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  • Writer's pictureBarbara Sharp

To accelerate out of COVID - go hybrid. To make sure it works - consult your workforce first

Updated: Sep 16, 2021



Check the zeitgeist indicator - Google - and you’ll see searches for “hybrid work” have grown by a whopping 350% since February this year.

Business growth in an uncertain world depends on a resilient and productive workforce. How do you know how resilient your far-flung workforce actually is? And you have to know to nail the right hybrid workplace model.

McKinsey research says that employees are sold on flexible working and employers who embrace it are already reaping the benefits.

But it’s the Known Unknowns that make the CHRO’s hand hover over the go-button. There’s no time for it to fail. It’s the best guesswork of a team of experts, but the success or failure data about how your people will behave is too scant, too risky ... too late.

You might think that the logistics of consulting your workforce militates against rolling it out fast and getting your operating model back on track, but you’d be wrong.

Microsoft’s Satya Nadella says two years of digital transformation happened in two months because of COVID. The ability to consult - to actively and comprehensively listen to your workforce’s views on the hybrid model - was amongst that digital transformation sweep.


There are many unknowns spinning their wheels in leaders heads on hybrid working. As INSEAD’s Mark Mortenson recently posed in HBR:

  • How much flexibility do employees want and need?

  • Who should make the decision about who does and doesn’t get to work remotely?

  • Can we maintain our culture if people aren’t spending as much time together in the office?

People are complex creatures, understanding their motivations, expectations and experiences is difficult, but they’re at the epicentre of business’ hybrid work model planning and execution.

Already $300 billion is spent each year by corporations to understand and pander to employees’ expression of what will make them more productive. 400% better performance is the prize for listening well and executing strategy smarter.

But the gnawing uncertainty is that we don’t really know the answers to those questions, and getting it wrong is not an option.

So what's the ideal? Being able to road test your new ways of working and iterate fast before locking them down.


Technology for HR functions has tended to be transaction-based, a reflection of the traditional role of HR, and the “first wave” of enterprise technologies that automated more simple tasks.

Much has changed in HR from COVID.

The Chief People Officer has gained a more powerful seat at the executive team table. And there are technologies out there they can use to bring the mosh-pit of the organization to bear on strategy in very unsettled and unpredictable times.

Since technology is here to serve humans, to solve the same problems but faster and smarter, it’s worth looking at how such a critical piece of workforce insight through an old-way/new-way lens.

“Since technology is here to serve humans”

Accenture reports that “63% of high-growth organizations have enabled ‘productivity anywhere’ workforce models”, whilst “69% of negative or no-growth companies are still focused on where people are going to physically work (favoring all onsite or remote rather than enabling hybrid).”

So, the winners have already decided.

Accenture also posits that the key question leaders should be exploring with employees is not where they should work, but “What unleashes a person's potential, enabling them to be healthy and productive, regardless of where they work?”.

A great question, but not something your pulse surveys can possibly shed light on.

“What unleashes a person's potential, enabling them to be healthy and productive, regardless of where they work?”

COVID precipitated two very powerful and irrevocable things: it compelled a new technology-based operating model, and this in turn exposed companies to the Aladdin’s Cave of data-informed decision-making inherent in new digital platforms.

Today, the traditional surveys and focus groups [see sidebar] are still the chief tools used for “employee listening”. Accenture defines this as:

“...a technology-driven approach to understanding employee experience, workforce effectiveness and overall sentiments of individuals within an organisation.”

Employee listening technology can be thought of as passive or active.

Passive listening tech analyzes employees’ behaviour, sentiments and communication patterns within workplace systems to map perceptions and sentiment. Yes, it sounds creepy but the best approaches use anonymized data and are looking at patterns, not individuals.

Active listening gains insights from direct employee input to allow people to express their personal perspectives and opinions. It includes surveys and polls (no, they’re not dead!) and active forums for qualitative insight.

The opportunity to get rich, reliable employee voice data as workforce consultation in “the last mile” of strategy could use data harvested from either or both forms of employee listening.


One silver lining in the bleakness of COVID-19 has to be that the leap-forward in workplace digitization has enabled a new era of employer responsiveness to create better workplaces; places where people want to work. But realizing that opportunity will take new thinking and embracing some new ways of engaging with and listening to your people.

I hope this helps get you started on this journey.

Barbara Sharp is CEO of Plaetos Group, a provider of innovative active and passive employee voice technologies for large enterprises. Plaetos active forums enable thousands of employees to engage online in psychologically-safe, asynchronous discussions. The PlaetosEQ insight platform makes sense of Plaetos conversations and other workplace data sources to generate a rich understanding of emotion, sentiment and meaning across the enterprise. It's how inclusive leaders walk their talk.

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