Lynda Gratton: We need to understand how hybrid work motivates employees

I’ve been observing and researching the impact of the pandemic on work since mid-March 2020.

It is clear to me that hybrid work, with flexibility about both where and when work is performed, is here to stay.

This is in part because these new ways of working have captured and amplified a general feeling that the way we worked before – long commutes, limited time at home, endless face-to-face meetings, crowded ‘factory’ style office layouts – had all created a sense of brooding dissatisfaction that most companies had failed to address.

Add to that the significant change in habits that the pandemic work-from-home measures have brought and the realisation that productivity did not slump and virtual technologies rose to the occasion. Together these have created a significant momentum and feeling in many businesses that ‘we will not go back’.

So, what does this mean for employee engagement and the way we think about rewards?

Here are three observations every reward or benefits expert should now be considering.

Firstly, consider flexing both place and time. It is those office-based cognitive jobs that are most capable of adopting hybrid practices, as people work two or three days in the office and the rest at home. The conversation therefore here has been about place.

But for location-dependent jobs, such as those in factories, delivery centres or the millions of care jobs, flexing around place is not possible.

Here, then, the emphasis for those jobs has to be on flexing around time, in other words shorter weeks, compressed schedules and so on. If your business is not capable of flexing on both place and time, there will be an inevitable backlash and feelings of injustice and unfairness from those in location dependent jobs.

Secondly, see autonomy as a key motivator. Do not underestimate the power of autonomy as a motivation and source of engagement.

Indeed, while it is still rather early to be drawing long-term implications, there is evidence that, given a choice, many people would be prepared to reduce their pay if they had the opportunity for more autonomy in their work. This is something they will not be prepared to give up.

Lastly, realise that flex cannot be a reward. Although hybrid, flexible work is a source of motivation – most people like and value autonomy in their work –it cannot be an individual reward.

This is because, as I explained in a Harvard Business Review article in March last year, the basic building block of flexible and hybrid work is the job; it’s not the person.

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Flexible work will only become the norm if, and only if, it increases productivity.

Lynda Gratton is professor of management practice at London Business School