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Making the office environment a place that employees want to return to is a big part of the conundrum that organizations are trying to solve in the new world of hybrid work.

By now, many of us have had the same thoughts after showering and showing up to the office, only to face a full day of Zoom calls: Why did I come here for this? I could have done this work from home, observed Nick Iovacchini, CEO and co-founder of Kettle, a hybrid-workspace technology company based in New York City.

And yet the vast majority of employees do want to come back into the office, at least some of the time, and look forward to interacting with colleagues again in person. Almost 90% of employees in a PwC survey said the office is important for collaborating with team members and building relationships. Nearly 80% want to feel connected to the people and purpose of their team, according to data from Blueboard.

To help employees avoid disappointment and get the most out of their time spent in the physical office, the workspace must evolve into a desired destination for purposeful activities, said Iovacchini, speaking in a thought-leadership spotlight at From Day One’s August virtual conference on Strategies for Communication and Collaboration in the Hybrid Workforce. The hybrid work model is the future, Iovacchini said. Most companies are embracing something other than the traditional nine-to-five schedule, and are investing a lot of time, money and energy to figure out who is working where, when, why, and with whom.

Nick Iovacchini, CEO and co-founder of Kettle

A majority of workers now say flexible scheduling is more important to them than salary and other benefits, according to research from Jabra. “That's big. That means people are now valuing their time more than money,” Iovacchini said. “We’re all viewing our time very differently than we did when we just put our heads down and went to work five days a week and commuted in, because that’s what you did.”

Companies understand there is a high cost to having disengaged workers that results from lost productivity, and the cost to replace an employee is more than the annual salary–if a replacement can even be found, he said. Determining the shape of the hybrid workspace also involves real estate, facilities and technology considerations, and the expenses associated with those decisions.

“So the power dynamics between employer and employee have shifted, talent is demanding new things, there are large economic implications of these changes, and the organizations that are able to adapt most effectively are going to win,” Iovacchini said.

Because managing a hybrid workforce is largely uncharted territory, a playbook for how to create an effective, human-centric system doesn’t yet exist, and best practices haven’t been established, Iovacchini said. He proposed a framework modeled after psychologist Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. At the base of Maslow’s pyramid, organizations are working out how to provide for the basic human needs of employees returning to office spaces, creating the policies, and communicating how it will all work.

After the foundation has been laid, there is opportunity to involve levels of engagement and corporate-culture considerations, with the pinnacle being the achievement of balance between work and lifestyle, or what the hybrid format could be “in its greatest form,” Iovacchini said.

Why Visibility Is Key

As the hybrid workspace is being developed, building trust between employees and leadership through healthy transparency is key. Employees want clear visibility on the pathway forward, Iovacchini said. When people plan to come into the office, they want to know that they will have the experiences that they value with the people that they want to connect with in person.

It is “incredibly important” that colleagues let their teams and organization know where they intend to be, when they have that choice, so that everyone can plan and organize themselves around what one another is doing, Iovacchini said. Employees returning to the office also seek clarity on where they are expected to be and where they are allowed to be.

Intentional collaboration sessions that are meaningful and that people care about being present for should be prioritized over those that are nice to do but not worth planning an entire calendar around. “Keep an eye on thoughtful experiences in person,” he emphasized. “People really don’t want to come in and sit in a cubicle all day.” Teams don't always have to meet in the office, either, but can gather off-site for social engagement. He advises developing guidelines to ensure that important moments such as onboarding, mentorship, and promotion happen in person.

Gathering Data From the Beginning

Iovacchini  suggests companies commit to gathering data while still early in the process of setting up hybrid workspaces, even if they don’t yet know how they will use the information. Whether for culture, real-estate efficiency, engagement, productivity or other performance indicators, data collected now can be measured against future progress.

The performance of teams operating with full choice on when to work in the office can be compared to teams committed to a two- or three-day in-person experience, for example. The most effective approach could be adopted universally. “At the end of this, if we want to really use the information that we can collect to build compelling in-person experiences, we've got to commit to grabbing that data,” Iovacchini said.

Managers face the task of helping their employees be successful and make the best choices with the new flexibility that they have. That requires effectively communicating expectations, he said, and an investment in dedicated leadership. Keep in mind that humans naturally self-organize, Iovacchini said, so “do your best to support teams coordinating” and then “get out of the way.”

Navigating these challenges while meeting core business objectives can enable the flexibility and transparency that everyone wants, improve employee engagement, retention and collaboration, and reduce burnout. For those who have had the responsibility of shaping a hybrid work system placed on their shoulders, “lead from the front with transparency and empathy,” Iovacchini told the audience. “We really do think it’s do-able.”

Editor’s note: From Day One thanks our partner who sponsored this thought-leadership spotlight: Kettle.

Susan Kelly is a freelance business writer based in Chicago.