May 26, 2022

Hybrid work environments: Friend or foe?

Researcher highlights how flexible work models contribute to teams and individuals reaching their full potential
University of Calgary researcher and psychology professor Dr. Thomas O’Neill, BA’05, PhD
UCalgary industrial/organizational researcher and psychology professor Thomas O’Neill leads the Individual and Team Performance Lab. Adrian Shellard, for the University of Calgary

Two years ago, “hybrid” to most people meant an energy-saving vehicle. Now, it’s the word on everyone’s lips as employees and employers navigate the future of the workplace in a post-COVID-19 world.

“Nobody cared about this until the everyone does,” says University of Calgary researcher and psychology professor Dr. Thomas O’Neill, BA’05, PhD, who has had a nearly 20-year head start on understanding remote and hybrid work environments — his undergraduate honours thesis in psychology centred around personality and virtual teamwork.

Since completing his undergrad at UCalgary, O’Neill has worked in research and with industry to assess hybrid and remote working environments. A faculty member in UCalgary’s Department of Psychology since 2011, he is also an adjunct professor with the Future of Work Institute at Curtin University in Western Australia.

This work intersects at the Individual and Team Performance Lab, where O’Neill supervises seven students in research to further knowledge in industrial/organizational psychology. The lab’s vision: to create a world where all teams reach their full potential. In addition to research, mentorship, and consultation, the team has also put together a suite of open-access tools to address topics such as team health and conflict management.

For O’Neill, there is strong evidence to suggest that hybrid, flexible work environments benefit individuals and teams, but there’s more to it.

Make data-informed decisions

Survey data has found workers generally in support of a hybrid work model. A Statistics Canada survey found 80 per cent of “new” remote workers (those who previously worked outside of the home prior to COVID, but switched to remote work during the pandemic) in favour of working at least half-time from home once the pandemic is over.

But O’Neill says work needs to be done up front by employers in order to make this new paradigm successful. “Employees can sniff out really quickly if you're doing it because you want to enrich their work and life, or if you're doing it for the ‘bottom line’ or fears of mass resignation,” he says. “This isn't about relenting — that’s the wrong motivation. This is about improving work and life.”

Organizations need to consult employees (surveys, regular pulse checks), strategize (set business goals and visioning), plan (address organizational policies and practices) and support (ready the workforce with knowledge, skills and abilities needed to function in a hybrid working environment), so the workplace can be set up for long-term success.

“It can be easy to get overwhelmed with a lot of new logistical details, maybe even abandon it all together. I think that would be a big mistake,” O’Neill says. “It’s in an organization’s best interest to treat this opportunity as a competitive advantage — retaining and competing for talent.”

Set a team charter

In addition to organizational considerations, O’Neill suggests each individual team create a team charter. Also known as a set of agreements or standard operating procedures for a team, a charter’s aim is to address key issues around group communication, co-ordination and logistics. O’Neill also suggests defining as a group what makes a day in the office “worth it.”

“Meetings can be huge source of inefficiency and a suck on engagement, especially in certain environments or at busy times,” he says. As a general rule of thumb, O’Neill suggests meetings happen either wholly remotely or wholly in-office. In meetings that happen primarily in-office, “remote attendees don’t get engaged as well,” says O’Neill. “They’re a good backup if, say, your kid is sick, but have them as backups, not as defaults.”

Intention-setting, O’Neill stresses, can be a useful exercise in determining what a day in the office should be. Collaborative activities and carving out time to build relationships may happen more easily in person. O'Neill suggests reintroducing planning to eat lunch together, going for a coffee, talking a walk, even grabbing a drink after work as meaningful ways of deepening connections.

Many teams have varying levels of interdependence, thus different levels of communications needs. Re-establish and define what your availability and response rates are on days out of the office. Address communication pathways such as how to gather information, when to use instant messaging, setting important and urgent tags, and e-mail subject headline conventions.

When employees start going back to the office, O’Neill also stresses being mindful of conversations about work projects where collaborators aren’t present. This can lead to communication breakdowns or important team members being left out of decision-making.

Stay flexible and open to change

With so many considerations, workplaces can get hung up on finding the best way of doing these things. Given how new this is to so many workplaces, O’Neill says being flexible and open to adaptation is important. “If you become overly prescriptive, for instance, in my experience going for a one-size-fits-all solution just doesn't work,” he says. “It’s so variable; everybody’s situation is a little bit different.”

From his research, O’Neill has found that absenteeism and “time in desk” does not map onto performance and, for this reason, says that management styles may have to change. He suggests a move away from managing based on time at a desk, but towards metrics, results and quality of work.

“Consider what your objectives are, being a good team player and doing high-quality work is more than attendance. This can be a huge transition for managers in terms of mindset.”

Be mindful of health considerations

For those working remotely, a partial return to the office could have far-reaching health benefits. Increasing mobility, addressing isolation and giving respite from home environments are some of the mental-health considerations that may be supported by a partial return.

That said, it’s important to be mindful in addressing concerns on both sides, says Dr. Andrew Szeto, PhD, director of the Campus Mental Health Strategy and associate professor in the Department of Psychology.

“We need to take stock of what we’ve all learned over the last two years, being mindful of what's served us in the office and what’s served us from home,” he says. “Keeping those mental-health considerations top of mind in planning what hybrid looks like will support the psychological health and well-being of our whole campus community."

Hybrid working at UCalgary

Many workplaces, including UCalgary, are at various stages of reimagining and redesigning the office. In conversation with employees and reflective of best practices in workplace health and safety, the university will be defining a long-term approach to hybrid working.

Cross-campus consultation, planning and goal-setting throughout the summer and fall months is anticipated to inform a long-term approach.