Workers are reluctant to go back. At least, as the pandemic recedes, office workers don’t want to go back to the way it was. In a recent survey by Accenture of more than 9,000 workers in 11 countries, 83% of the respondents said that a hybrid work model is optimal, defined as the ability to work remotely between 25% and 75% of the time. A survey for Prudential found similar results, including 42% of current remote workers who said that if their employer doesn’t continue to offer remote-work options, they’ll look for a job at a company that does, CNBC reported.
Knowing these sentiments, employers are scrambling to implement hybrid work structures, but there is still a great deal to figure out. Among the issues: how to apply policies consistently and fairly, how to maintain long-term collaboration and productivity, and just how hybrid an organization can and should be.
This was the topic of discussion in a recent From Day One Webinar, “The New Hybrid Back-to-work Style: What's Optimal–and What's Fair?” Fast Company contributing editor Lydia Dishman moderated the discussion among six leaders in employee experience and management about the future of the hybrid workplace.
Abhishek Budhraja, the senior HR business partner for global engineering at Uber, said that he has become a student of the topic, since “this is the No. 1 topic of discussion in every HR meeting in every HR conference that you go to.”
Sarah Sheehan, co-founder and president of the professional coaching platform Bravely, anticipates this year will be more challenging than the last when it comes to designing and managing a work environment that satisfies restrictions and preferences. There may be fewer health and safety restrictions than during the height of the pandemic, but employee preferences have changed, she said.
Namita Seth, who leads talent management at the global IT firm Wipro, noted that the size of the problem and the list of decisions to be made can be overwhelming. She recommended employers take it one step at a time. “There’s so many things to solve for,” she said. “If we try to solve for everything, we’re sure to get it wrong. But if we stay focused on what’s most important, it’s probably easier to get more steps done right.”
Getting Started With Building the New Workplace
Where to focus first? Grace Kong, chief people officer for Cox Automotive Canada, said her focus has been on designing work arrangements with employees’ needs in mind. She has been circulating an assessment of those needs, the results of which will help the company redesign their workspace not only for cost efficiencies but also for what’s best for team members.
PC Christopher, regional director of HR at the security-services company GardaWorld, said he’s trying to solve for a balance between giving employees the ability to work from wherever they like and maintaining company culture. “How do we allow that flexibility, but also maintain the camaraderie and the teamwork that you get when you can just be around people in the workplace?”
For Susan McGoff-Miller, head of future of work for the chemical manufacturer Evonik, hybrid work is about considering how to create a consistent experience company-wide. “What we’re trying to do as an organization is create some consistent approach toward institutionalizing virtual collaboration. We want to make sure there’s a consistent minimum level. We want to make sure it’s not left up to the managers individually to decide based on what they prefer,” she said. “So we’re trying to balance it both ways, where it’s not based on the whim of a manager whether or not you have access to [hybrid work].”
Starting by tackling a single problem is good practice, panelists said, though Wipro’s Seth encouraged employers not to marry their first plan. “It’s like a transitionary process. You cannot have a guideline today and stick to it forever,” she said. “You’ll have to wait and watch, see how the market is evolving, see how your clients are evolving, see what your workforce wants, and then keep evolving your guidelines according to that.”
Preserving a Collaborative Culture
As Seth implied, complications will come up as employers build hybrid models. A common problem is how to preserve the kind of culture that employers know can be facilitated in-person. Sheehan said that to preserve inclusion, she created a rule that says no in-person meeting of a team can occur without a member working outside the office in attendance. The hope is that office-based workers will be compelled to always consider those who aren’t. In the same spirit, managers need to make sure that an employee in the office doesn’t hold greater sway than one working remotely, especially in those small conversations that take place after a meeting or in the hallway. “If I’m in a room with you and everyone else is on Zoom,” she said, “I’m going to have the opportunity to influence you in a way that no one else had.”
Preserving and promoting collaboration and productivity in a new format is something else panelists are figuring out. Budhraja said the most collaborative work he’s ever done took place during the pandemic, but whether that will last remains to be seen. “There’s a little bit of time that needs to pass before we really say whether collaboration has gone down or not, at least from a company standpoint.”
Both he and Christopher talked about the digital tools they’re using to facilitate collaborative work and keep projects moving forward, some as simple as chat programs and features, others as rich as training employees to recognize non-verbal cues on a video call.
Keeping Workers Healthy and Productive
Long-term productivity of hybrid workforces is also on the table. Christopher said the challenge he’s having is caring adequately for employees’ mental health, especially those who are working remotely. “One thing in this virtual environment that I haven’t figured out is how to tell when someone is struggling, when someone is struggling personally because they’re burnt out. You get on the Zoom calls, you participate, you put your best foot forward, but then you’re not around the rest of the day where I can see, OK, you’re struggling, something is wrong,” he said. “I don’t assume they’re OK just because they’re chipper on the Zoom call.”
Evonik’s McGoff-Miller said she has been inviting employees to talk about whether they’re struggling. “Usually people don’t want to hide all of it. They just need the space to share. We have to make that space differently than we used to. We used to do it at the coffee corner. Now we have to virtually make the time for it.”
One of Kong’s imperatives is to keep employees’ energy up. Among her approaches to this, she has created wellness sessions on such topics as balancing work and life and how to cultivate empathy. She has support from the top: Cox Automotive’s CEO has banned meetings during lunch hours and Friday afternoons so employees can catch up on work or simply take a break.
How Do You Measure Success?
Panelists agreed the most difficult part will be measuring the effects of hybrid work.
McGoff-Miller said her philosophy goes back to Evonik’s company values. “We see that institutionalizing collaboration does provide us benefits. We found that this framework for working from home and more virtual collaboration really had our values of trust and openness as a foundation. We find that virtual collaboration is actually a catalyst for performance and speed. We have to measure performance differently. We can’t just value presence as we had in the past, right?”
The productivity that matters “is self-reported productivity,” Uber’s Budhraja said. “And that’s essentially saying, how do you create the right ecosystem for an individual to work there and give their best self to the work and not engineer the last decimal on a productivity metric?”
Kong has a similar approach. She asserted that when life is easier for employees, productivity is simply higher, and it shows. “It actually makes a difference to the KPIs that we’re trying to achieve our goals, but it’s in a way where we’re supporting our team members and putting them at the forefront of what we do.”
Give Them Good Reasons to Return
If you’re still dead-set on bringing all your employees back to the office, consider why. Christopher encouraged employers to identify the business necessity, to “question the dogma” that you need to be in the office. “If you can find a win-win in this labor environment where a good employee that has figured it out can work remotely, great. Why not accommodate that? At the same time, there are some folks that are just dying to come back into the office.”
If you do want to draw workers back to a physical work environment, Christopher said you should give them reasons to be excited about returning. “There’s got to be something that draws them in,” he said. “There’s got to be times where you get everyone together so that somebody isn’t left out and you can have that fellowship and have that enjoyment of each other’s time.”
McGoff-Miller’s team is planning for this right now, studying reasons why someone would want to return to work, with the goal of creating an environment employees are eager to be part of.
The stakes are high, Sheehan warned: Employers who are inflexible about hybrid work or who refuse to adapt to employee expectations risk major turnover. “Employees are going to be dictating what happens post-Covid. Prior to Covid, it was all about, ‘This is what we’re offering to you,’ and now, I’m hearing more and more that companies are losing people, that there’s a lot of turnover happening. And if you’re not able to meet the needs of employees, then they’re just going to leave you and go somewhere else.”
Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza is a writer, editor, and content strategist based in Richmond, Va.