As the clock struck 12 on 31 December 2019 and the choruses of Auld Lang Syne rang out across the world, few could have imagined they would spend the coming year participating in one of the largest workplace experiments of all time.
For many, the results may well have been surprising. While managers initially feared a drop in productivity – research shows the demand for employee monitoring tools surged by an incredible 87 percent during April – it turns out the far greater challenge would involve the inevitable burnout of a workforce unable to work out whether they were working from home, or living at work.
Microsoft’s latest Work Reworked research confirms what many have come to suspect – workers are generally more productive in a remote setting, with 83 percent of leaders across the Middle East and Africa (MEA) agreeing their companies are equally or more productive than before.
Leaders have become acutely aware of the business value in maintaining a more hybrid approach to working – as have the region’s employees who, in leaving the more formal office environment behind, very much appreciate the benefits of a more personalized workspace and casual dress.
Happily, it would seem everyone agrees the future of work is hybrid.
Microsoft’s Work Reworked research provides key insights into the future of work in the Middle East and Africa
Balancing productivity and innovation – the challenge
But working remotely is not without challenges. In fact, another misperception put to rest by Microsoft’s study is that workers face few interruptions when working from home. Instead the complete opposite is true – employees across the region note that around half of their workday is currently wasted with unnecessary interruptions. This is a particular concern for Turkish workers, where time wastage per day is closer to 60 percent.
While there have been a great many benefits associated with the shift to remote working, there are also many new hurdles for managers to overcome, perhaps the biggest of which is maintaining a strong company culture.
For many team leads, this year marked the first time they were responsible for managing people who were working remotely. And as many have discovered, traditional management skills are not simply transferred to a remote setting.
A high majority of managers in Qatar said they have not effectively learned yet how to delegate and empower virtual teams. This trend is equally concerning across the rest of the region, where at least 64 percent of managers are battling to create that elusive team culture and another 53 percent are struggling to make decisions in uncertain situations.
Besides the obvious concern that this general lack of cohesiveness might result in poor employee engagement and eventually challenges around talent retention, there is another long-term impact that businesses must consider. And that is the workforce’s ability to innovate. Quite simply, innovation battles to thrive in a setting where people have few opportunities to share and develop new ideas.
The question is – can companies maintain productivity while not compromising necessary collaboration?
The answer lies with the region’s most innovative companies, which not only enjoy a better flow of new thinking, but are also excelling in terms of productivity and employee engagement.
A lot can be learned from these companies by analysing key similarities in their workplace cultures. In fact, there are three key areas that set innovative workplaces apart.
The empowered employee
The road to greater innovation begins with empowered employees who can make decisions with confidence and speak their minds. For middle managers putting greater trust in their staff and communicating with them is key to success. Managers within innovative companies tend to approach their jobs differently to those in less innovative companies. They facilitate regular, open dialogue and allow people freedom in how they approach their roles.
At the same time, moresenior leaders within these companies are adept at providing clear direction, with around 76 percent of employees in innovative companies saying there is a robust shared vision across the business. A further 73 percent report a strong sense of belonging.
The trick to superior output
Another helpful insight is that innovative workplaces are good at protecting employees’ focus time. Around 55 percent of the workforce within these environments say they are frequently able to get into a flow state. Just 24 percent indicate the same in less innovative companies.
This is critical because when employees can put their full attention and effort into a task, it leads to superior output and provides them with a deeper sense of satisfaction. Most employees able to work in a flow state proactively offer solutions for addressing challenges and are also more likely to suggest more effective ways of working to their managers.
Practical steps managers can take to protect this focus time includes encouraging employees to block out focus time in their diaries first thing in the morning, which is when people generally find it easiest to concentrate. They can also try set meetings aside for the afternoon, a time that is least preferred for focus work.
Middle management holds the key
The first two focus areas for increased innovation rely quite significantly on the efficacy of middle management. This is concerning when one considers that almost one third of middle managers say they are not getting the support they need from leadership – likely a result of senior management feeling the time pinch themselves as they contend with an increasing number of business continuity challenges.
With managers clearly feeling they aren’t fully prepared to lead remote teams, training efforts – and ongoing coaching from senior staff – is more important than ever before. In fact, there is significant opportunity for companies in placing emphasis on upskilling their team leads.
Looking at innovation leaders across the region, it’s clear to see that within a hybrid workplace it is possible to give employees the flexibility they need to be as productive as possible, while still creating the space for innovation to thrive. Whether online or in the office, success comes down to human connection – and true innovators will be those that bring a sense of comradery, empathy, and trust to the future workplace.