Global Business School for Health


Knowledge Sharing and Hybrid Work: opportunities and challenges for healthcare professionals

20 April 2022

In this thought piece, Dr Paola Zappa, Lecturer in Organisational Behaviour and Human Resource Management at the UCL GBSH, discusses the importance of knowledge sharing and hybrid work in the healthcare industry.

Doctors walk through a hospital

Healthcare workers and the pandemic  

The COVID-19 pandemic has further emphasized the importance of knowledge sharing and informal collaboration. In a time where professionals found themselves facing unexpected issues, dealing with problems that they did not know how to solve themselves, and doing so under increasingly stressful conditions, collaboration has proven crucial in many respects – e.g., for doctors and nurses implementing COVID-19 medical treatments and protocols, researchers trying to develop effective vaccines and healthcare managers focusing on reorganising hospital wards and the healthcare system more broadly.

If the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us that “no man is an island”, the new trends emerging in the post-pandemic workplace appear to suggest that preventing healthcare professionals from becoming isolated will require managers to address new challenges – or, more specifically, challenges that emerged before the pandemic, and have become increasingly relevant in the aftermath of it (or of the most acute phase, if we wish to exercise caution).

From the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic organisations from all sectors were forced to take unprecedented measures to limit face-to-face contact. The most notable measure was the switch to remote work, which led organisations to adopt new tools, technologies and practices to facilitate different ways of working. Healthcare was no exception. Of course, the characteristics of some jobs and the sensitive nature of healthcare data imply that not all healthcare professionals were or would be able to work remotely – e.g., frontline medical professionals were not. However, in many cases the switch to remote work is possible. During the pandemic, several doctors implemented virtual care and carried out virtual consultations. Administrative staff in hospitals and related settings as well as staff at pharmaceutical companies were equally able to transition smoothly to remote work.

Hybrid work in the post-pandemic workplace

The benefits of remote work have recently induced several healthcare organisations to adopt it in the long term. More often, these organisations have actually decided to adopt hybrid work arrangements – with employees typically varying in their work arrangements, with some working remotely, some working from the office, and others working from a combination of both. This results in a complex mix of work arrangements within the same organisation.

Hybrid work is claimed to improve the work-life balance of healthcare professionals, who experienced greater workplace demands, increased uncertainty and, consequently, high levels of stress and burnout during the pandemic. Hybrid work is also thought to help address the endemic staff shortage, allowing organisations to hire professionals who are not geographically constrained, and thus recruit and retain the best talents in the field. Finally, adopting hybrid work arrangements implies that fewer employees are required to be present at the workplace, so organisations can reduce their budget for the physical space and divert investments into other activities.    

In spite of these benefits, hybrid work also presents some challenges. Among the most relevant, recent research has outlined the potentially negative consequences of hybrid work on informal social networks. Professionals who do not work from the office tend to experience social isolation and suffer from a lack of opportunities for serendipitous encounters (i.e., meetings, organisational events and water-cooler chats). This diminishes individual propensity to interact and share knowledge with colleagues. Professionals working in remote or hybrid mode also tend to spend more time on task coordination, especially with colleagues who work in a different mode. Thus, they end up focusing on the maintenance of existing relationships, while reducing the efforts to create new ones – even more, if colleagues are based in other departments or teams. As extant studies have repeatedly observed, this behaviour can make an organisation more siloed, with employees sharing knowledge mostly with colleagues in a similar work arrangement – a behaviour that negatively affects cohesiveness, problem-solving and organisational innovation.

The way forward

How can organisations address these issues while still benefiting from the advantages of hybrid work? Is there an effective way to reduce the detrimental effects of hybrid work arrangements on informal knowledge sharing? 

My recent research (jointly with Dr Tatiana Andreeva) points to several actions that organisations can implement.

Below is a non-exhaustive list of the most relevant ones:

  • Emphasizing the role of networking - both face-to-face and virtual -, and creating opportunities for it. Organisations should remind their employees of the benefits of entertaining informal relationships with colleagues, and use online platforms, host virtual and face-to-face networking events, and arrange regular meetings at the office to facilitate interaction.   
  • Supporting employees with training on virtual networking. Organisations should acknowledge that face-to-face and virtual networking are different, and require different skills. Henceforth, they should also provide employees with training opportunities on networking virtually.  
  • Analysing the tasks that each employee performs. In principle, employees should be allowed to choose the work arrangement they prefer. Yet, organisations should also align – at least in part – the work arrangement with the tasks, considering if a task can be performed in isolation, or if it has a collaborative nature. In the latter case, the employee should be required to work from the office, at least occasionally. 
  • Aligning work arrangements within teams, and if possible adopting the same arrangements for team members and their manager. If an employee is part of a team, there is an additional layer to consider. Within teams, the required level of coordination is usually high. When pondering whether to allow or not a team member to adopt a given work arrangement, organisations should also look at the work arrangement of her/his colleagues and supervisors, thus ensuring they are fairly similar.