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Thought Leadership in Action

The Rise of the Hybrid Office

With vaccine distribution on the rise and COVID-19 cases falling, companies are beginning to feel safe bringing their employees back to work sites. But simply resuming office hours may not be the right move. We've learned that work can carry on efficiently and effectively without meeting in an office, and employees aren't going to settle for a fixed 40 hours in the office anymore. If you want to maintain your top talent, your work model must evolve to accommodate employee preferences.

Moving forward, the vast majority of employees want to be part of a hybrid office, working a set number of hours per week from the office and a set number remotely. "Research shows that 72% of employees expect it to be the way forward," says Tracy Brower, Ph.D., principal of applied research and consulting at Steelcase. "It's going to be very, very important for us to figure out." Several high-profile companies such as Citigroup, Ford and Target have already announced they'll be switching to a hybrid working model.

But designing a hybrid work model is complicated. Hybrid work is more complex than a policy of full-time office or remote work. You must account for space, develop fair schedules and ensure that time in the office is time well-spent. We have an opportunity to revolutionize the way we work, but we must be intentional and strategic about it.

Here's how to develop guidelines for a hybrid office at your organization.

Evaluate Roles and Tasks

Specific roles benefit more from in-person interactions and collaboration than others. Don't design a one-size-fits-all model for in-office work. "Look at the individual and the team job roles and the tasks and how they best get done," says Trina Hoefling, co-founder at The SMART Workplace and author of "Working Virtually: Transforming the Mobile Workplace." Look at each role in your organization, and determine what percentage of that role's tasks can be done from home and what percentage would benefit from in-person interactions.

Think about work processes, employee preferences and the nature of work itself. "When work is truly routine, it's more easily done at home," Brower says. "But when it requires speed, complexity or problem-solving, it's more easily done face-to-face." Start with a basic poll to determine which tasks employees think would be easier from the office versus working remotely.

Consider setting in-office hours based on the point a team is at in each project, too. For example, execution or coordination may not require face-to-face work, but working in-person could be beneficial at the beginning of a project or at generative points along the way, Brower says. Be intentional, and prioritize in-person work for the roles and tasks that need it most.

Expect there to be some tension between individual and team needs. Individual employees may prefer remaining entirely remote, but if your job analysis reveals that certain tasks move more quickly and effectively in person, then you need to make the case for their hybrid return to the office. Survey your workforce to determine areas of resistance to returning to work, such as lack of child care or other needs complicating their return. It's up to you to strike the right balance between organizational, team and individual needs as you develop guidelines for your hybrid office.

Develop Guidelines That Prioritize Equity and Inclusion

A hybrid office where some employees come in more frequently than others can lead to imbalances in relationships and, ultimately, in opportunities. Depending on the schedule you develop, some employees may get more face time with their managers than others. And this is further complicated if you have full-time remote employees in your workforce, too.

You risk creating a divide between those groups. Leaders tend to build trust faster and be biased toward people they see every day versus those they don't, which often affects who is selected for development and promotion. 

Don't make any decisions reactively or settle on the hybrid office because it's trending. Assemble a committee to think through all of the factors, affected people and affected functions. Representatives from real estate, facilities, HR, and strategic and cultural leaders all have to work together to make the best decision for everyone. "There's no one right answer," Hoefling says. "Inclusivity is really the guideline."

As you design spaces and schedules for your hybrid office, ensure that each employee gets equal face time with their direct manager. Upskill leaders to conduct one-on-one check-ins virtually so they can cultivate relationships with employees they may not see face-to-face. Consider having managers and their teams decide on communication and one-on-one check-in channels so that those conversations happen on an equal playing field. Try to make decisions across the organization equitably, based on pulse surveys and employee feedback.

Engineer Experiences to Support Social Capital

Don't bring everyone together just to be separate. If employees are coming into the office to work behind closed doors, they might as well be working remotely. Engineer their time together to capitalize on those interactions that we've missed since working remotely: chance encounters in the hallway, at the watercooler or in the breakroom that result in new processes, ideas and innovations.

"What are some of the objectives we want to achieve as a part of this hybrid work environment?" asks Angela R. Howard, founder and organizational culture strategist at Angela R. Howard Consulting. "It's imperative for the leaders to understand what kind of experience they're looking to create." Take this opportunity to support long-term career development and to empower employees to take control of their careers. Teach them how to build their professional brands and to take advantage of time in the office for learning and innovating.

Bond people by having them collaborate on shared tasks, which can be more powerful than bonding over social events like a virtual happy hour. Host "better together" meetings, Howard suggests, to provide touchpoints for recognition, strategy and team-building. Rethink legacy workgroup structures, too. "We need to redefine the concept of adjacency," Brower says. Focus on adjacencies based on work function instead of adjacencies based on being members of the same team or department.

Take the layout and design of your workplace into account as you develop your hybrid office. Offices of the future may look more like a traditional coworking space, where employees work alongside each other but don't have assigned seating. Create several welcoming workstations, and allow employees to choose where they work each day. "Create a design and a space that contributes to collaboration and getting the most out of that time together," Howard says. "There are little things you can do, like moving people around or having an open-door policy."

Take technology into consideration, too. Without assigned seating, you won't have assigned desktops. Work with IT to develop a technology and security infrastructure that's suitable for remote work first.

Create a Schedule to Optimize Office Space

Develop clear expectations for when individuals should come into the office. Without an overarching schedule, employees might show up at suboptimal times or wind up by themselves. You don't want people coming in to be alone, which can add to the sense of loneliness that spiked during the pandemic.

You can set core hours during which everyone works together, use an A/B rotating schedule model or a combination of both. Whichever model you choose, however, set a clear and transparent schedule. "Without that clarity, real estate and facilities can't anticipate space usage," Hoefling says. "A hybrid approach can easily cost the company a ton of money with empty real estate most of the time."

If you have core hours where everyone is in the office together, for instance, then you still need a full office — but it'll be empty much of the time, which can drive up costs. To make the most of your office space, consider setting coordinated core hours that differ by function, task or project.

Keep in mind that if you do downsize to accommodate smaller groups, you won't be able to host full town hall meetings. Work with your real estate and facilities representatives to determine the best use of space for your organization.

Plan to Perfect Your Model Over Time

Develop a listening program to hear what employees are saying, and tweak your hybrid model as you go. "This creates an environment of psychological safety for people to speak up and say, 'This isn't working for me,'" Howard says. "You'll hear those things early on versus them festering over time."

As you develop your hybrid office, keep in mind that we're all learning through this. Be authentic and transparent with your employees, and stay empathetic and responsive to their needs. "When you're human with your team, they are human with you," Hoefling says. Consider piloting your hybrid office program with a group of fully vaccinated employees and then iterate until you get it right.


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