A road map for a hybrid world of work

How will we work in a post-Covid-19 world? This question preoccupies businesses more than any other. Fraunhofer IAO has succeeded in finding exciting answers to this question in a short time with the help of an innovative network project.

If you are reading this, we have accomplished the following: Participants spent six intensive months on the Connected Work Innovation Hub, a project that was the first of its kind at Fraunhofer IAO. The plan was to work together as a network to find out what a hybrid world of work might look like following the pandemic — and it’s safe to say that they’ve succeeded in doing so. Even experienced employees were surprised and proud of the amount achieved in such a short amount of time in this ambitious project, which ran from July to December 2021.

The idea for this first arose in mid-2021 at a meeting of the Advisory Board — the board of directors of Fraunhofer IAO — which is made up of representatives from science, business and public life. Among the ideas for future work presented by researchers was the Connected Work Innovation Hub initiative. The fundamental idea was to bring science and real-world experience together as part of an innovation network that would address the pressing questions surrounding the topic of hybridity. After all, the real issue is: Everyone knows that the world of work is changing more rapidly and to a greater extent than ever before. Often, though, there is still a lack of confirmed knowledge, means and skills to start taking the necessary steps to implement this transformation.

What does “hybrid world of work” actually mean? It means that there will be a dynamic and mixed approach to working locations in the future. For example, A group of colleagues meet at a virtual conference. Some of the colleagues attend in person, while the others dial in from their home office or a co-working space, which could be located anywhere in the world. This is a scenario that will be the norm in the future, so it needs to be set up in a specific way, since there are strong indications that hybrid working will be ubiquitous in all situations where the role allows it.

© Fraunhofer IAO | Foto: Ludmilla Parsyak
A scenario that will be the future norm: hybrid working. This means that groups and teams will work together using a dynamic and mixed approach to their working location.

Putting hybrid working to the test

In 2020, Fraunhofer IAO surveyed 236 members of the German Association for Human Resource Management (DGFP) on the topic of hybrid working. The findings have been summarized in a follow-up analysis entitled “Performance and productivity in the new normal” in the “Working during the coronavirus pandemic” study series. 71.2 percent of those surveyed stated that more opportunities to work from home and remotely would be on offer following the pandemic. This does not present an issue, as 51.3 percent of those surveyed have not seen any changes in the productivity of their employees when working from home. 32.2 percent of those surveyed went even further, to say that in their eyes, employees have increased their productivity when working from home, compared to working from the office. So how can we encourage this productivity, and what might stand in our way? Or, in other words, what are the ways in which we can best arrange “connected work” that benefits everyone: employees, businesses — and ultimately, the organization?

The “Homeoffice Experience” study published by Fraunhofer IAO in 2020 as part of the Office 21® joint research project provided the initial answers. Around 2,100 employees of private businesses and public organizations in Germany and abroad were surveyed on their experiences with the new working model. It showed that: In this earlier phase, when working from home was introduced on an extensive scale due to the pandemic, a large proportion of those surveyed were already content — 44 percent of those surveyed said that their productivity levels when working from home were just as high as at the office. 39 percent felt that they were even more productive working from home. Only 18 percent stated that they worked less productively from home. External circumstances were often the cause of this disparity — are they doing their work in the kitchen, or in a separate room? Do they need to look after children at the same time, or not? Does the technical equipment in their home office allow them to communicate with their colleagues without issue? “Our study indicated at an early stage that the hybrid working world brings both advantages and disadvantages,” says Dr. Stefan Rief, Head of the Organizational Development and Work Design research division at Fraunhofer IAO. “In the future, it will be important to optimally combine the respective strengths of office work and mobile work.”

Nevertheless, establishing flexible models that allow for both stationary and mobile work is a great challenge for businesses in all industries as it brings up a lot of new questions: How big will offices actually need to be in the future? How can they be designed so that it is possible to choose between solitary work or collaborative work? Can employees also play an active role from abroad? How should meetings be held if some employees are present on-site and others are not? How should meeting rooms be designed and what technology should they be equipped with? How does management work in this hybrid working format? Finally, what can and must be regulated in terms of employer-employee relationships?

Six sprints to the finish line

This is where the Connected Work Innovation Hub began. Right from the start, the idea was to bring together current scientific knowledge, to organize an open exchange of knowledge between the participating partners and to make the tried-and-tested approaches to solutions from different companies accessible to all. The most significant findings should have an influence on several blueprints that each partner will take back to their business and adapt to their own processes. 24 renowned businesses and organizations have declared that they will shortly be ready to climb onto the bandwagon under one condition: It needs to move quickly.

“Normally, these types of networks are constructed over several years. However, in this case it was clear that things needed to move faster,” says Dr. Josephine Hofmann, Head of the Collaboration and Leadership team. “We also needed a change of thinking.” As a result, the team opted for a strategy from agile software development: They split the project up into sprints. This means that the project team initially decided on six topics that they wanted to intensively dedicate themselves to, including management, capacity for innovation, staff retention and activity recording, and set themselves a fixed four-week time frame to do so.

It was a great undertaking — and not just due to the large number of ever-changing participants or because the entire project was carried out virtually — but primarily because of the pace. The rigorous pace required strict organization and professional presentation. In addition, it forced all of the participants to concentrate on the most important aspects. “We were not able to answer everything, but the clear structure did help us to formulate answers and make bold recommendations for solutions,” says Rief. “It is very interesting, and I think that we will be able to use this project to learn about new forms of collaboration between industry and science.”

Systematic promotion of innovative strength

The results are awaited with anticipation, and will be presented in a few weeks’ time. However, Rief granted us a sneak peek. In terms of its content, he thinks that the capacity for innovation sprint was the most exciting. For example, one finding was that working from home could hamper the employees’ ability to innovate, because at home there are fewer opportunities for coincidental meetings and people absorb less information from their environment. Nevertheless, both settings provide the impetus for creative and innovative ideas. As a result, it would be advisable for businesses to make up for this deficiency. “A possible solution would be, for example, providing access to online events providing educational opportunities that are not related to the job in terms of their content,” says Rief. “This would serve as an opportunity to use the time saved travelling and commuting as a means of professional inspiration.” This example shows that flipping open our laptops at home — instead of at the office — does not mean that the move to working from home is complete. In actual fact, it is just the start.