention from us.
We also lose the natural attentional breaks that form in between back-to-back meetings in the real world; the social chatter that happens on arrival or while fetching a tea or coffee. Virtual meetings require a clear agenda and structure, with a shorter scheduled time and inbuilt breaks to help attendees maintain focus.
In collaborative work
When comparing physical and virtual appointments, it is important to distinguish between meetings that are purely administrative in nature, and those that are held for strategic, creative or problem-solving reasons.
While the structured approach may work well for any regular meetings that your team holds to share information or assign tasks, some types of work are much more reliant upon sharing physical space.
Research published by Melanie S Brucks and Jonathan Levav in Nature last year suggested that collaborative idea generation is hampered by virtual technology. In a laboratory study held across five different countries, the researchers found that videoconferencing “prompts a narrower cognitive focus…[and] comes with a cognitive cost”. In other words, sharing a space is crucial for brainstorming, but less important for practical discussion.
This insight shows that for many SMEs, it is worth making time together in person at the beginning of unfamiliar projects, such as new product development or creative campaigns. As the project moves from this first phase (ideation and association) into the second (managing logistics and responsibilities), collaboration can start to be managed through checking in remotely and using productivity software to track actions and deliverables.
What can we do?
The past few years have shown that most of the modern workforce prefers flexible work, and in a tight labour market, the demand for hybrid jobs is not going anywhere. Ultimately, most SMEs need to be strategic about how they structure their time, ensuring that team members are working together face to face when it will most benefit the business. As always, trust and clear communication between employer and employee are the most important factors in finding the model that works best for you.