A year after the COVID-19 Pandemic began we find ourselves on the cusp of continuing changes and challenges in our personal and work lives. This may be good or bad news, depending on how we adapt. In this blog post I will focus on one predicted major change – the institutionalization of hybrid work, a blend of remote and in-office work. But first, a quick review of where we have been in this regard during the pandemic.
A year ago, courts around the world did an emergency transition from almost totally in-person, on-site work to a very high level of remote work and have been in that mode up until the present. Work from home, virtual court hearings and trials, etc., have become the norm, with very limited in-person work in court offices and courtrooms by both judges and staff. But now, with the advent of effective COVID vaccines and the positive effect of the adoption of public health measures (like mask-wearing and social distancing), in some places we are seeing a reduction of new infections and deaths, leading to great hope that by the end of 2021 we will return to a semblance of “normality.”[i] Will this mean a return to the past, with almost all work being done on-site? I do not think so.
In my last two Vantage Point blog posts I wrote a lot about where the courts are headed.[ii] In this blog post I narrow the focus to the likely transition to hybrid work. One does not have to look far to see that this may happen – virtual work will remain widespread because of factors like cost savings, potential increased productivity, greater flexibility, along with higher employee satisfaction.[iii] For example, one major tech company already has a plan for the transition to a permanent hybrid workplace.”[iv] The result of this plan will be a full implementation of hybrid work, where appropriate staff will optimally work remotely 15 hours a week, and on-site 25 hours a week. In my experience, a hybrid work balance such as this can work well in courts — we did this successfully with remote workers in the court where I worked for many years.
The new reality of hybrid work is a huge opportunity to improve the workplace. Hybrid work can be the worst of both worlds, but it also can be the best of both worlds if it is well planned and managed. Remote work does have many benefits (see above), yet our plans must also take into account the social capital benefits of on-site work due to the direct, personal interactions between workers. On-site work includes these benefits:
- Boosts overall employee wellbeing
- Enhances knowledge exchange
- Promotes a cohesive organizational climate
- Enhances job involvement
- Increases organizational identification and commitment
- Promotes creativity and innovation
- Increases employee stability
Thus, an optimal workplace will be hybrid, benefitting from the advantages of both remote and on-site work. The planning described below should include a balance of both types of work, matched to the specific circumstances of the organization and the duties of each worker.
With that in mind, the transition to hybrid workplaces is not going to be easy. Despite the experience of the last year in making virtual work happen, many issues still exist in these areas:
- Communication – in-person and remote work are different! Enhanced audio and video conferencing (for 1:1 and group meetings), messaging, scheduling, and collaboration systems are needed.[v]
- Culture – the increased fluidity across space and time creates work and life challenges in the areas of employee engagement, performance management, recognition and appreciation, team building and collaboration, work-life balance, and employee wellbeing.[vi] Workers in the past year have experienced heightened levels of exhaustion, loneliness, lack of physical movement, and the lack of spontaneous/serendipitous interactions with coworkers. These all must be addressed.
- Continuity – home workspaces (ergonomics, equipment, connectivity), network security, endpoint protection, mobile device management, and risk mitigation strategies all need to be made more robust.
We must reflect on the past year and make sure that the myriad of “lessons learned” in each of these areas are not forgotten. Make sure to incorporate those lessons in making new plans for the future hybrid workplace.
A particular area of attention in the transition from high levels of remote work to hybrid work is the reaction of staff to working back in the office. Remember when it was a shock to suddenly be working remotely? Well, the transition to hybrid work will be the reverse of going virtual last year. Workers will likely feel disoriented at first, getting used to the new routines and actually seeing and collaborating with coworkers in person again. Managers will be especially impacted as they deal with employee issues and coordination. Heightened attention to, and training in, emotionally intelligent behaviors and situational leadership techniques are very important for everyone.[vii]
What should a court leader do to address these long-term issues and ensure that hybrid work succeeds? It is very important that an overall hybrid workplace plan should be developed and managed. This plan needs to comprehensively address all of the issues described above. As with any planning effort, make sure that the court’s guiding principles are followed to ensure that the delivery of justice is not compromised. Here is an example of one company’s list of “core principles” for its hybrid strategy that I like:
- The physical, mental, and emotional well-being of our staff are our top priority.
- We support our employee needs and offer flexibility to work remotely and at the workplace, as conditions allow.
- We continue to serve our customers and continue critical business operations.
- We meet or exceed regulations, such as local, government, and/or public health guidance.[viii]
In addition, this company recommends:
- Creating a plan to empower people for extreme flexibility (provide guidance and help).
- Investing in space and technology to bridge the physical and digital worlds.
- Combating digital exhaustion, balancing synchronous and asynchronous collaboration and encouraging work breaks.
- Prioritizing rebuilding social capital and culture.
- Rethinking the employee experience to compete for the best and most diverse talent.[ix]
I highly recommend that everyone read and apply the advice given by my colleague, Janet Cornell, in her excellent article posted earlier this week: The Court Leader – Be an Operations Whisperer.”[x] Transitioning to a widespread hybrid workplace will be greatly enhanced when court leaders pay particular attention to these actions: know operations as best you can to ensure what you do is appropriate; keep communication lines open with everyone; use performance measures to assess and readjust as needed; be a curious leader who asks questions and listens to answers, and apply sound leadership actions across the board.
Finally, I do recognize that not all courts are the same, and that the use of hybrid work will be used to greater or lesser degrees. For instance, a rural court that has very few employees (and may not even have a resident judge in some counties, like where I worked in my first job as a District Administrator in Wisconsin) may only infrequently use remote work aside from emergencies. On the other hand, a large, urban court with hundreds of employees and dozens of judges should, in my opinion, be actively working to implement widespread hybrid work. As with almost anything, a hybrid workplace plan must reflect the operations and needs of the court and the public it serves.[xi]
As always, I invite comments, especially about how courts are already using or planning to implement hybrid work.
[i] Unfortunately, reductions of infections and deaths are not universal, and in fact, we are currently experiencing a “third wave” of infections in many parts of the world. If so, it will take much longer for a return to “normality.”
[vi] During the pandemic, remote staff have been digitally siloed, with a lack of engagement; also, the mental health of workers in general has deteriorated (Fact Tank – News In Numbers | Pew Research Center)
[xi] For an example of how one organization created a detailed hybrid work schedule, including rotating virtual workers and a day when essentially all staff are in the office, see Guide to Creating a Unique, Hybrid Remote Work Schedule – R3 – Rotational Regional Remote – ChurnZero
Remote work image source: Requirements for Remote Office (techwiseit.com)