Over the past year, remote work became the new normal for many Americans. Both employers and employees awakened to the benefits of this arrangement. With the possibility of a safe return to the office ahead, what’s next—remote work, a hybrid workplace or back to business as usual? Employers would do well to seize this incredible opportunity to innovate and reimagine their workplace strategy.
So, What Is a Hybrid Workplace?
Modes of communication have migrated online during the past 20 years, with video calls, real-time chat and document-sharing becoming standard. A hybrid workplace leverages those modern tools to untether people from a shared office and enable distributed team members to function and succeed.
A hybrid workplace also reorients workforce management around productivity rather than attendance. Employees are given some degree of choice regarding whether to work from their homes or report to the office as long as they consistently accomplish tasks and meet their individual goals. When done correctly, creating a hybrid workplace unlocks greater productivity, reduces commuting hassles and fosters employee engagement.
Organizations have been evolving toward offering hybrid workplaces for years by phasing in work-from-home policies. The difference moving forward is that flexibility and office design will become core strategic features of the work experience, rather than just a work-life benefit or recruiting tool. An example of how this transformation can occur comes from Search for Common Ground (SFCG), a global nonprofit with nearly a thousand employees working collectively to end violent conflict in more than 30 countries.
In 2018, SFCG took a fresh look at how it structured work. Team members traveled, often met off-site and were not always in the office. In response, the nonprofit reduced its office space by more than 50 percent and stopped assigning a desk to each employee. Managers also allowed employees to exercise greater flexibility over when and where they worked.
“Having a completely open floorplan [without dedicated desks] has helped us ensure both sufficient space for staff in the great majority of cases, but also great portability in this time of COVID,” said Brad Fondak, SFCG’s senior manager for HQ operations and safety/security. “We believe that work is not necessarily somewhere to go, but what you do, and having this type of work environment has made work from anywhere a reality.”
Make no mistake, this is a paradigm shift to a hybrid work model for the workforce and the workplace. But this is also, for all kinds of organizations, an inevitable shift aligned with advances in technology. It is time, then, to engage in an intentional process of planning how to manage the transition as technology and talent evolve.
Policies and work environments do not change overnight. Nor is there one absolute right answer because no two organizations are exactly the same. The best approach is the one that accounts for and helps define what makes an organization unique and special. Ensuring such an approach requires gathering data, setting policies informed by the data, tracking implementation and conducting assessments on a regular basis.
Employers Must Listen to Their Greatest Resource
When an organization with a remote workforce succeeds, the people who are performing well and creating that success are its greatest asset. Gaining a better understanding of how employees do their work by conducting interviews and surveys will make it easier to support and cultivate them.
This does not have to be an exhaustive or overwhelming process. Inviting responses to a 10-minute online survey and doing qualitative interviews with a few employees from each department will provide invaluable insights. Ensuring that survey responses are kept anonymous and that data is reported by department will boost participation and make it clear that individual behaviors should be viewed in the context of how the team functions as a whole. As a practical matter, a handful of outliers might not impact policies unless all the outliers are on one team whose function requires special attention.
Questions to ask employees can include the following:
- How do you commute to the office?
- How long is your commute?
- What is the ideal number of days you would like to work from home in a given week?
- On a scale of 1-10, how productive are you while working at home?
- On a scale of 1-10, what is your level of interest in returning to the office?
- What makes you most excited about an office return?
- What are your biggest concerns about an office return?
Policies Must Support Hybrid Work
Employee preferences and data should inform policies. This is not to say that data will dictate policies. Rather, knowing how employees actually work and how they prefer to work will provide guidance for formulating useful policies that facilitate flexibility and are not overly restrictive.
The policy statements themselves can be broad and applied at an organizational level, or they can be customized for each department or team. If certain policies apply only to particular departments or teams, the managers tasked with enforcing them must receive guidance in how to do so.
At minimum, hybrid work policies must address four parameters.
Will this be required or entirely optional? Will office attendance be required on certain days? Will those days vary by team?
It is best to avoid assigning people a set number of days in the office without considering the reason for mandated visits. Team leaders should be empowered to decide what is necessary and to define goals for in-person days. Equally important is ensuring that employees who come in all the time do not receive more benefits than those who are always remote. Employees should be compensated and rewarded based on their productivity, not their attendance.
Do policies facilitate working at a job site closer to where an employee lives? Working from home is not the best option for each person. Neither is commuting an hour or longer to the office. Setting up satellite offices throughout a metro area or providing stipends for employees to purchase coworking memberships can make sense when other commitments to creating a hybrid workplace reduces the central office’s footprint and delivers savings.
Are people required to be online during set hours each day? If people will have flexibility to work from home, they may choose to work different hours than the standard 9 to 5. Organizations that employee people across different time zones are tending to set 11 am to 3 pm Eastern as the period when everyone must be available online.
What is the policy when employees move or when new hires live beyond commuting distance? Do policies make distinctions between fully remote employees and local remote workers who have an option or requirement to occasionally commute to the office?
Fully remote work has become a reality. An organization that lacks clear and universal policies for accommodating this will be plagued with questions from current and potential employees. A well-planned hybrid workplace is one that best incorporates fully remote team members.
Design the Office to Align With Policies, Not the Other Way Around
Policies put in place to facilitate the development of a hybrid work model will eventually be reflected in the layout of the office. An organization moving toward having the average employee come in for one or three days each week will also move to floorplans that are optimal for such behavior.
Completing a major redesign takes resources and is symbolically significant. Doing this should be part of an overall transition guided by a clear vision for the future. Making small adjustments such as moving desks out of a few rooms with doors and bringing in soft seating for newly designated breakout spaces, however, can be done quickly and at limited expense. The minor changes can have big impacts.
Several key features of the traditional office should be viewed as fluid puzzle pieces overdue for changing. Once changes are made, it is important to track employees’ experiences in the transformed workspaces. Again, conducting surveys and making decisions informed by the results are best practices.
One desk for each employee is the standard office solution. Depending on future office attendance, implementing the standard solution may leave a lot of desks sitting empty. Creating a hybrid workplace presents the opportunity to resolve this problem, especially if, as in SFCG’s experience discussed above, part of the plan is to reduce office space requirements.
It can help to think about the office as comprising behavioral zones. This instantly shifts focus away from finding places to put desks.
A collaboration zone is a space where people come together in formal and informal ways, such as conference rooms, breakout spaces and kitchen/social areas. These spaces will likely become more valuable and expand their footprint as the office becomes a place for team interaction and gathering instead of a compulsory docking station for employees.
On the other end of the spectrum, the office can and should serve as a resource for people who need places to make distraction-free calls and for uninterrupted time to focus. An organization that has an open floorplan must also designate private spaces such as small conference rooms and phone booths that employees can reserve as the need arises.
Equip the Team
In a hybrid workplace, some people will be working remotely at all times. Consequently, organizations must make sure employees are set up to succeed by being given the tools they need to do their jobs well. The list of those tools starts with laptops, access to internal servers and a dedicated home office or workspace. Surveys done by Cove revealed that the top two items people miss most while working from home are great office chairs and standalone monitors. Standing desks are also rated highly.
It can be easy for an employer to forget how big an impact basic equipment can have on productivity. Managers and supervisors tasked with creating a hybrid workplace will do well to create their own list of at-home must-haves and ensure that their team members receive the listed items.
Manage Around Productivity
Many of the above recommendations are practical considerations for handling logistics and formulating policies for transitioning to a hybrid workplace. Successfully making the transition, however, will require committing to a whole new way of managing the people within the hybrid workforce.
Millions of pages have been written on good management practices. Most of those books and articles stress the importance of communicating clearly, enforcing expectations and measuring performance, and providing frequent feedback. None of these best management practices depend on in-person interactions, but all require management training.
Preparing managers to help employees succeed in a hybrid workforce and hybrid workplace will need to be a major focus in the coming years. MBA programs were established to train managers for traditional workforces and workplaces. What is needed now is a shift in resources and schooling to educate individuals in a new type of management for remote work. There is no simple solution, but a well-crafted curriculum will ensure that managers stay in front of how people work.
The office is not gone. Rather, it has evolved beyond a collection of desks and is becoming a dynamic place for working, interacting and engaging with others. A hybrid workplace empowers employees by ensuring personnel can decide where and how they are most productive. It is the responsibility of the employer to unlock the potential of this by developing and implementing a living plan for a hybrid workplace that enables the organization to thrive and evolve even further.