Hybrid work: 8 challenges and benefits leaders will face

Leading a hybrid workforce that combines office and remote work comes with its own nuances. CIOs and other experts discuss some key issues to address
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For many organizations, hybrid work is the new reality. During the pandemic, many IT leaders learned under fire how to manage their teams remotely. Yet wrangling a workforce that’s now operating in two different environments - remote and office - comes with its own nuances.

There are clear benefits of the hybrid solution, such as extending (perhaps, for good) the reach of an organization’s potential talent pool. But there are also quickly emerging challenges, particularly since this is new territory for many IT managers and employees. Now is a good time to consider the pros and cons as technology leaders determine the best long term direction and strategies for their IT teams.

[ Want a primer on hybrid work? Read What is a hybrid work model? Read also: Hybrid work: 4 best practices for fairness. ]

Challenge: Possible incremental costs

Depending on your organizational specifics, there can be added infrastructure costs to support in-office and at-home workers. “Paying for high-speed internet for 100 different employees so they can work remotely from their homes is an added cost that will be incurred and doesn’t reduce or eliminate the need for bandwidth at the physical office,” says Clint Padgett, president and CEO of Project Success and author of “How Teams Triumph: Managing By Commitment.”

Benefit: Ability to attract top-tier talent

Given the high turnover happening now within IT and across organizations, CIOs who can offer the option of remote work can immediately and exponentially widen the net for new recruits.

“There will be opportunities over the next several months as individuals leave their organizations because of the inflexibility around return to work policies,” says Leon Goren, president and chief executive officer of PEO Leadership. “If your organization is in a position to be flexible, your pool of star talent will increase.”

Challenge: Maintaining organizational agility

“One of the challenges in the shift to hybrid work and managing distributed workforces is striking a balance between innovation and organizational agility.,” says ServiceNow CIO Chris Bedi. Understanding how and where the existing workforce is deployed, and making sure that those employees are clear on strategies and goals, proves critical, Bedi says.

Those organizations that have instituted an enterprise-wide DevOps model may be better positioned to continue to work in a responsive fashion, Bedi says. Those who haven’t may want to transition to the approach, says Bedi, since it “allows for rapid development and iteration of capabilities, enabling innovation with agility.”

[ How can automation free up more staff time for innovation? Get the free eBook: Managing IT with Automation. ] 

Benefit: Individual performance improvements

“Innovation is a big benefit I’ve found in the hybrid work environment,” says Sam Babic, Chief Innovation Officer of Hyland. “Employees have different work styles and operate best in different settings; hybrid work allows employees to leverage it to their advantage.”

Challenge: Communication breakdowns

“The single biggest problem with communication,” the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw said, “is the illusion that it has taken place.” And that is the single biggest drawback of the hybrid environment, according to Padgett. Written communication – text, email, Slack, etc. – can become the de-facto standard.

“While this does provide a “paper trail,” it lacks tone and context which can lead to confusion and misinterpretation,” Padgett says. Leaders must ensure that their messages are actually received and clearly understood by everyone.

Benefit: Talent retention tool

In the same way that the hybrid work option increases the talent pool, build-in flexibility can be a retention driver as well, says Goren. A survey from software company Limeade found that 68 percent of employees want to keep flexibility in work schedules.

Challenge: Onboarding requires revamp

Hyland has made five acquisitions since last February and has had to reimagine its onboarding processes and overall communication to ensure seamless transitions for new hires – first, during the remote work period and now, as a hybrid organization.

“As we continue to grow as a company it’s important every employee, in the office or remote, can embrace our company goals and expectations,” says Babic. That can impact the overall culture of an organization over time. “Live human interaction is extremely important in building a strong, engaging, inspiring, and high-performance culture,” says Goren.

Benefit: A proving ground for digital transformation

There’s little chance that digital transformation shifts to the backburner when the hybrid workplace depends upon technology to unite, engage, and support bifurcated teams.

“One of the primary benefits in the shift to hybrid work is that this gives CIOs the opportunity to test their digital transformation progress and make digital transformation the number business imperative for the C-suite,” says Bedi.

Work isn’t returning to what it once was, and businesses that are embracing digital technologies are adapting faster to hybrid work environments, Bedi says.

[ Get exercises and approaches that make disparate teams stronger. Read the digital transformation ebook: Transformation Takes Practice. ]

Stephanie Overby is an award-winning reporter and editor with more than twenty years of professional journalism experience. For the last decade, her work has focused on the intersection of business and technology. She lives in Boston, Mass.