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Hybrid working

05 Nov 2021 / Hybrid working Print

We can work it out

Professional service firms are now struggling with the challenges of how the workplace should be organised – remote, in person, or hybrid? Tatiana Andreeva, Ciara O’Higgins and Paola Zappa wanna hold your hand.

As Ireland gradually reopens, businesses are contemplating how to move forward with the organisation of work. Some prefer to return to the office, while others would like to maintain some of the benefits of operating remotely.

The hybrid form is often seen as a way of combining the best of both worlds. But does this approach suit you as a professional or a professional service firm (PSF)?

In fact, it is not new to some PSFs, though it may not have been conscious or openly labelled as such. To make a conscious decision regarding what might work best for you, it’s important to start by understanding the challenges PSFs may face when working in remote or hybrid form, and then assessing your readiness to tackle these challenges. We suggest you consider two groups of challenges – external and internal.

The external challenges stem from your collaboration with external parties and, therefore, are relevant to all PSFs, no matter their size – from a small professional practice to a large international PSF. Indeed, professional services often involve interaction with a number of different actors, so your decision about whether to work remotely, in person. or hybrid will need to take the needs and expectations of these actors into consideration.

Don’t let me down

The essence of a professional service is to build a tailored solution to the client’s problem. To do this, you may need to meet the client in person to gain a full understanding of the complexities of the case and the subtleties of their needs.

However, after the initial reconnaissance provides you with the lay of the land, much of the subsequent research and deskwork required to devise potential solutions can probably be done remotely. Finally, depending on the project and the client, implementation of the solution may require a mixture of in-person and remote interactions.

Unbundling the professional service into specific tasks in this way allows you to go beyond the remote versus in-person dichotomy and adopt a more flexible approach. In this more fine-grained analysis of the tasks to be performed, you may also find that some tasks provide more effective results when done in person, while others are just as effective when implemented remotely.

For example, our research shows that, during the pandemic, PSFs were able to remotely contract and implement projects with existing clients because trust already existed between them. However, they found it extremely challenging to convince new clients by pitching to them remotely.

Moreover, it’s important to remember that your choice of where to work will not depend exclusively on your preferences and policies, but will need to consider those of your clients.

Some clients may prefer in-person meetings to share their confidential concerns; others may continue to limit access to their offices, especially to external parties; and others again might be limited by personal circumstances (for example, vulnerable individuals or care-givers who are still interacting mostly remotely).

Similarly, PSFs also interact with other actors, who influence or regulate their profession, such as public or Government institutions, and professional associations or societies. These bodies are also transitioning to hybrid work environments, as they accelerate the digitalisation of many of their procedures and test innovative ways to promote networking and training of their members. For example, virtual deal-making, as well as virtual and hybrid hearings or trials, appear to be here to stay.

Now, let’s look at the internal challenges PSFs may face if they use a hybrid or a fully remote format. Based on our research, we identified three core issues:

  • Access to senior professionals,
  • Organisational culture, and
  • Ensuring a fair and equitable workplace.

These are likely to be more relevant to larger firms rather than to individual professional practices.

Long and winding road

Traditionally, PSFs have used an apprenticeship model to train and develop their junior employees. Learning-by-doing is central to this approach, as young professionals are expected to acquire professional know-how by working with their senior colleagues and being mentored by them. For example, junior hires often shadow their mentors on client engagements, and learn by observing them in action. They also often learn the tricks of the trade from informal ‘water-cooler’ conversations.

The shift to remote work during the pandemic demonstrated that sustaining experiential learning while working online is challenging for everyone involved. Many junior hires felt the lack of face-time with clients and partners left them at a disadvantage in their training and professional development.

Their mentors struggled also, because teaching professional know-how in online mode is challenging, and many experts did not have the experience or training to deal with this challenge. Furthermore, some senior professionals were already reluctant to mentor first-year associates before the pandemic, because they viewed it as too time-consuming and costly.

A shift to remote working increased their resistance. As a result, during the past year, senior professionals have become less inclined to engage with more junior colleagues; mid-level associates have become even busier as they are coveted by all; while first-year associates felt they were being left in limbo.

In the future, more senior professionals are likely to choose fewer days in the office compared with their junior colleagues, because they may perceive less need for professional development, or prioritise the benefits of remote working over the need for visibility.

However, it is precisely these senior professionals who are the source of learning for junior colleagues. Without them being in the office, the opportunities for learning and the value of office time for junior professionals will decrease dramatically.

At the same time, remote working does not always place junior professionals at a disadvantage. It may also bring some benefits beyond the widely discussed wellbeing and work/life balance – if the firm can manage the process well.

First, in larger firms with multiple offices across the country or indeed the globe, working remotely gives junior associates an opportunity to work with partners in different locations. This means more opportunities to learn, in particular to tap into more diverse or specialised expertise and skills compared with those available locally and, in the long run, to find more ‘sponsors’ to advocate for their own promotion to partnership level.

That said, to unlock these developmental opportunities, senior professionals need to be ready to mentor junior associates from other locations, let go of territorial feelings about their local talents, and allow them to work with partners from elsewhere.

Second, pandemic experience suggests that some junior professionals working remotely were given greater autonomy and more opportunities to develop their own voice earlier in their career than they would have had if their apprenticeship happened in the traditional office-only environment. While this may be beneficial for individual professional development, the question remains as to what impact this might have on the organisational culture of PSFs as they go back to the office.

Come together

Indeed, it is not only the tricks of the trade that junior professionals need to learn when they join the firm. They also need to learn the culture. Organisational culture is often an essential part of the PSF’s brand and reputation, and it shapes its professionals to conform to this image.

Shared values influence interactions with clients and, therefore, clients’ perceptions of both the professional and the firm’s unique selling points. Organisational culture also matters for bonding among colleagues and affects the employees’ sense of identity, retention rates, and knowledge sharing.

However, building and maintaining a distinctive organisational culture in a remote workplace appears challenging. This is even more so in a hybrid one, because not everyone is ‘in the same boat’ by default. Why? Because transferring and nurturing the organisational culture requires socialisation and people ‘doing things together’.

Socialisation is important to ensure that professionals remain engaged with their organisation, but is particularly crucial for newly hired employees. Junior members assimilate the organisational culture at the office. It is by observing others, typically senior members, and by bonding with peers that newly hired staff understand the culture, learn the firm’s habitual way of behaving, and develop a sense of belonging.

In the absence of direct observation, junior members appear to struggle with deciphering the organisational culture through emails and virtual meetings. And the lack of opportunities for serendipitous encounters and joint training programmes on-site make it difficult to bond with peers.

For these reasons, many are sceptical about whether culture can be assimilated and reinforced in a remote or hybrid context, and wonder whether there is a risk that a separate online culture might develop.

So, should hybrid working arrangements be completely disregarded by PSFs? Research suggests that organisational culture can still flourish in a hybrid context if the office space is transformed into a socially engaging cultural space.

Professionals can schedule individual and teamwork for online working days, and managers should encourage them to use the office space to informally connect with colleagues in the same and – more importantly – other teams or areas.

Companies could explicitly signal this expectation by offering opportunities for socialisation and making time for them in professionals’ busy schedules. Examples include meetings where employees gather to discuss recurring themes across projects and industries, wellness events, or social gatherings.

Get back

The arguments above seem to suggest that the hybrid approach may enable PSFs to benefit from the advantages of both remote and office work arrangements. However, there is another (darker) side to this coin. The hybrid model typically means that the work arrangements of individual employees vary, depending on their personal preferences and life circumstances. Some would prefer to work mostly in the office, others mostly from home.

These differences in the proximity to the office and key organisational decision-makers are likely to influence access to resources, experiential learning opportunities, networking opportunities – and, in turn, performance appraisal outcomes and promotion opportunities.

For example, our recent research presented at the Grow Remote webinar ‘The Future of Remote: Can Hybrid Really Work?‘ (see presentation starting at 18 mins, 10 secs) suggests that employees who work in hybrid or fully remote working arrangements think that their manager is not that aware of what they do and how they perform. Such visibility in the eyes of their managers (or the lack thereof) has a wide range of implications – for example, for invitations to interesting new projects, performance appraisal, or chances of promotion.

To summarise, differences in employee work arrangements within the firm, inherent to the hybrid model, are likely to create new power discrepancies among employees and widen the existing ones. Junior employees and women are more likely to suffer.

This issue is not specific to PSFs, as all firms may struggle with it. Yet, taking into account the nature of the work in PSFs – where much of the know-how is tacit and difficult to transfer online, the quality of a service is often difficult to assess, evaluating the performance of remote employees is challenging, and a strong hierarchy of seniority is already in place – firms may find it particularly challenging to address these discrepancies.

To counteract these potentially damaging aspects of hybrid work, the organisation needs to train both employees and managers, and develop policies and processes to support more equal and fair access to resources and opportunities.

Revolution

All these are considerations that firms will need to contemplate when deciding how to carry out their professional work from now on. There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution. You will need to find a suitable mix that simultaneously adapts to the way in which your external actors are transitioning to hybrid or remote work; enables the most impactful way to execute the different tasks that constitute your professional services; and considers the internal issues of professional development, culture and fairness.

If you choose a hybrid approach, you will have to think carefully about how to maximise available face-time: for example, to spend it with clients or with colleagues? These priorities will differ for different firms and individual professionals, but they need to be well-thought-out and clear for the hybrid model to work.

Finally, whatever hybrid mix you choose, to benefit from it most, you should develop some guidelines on how it will work in your organisation.

Look it up

Read and print a PDF of this article here.

Tatiana Andreeva, Ciara O’Higgins and Paola Zappa
Dr Tatiana Andreeva is research director at the School of Business, Maynooth University, Ciara O’Higgins is a researcher and lecturer at the University of Deusto, Spain, and Dr Paola Zappa is an assistant professor at Maynooth