Hybrid work: When freedom benefits from rules
The future of work is hybrid, which requires optimal flexibility. At the four rings, a unique study is setting an important course.
Those who want to be innovative as a company have to develop ideas for attractive workplaces. Audi and the University of St. Gallen recently conducted an extensive study with around 1,500 employees. Stephan Böhm, the director of the study and an associate professor of diversity management and leadership at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland, Carina Behrends, the project leader from the Diversity Management department at Audi, and Andreas Mack, a study participant and Head of Time Management at Audi, report on their experiences.
This study by Audi and St. Gallen is large-scale, based on more than 4,000 employee opinions. What’s the motivation behind this project?
Stephan Böhm: Hybrid work models are modern. They give employees more freedom and autonomy. At the same time, though, they increase the need for coordination, especially in hybrid teams, where employees see each other in the office every now and then instead of every day. This is where our study comes in. We wanted to get a discussion process in motion where everyone could articulate how, when and where they would prefer to work. These desires then had to be reconciled with the interests of their departments. This involved attendance times, reachability and means of communication. In the end, the teams were meant to set up mutual agreements among themselves. We pulled this off with Audi through a total of 57 workshops with 109 teams and 1,500 participants.
How did that work specifically?
Böhm: We carried out the study in a randomized design. Specifically, this means that half of the 109 teams had a moderated workshop where they worked out agreements on hybrid collaboration, and the other half didn’t. It was essential that the teams weren’t able to choose which workshop to participate in themselves, but that they were assigned randomly. With the help of several questionnaires, we could then see whether the workshop teams performed better than the other teams in certain categories. Studies like this are rare because they’re very elaborate. Most companies aren’t very willing to participate in them. That’s why we’re all the more fortunate that we were able to carry out the study with Audi in a highly professional manner on a large scale.
Behrends: Such an extensive and long study actually requires immense preparation, a lot of perseverance and high flexibility. But for us in Audi’s Diversity Management department, evidence-based work has always been important. This close collaboration with academics allows us to know the latest trends and to be able to make well-informed decisions for the development of our company. That’s why we very consciously made the decision to participate in this project.
What outcomes did you arrive at?
Böhm: That there are demonstrably positive effects. In the teams that worked out common rules, a clear understanding of collaboration prevailed. Mutual trust and reliability were considerably more distinct in these teams. And there were further positive changes over more time. Employees in hybrid teams felt a stronger affiliation with their teams. They felt they and their team members performed better, and they were less emotionally drained when they were guided by mutual agreements.
You’re setting entirely new trends with your study. What makes it so special?
Böhm: In principle, hybrid work is a double-edged sword. The employees value their autonomy and flexibility, but they miss psychological security and a sense of community. This is called the autonomy paradox. Our study is the first one to effectively resolve this autonomy paradox. Mutual team agreements are the key to that end.
So mutually defined rules make hybrid collaboration better. But the difficulty is presumably reconciling all the individual wants and needs beforehand. How can this be done?
Andreas Mack: You always have to find a balance between the needs of the individuals and the needs of the groups and the company. In the end, there’s always a compromise. All of our team members in the workshop shortly stated at the beginning where and at what times they would prefer to work, as well as why. This made a lot of desires transparent and understandable, and it generated a lot of mutual understanding. After that, it’s no longer so difficult to reach a common denominator.
How does this common denominator look to you in specific?
Mack: Our team has agreed on joint attendance days at regular intervals. On these days, we all want to be in the office together to discuss issues in person and look each other in the eyes. Beyond that, there are weekdays and times when our contact partners have more need to talk, which is why we want to be present in the office then with as many team members as possible. And we very deliberately take time to eat breakfast together. These rituals are incredibly important for a sense of cohesiveness.
How well has that worked thus far?
Mack: It’s been working really well up to now. But it should be noted that the system is a living organism that has to be continually scrutinized, discussed and, if necessary, realigned. To that end, we take stock at regular intervals. You can’t insist on a putatively perfect system, because that doesn’t exist. You have to stay flexible.
What has your experience been like as a manager?
Mack: In my experience, two major changes for managers have arisen. First, we have to give all team members the feeling that they have a fair share of success. This is more difficult when you don’t constantly see each other anymore. Second, managers in a hybrid setting have to think more about how to organize on-site team days, thus strengthening team spirit. Employees should be happy to come into the office and shouldn’t feel like attendance is an annoying duty. Trust and autonomy are a recipe for success.
Hybrid work models are not necessarily associated with diversity. What bridges have arisen as a result of the study?
Carina Behrends: Our hypothesis was that regulated flexibility would lead to more inclusion. We indeed found this correlation. Our data clearly shows that when regulations are defined on a team level, they have a positive effect on a sense of belonging and authenticity, as well as on diversity of perspectives and equal opportunity. In this context, new work models represent an important building block within our diversity activities, because only by integrating individual needs can we create optimal conditions for everyone.
What happens now?
Behrends: At the moment, we’re working on a detailed report of our findings in which we want to shine a light on a variety of individual factors – like the differences among different age groups and men and women. Beyond that, more scientific publications are in the works. First and foremost, however, we want to use the study results and our experiences to help all teams at Audi work together in hybrid groups as well as possible. We updated the workshop concept to that end. We’re certain that hybrid work is here to stay and that it will make Audi more equitable. Supporting our teams at Audi along this path is the contribution we can and must make.
How would you sum things up?
Behrends: The hybrid workplace entails more freedom and autonomy for employees while promising more meaning and fulfillment. But working from home and in agile teams has its downsides. Commonly defined rules cushion these disadvantages and generate mutual understanding, but they have to be put to the test again and again. At that point, they make working in teams not only more productive, but also more pleasant.