“The hybrid return-to-work model is top of mind for executives—every client I’ve spoken with has asked me about it,” reports McKinsey & Co. partner Brooke Weddle in SHRM, and her thoughts are echoed throughout the business world. The hybrid model, “in which some employees are onsite while others work from home,” has existed throughout the pandemic, and even before 2020 to a degree. For many, though, it’s a new and vital mode of business that will come to define the post-pandemic era.
Let’s look at some of the best suggestions from thought leaders throughout the business world on how they recommend approaching the transition from the current and common work-at-home model into the hybrid environment.
Approach the Transition Thoughtfully
Writing for Forbes, Thomas Roulet suggests first asking yourself why you are making the transition. Specifically, “Think about WHY you need your office.” He offers several strong arguments in favor of in-office work: creative thinking may be easier in office, as collaboration is easier and faster when one can communicate in person instead of exchanging messages and waiting for responses.
In-office work might better protect and maintain your organization’s culture. And on a more basic level, it facilitates face-to-face social connections—a kind of interaction for which there really is no substitute, and which almost always increases camaraderie, lessens loneliness, and promotes unity in your organization.
Roulet immediately follows this discussion of benefits with a caution not to rush your transition back into the office, however. Aside from offices needing to be technologically ready for the return, the personnel needed to return (with accompanying support staff) will need to be assessed, and in some cases, incentivized.
Evidence shows that “remote workers tend to suffer from their distance from the office and face-to-face interactions,” and this is hardly a revelation (or something we even need evidence to show). It’s tough getting back into the old rhythms, even if they’re as supposedly simple as conversation or visiting a coworker’s office instead of messaging.
Roulet says this can generate “potential bias against remote workers” that should be consciously countered with a “substantive and explicit effort” to include remote workers in decision-making. Fellow Forbes writer Laura Farrer refers to this as “Equaliz[ing] Employee Experience” on her list of Hybrid Hacks, noting that “if managers revert back to habits of monitoring productivity based on presence, developing trust in relationships during shared time, or giving preference to team members according to visibility and recency, the company will be a hotbed of imbalance and discrimination.”
The solution, then, requires “updating information accessibility, colleague visibility, and employment benefits to be mutually beneficially for both on-site and off-site workers.” It sounds easier than it may be in practice—think of the dangers Farrer describes as a version of the old refrain, “What have they done for me lately,” except closer to “Who have I seen lately?”
It’s easy to focus on the personnel in front of you—whether you’re a manager or not—and underserve the human needs of those who still require a remote presence, for whatever reason. As is the case with most situations where the ‘easy’ behavior needs correcting, though, it simply takes awareness and effort to avoid this (potentially serious) issue. Interact frequently and sincerely with remote employees, and go beyond purely functional conversations; make small talk, ask them personal questions, and so forth.
Remind them that they’re still just as much a part of the team as they were when everyone was in-office, and when everyone was remote. Remote work can be lonely and generate feelings of disconnection in the best of circumstances; don’t let it become even more isolating when hybrid work begins.
Beyond employee mood, you’ll also need to develop a plan for maintaining and measuring productivity in a hybrid environment. Tracking online activity to measure accountability, as Isaac Kohen explains, “needs to be reimagined for long-term effectiveness.” The solution? Measure through project-based outcomes.
It’s a metric that can apply both to those in and out of office, and measures outcomes rather than less tangible ideas. It can reduce stress and burnout—a situation that’s become very real for many remote workers, who Kohen relates have been working up to three hours more per day.
Kohen also discusses the cost-saving element of hybrid work—your organization will need less space, less equipment, and so on with less personnel in-office. The trick, he says, is to “allocate some of these savings to equip remote workers with the technology and workspace materials they need to succeed.” Use your freed-up budget to remind those who remain out of office that you are still dedicated to their ability to excel. Unnecessary enhancements to the office, or in-person celebrations, to name a few other options, will not be as appreciated by your remote workers.
The through-line here truly is fairness. The benefits to a hybrid workplace are clear, and it’s great to have as many people back in the office as possible. The important consideration is democratizing treatment of remote and in-office employees, and taking the conscious effort to communicate and evaluate everyone appropriately and equitably. For those who have been remote for what seems like ages and are now seeing others reenter the office, this will be especially important.
Is your workspace already operating in the hybrid model? How did you accomplish your transition? Would you agree with these assessments, or did you pursue things differently? If you’re about to transition to a hybrid workspace, what other elements are you focusing on as you prepare?