The past year of remote work has shown us very little about what the future looks like. That’s because our working model simply switched from one extreme to another. In the pre-pandemic world, many companies operated from one defined norm: Work happens primarily in an office from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. During the pandemic, most companies replaced that with a new universal norm: We can’t go to the office, so work happens primarily at home. The future of work for many companies is at neither end of this spectrum. It’s in the middle.
New Future Forum data shows that the majority of knowledge workers globally expect a hybrid future. According to the data, only 17% of workers want a return to full-time in-office work, while 20% want to continue working remotely full time. A majority, 63%, want a mixture of the two.
During a global online brainstorm for all IBMers last year, 60% told us they prefer to be in the office at least one to three days per week and 72% said they see the office as a place to go for specific team activities. The vast majority miss social interaction, spontaneous collaboration, and the learning and networking opportunities that come from being in the office.
While IBM and Slack are committed to delivering this hybrid model, we’ll be the first to admit that this future way of working is relatively untested at our companies. In fact, we believe that getting hybrid work right depends on embracing this uncertainty and iterating as we go. It depends on resisting the urge to impose new top-down policies and structures. Instead, individuals and small teams should be empowered to experiment with how work gets done best for them, and how best to achieve their desired outcomes.
This decentralized approach carries risks, especially over the near term. At its worst, it might lead to organizational chaos, where different parts of an organization can never get in sync because they are all operating on different rhythms. But at its best, it’s well worth the inevitable short-term growing pains. It promises to unleash opportunities for greater diversity in the workforce, more empowered employees, and organizations that can operate with newfound agility and decisiveness. And, the hybrid model is an opportunity to abandon habits that no longer serve people and companies well. For example, we can focus on meeting quality instead of quantity, using Slack in place of meetings that can eat away at productivity.
Here are the three key steps we’re taking to create a sustainable foundation for hybrid work:
1. New design principles for how work gets done. At IBM, we believe that this next era of work is one in which companies, leaders, and employees will need to think deeply about work design—determining a new way for how work gets done and continually evaluating what is best done together in the office and what tasks are most effectively done at home.
Like all good change management, this starts with clear and consistent communication. Leaders need to set new expectations that liberate all employees from the tyranny of the 9-to-5 workday. They need to lay out new design principles that paint a picture for how individuals and teams can take control over how work is done.
Avoid the temptation to dictate the specifics of what the workweek looks like. Focus on the outcomes.”
These principles should be deliberately high-level, avoiding the temptation to dictate the specifics of what the workweek looks like. Above all, leaders need to focus on the outcomes they expect to see, and then empower teams to determine the best path for achieving their objectives.
For example, at Slack the leadership team radically changed the way it runs a key Monday morning engineering and product management team meeting. Instead of leaders asking teams for rapid-fire updates on progress on key projects, teams now share written updates designed to give the broader organization a view into their work. The in-person meeting itself is then used for teams to surface opportunities to strengthen cross-functional collaboration and to ask leaders for the resources needed to execute the steps of their project.
2. Flexible hours to support employees to thrive personally and professionally
Teams at Slack have both “sync hours” when people are available and fully present, as well as dedicated “maker hours” when individuals have time and space for deep, focused work. Within these parameters, small teams should have the autonomy to define the specifics that work best for them. For example, teams of 5 or 10 have the freedom to set their weekly hours, to determine how many times per quarter they want to meet collectively in person, and to adjust these schedules based on the immediate realities of the projects they are working on.
Perhaps most important, ensure that the leadership of your organization models this behavior. Because if the C-suite defaults back to pre-pandemic norms where work consists of daily in-person meetings, then no employee will believe that they really have a choice to work differently.
The “Work From Home Pledge” has become a powerful tool for keeping this bottom-up approach front of mind every day. Elements such as being “family sensitive,” supporting “flexibility for personal needs,” and “setting boundaries” give every member of the team the license to put their personal life first. It also sets a new tone for what can be expected of colleagues, supporting each other to excel at work and at home.
If the C-suite defaults back to pre-pandemic norms of daily in-person meetings, then no employee will believe that they really have a choice to work differently.”
At IBM, flexibility has long been core to our work environment, and teams have long been entrusted to determine what works best for them. This helped IBMers to adapt and support each other throughout the pandemic. For example, prior to COVID-19, some development teams would work five days a week in the office during critical design sessions and then work remotely for several weeks at a time. Some teams started at 7 a.m. and ended at 3 p.m. In our hybrid workplace, we anticipate our teams will advance this flexible approach even further.
3. Rebuilding the infrastructure of collaboration. The infrastructure you used in the office-centric era does not support a remote-first model. And it’s equally true that the virtual infrastructure you relied on for the past year won’t support a hybrid model. Both your physical and digital tools need an overhaul.
Instead of rows of desks that provide everyone with a workstation, you might only need space to accommodate the quarter of employees who will be in the office on any given day. This may mean dramatically downsizing the physical footprint of your office, or it could mean reimagining the office as a space primarily designed to facilitate social connection and team building.
It also means that you need to empower your people to design their physical workspaces for their needs that day or that week. Furniture should be moved easily, walls should be easy to reconfigure, and more. As managers design how work gets done, they should also be able to customize the spaces where their teams work—to fit the needs of the team that day.
Your digital infrastructure needs to become the focal point that the office once provided. At Slack, we’ve gone so far as to declare that our office in San Francisco is no longer home base; instead, the digital channels within Slack itself are the HQ. This puts every member of the team—no matter where or when or how they work—on a level playing field. It creates a foundation of information that is the great equalizer, giving every employee shared access to the context they need to make informed decisions.
Questions to start on the journey
As we all face a new era of uncertainty together, we are asking ourselves these questions that we encourage every company to ask:
1. How do we support teams to focus on outcomes and design work approaches that enable them to get there?
2. How do we apply technology to create digital and physical workplaces that maximize both structured and unstructured collaboration?
3. How do we support an equitable and inclusive environment in our physical and digital spaces of the future?
4. What behavioral changes and support structures will be needed?
Getting hybrid work right is going to be hard for every organization. Incremental change, tweaking around the edges, or making ad hoc accommodations will never be enough. Companies who take this work seriously will undertake a wholesale rethinking of the experience they offer their employees. They will embrace the uncertainty that comes from moving away from a defined schedule. They will take an outcome-focused, human-centric culture that gives individuals and teams the autonomy to design what works best for them to achieve their ambitions. And they will rethink the tools and processes that have, for too long, been taken for granted, pioneering new approaches for an entirely new way of working.
Nickle LaMoreaux is chief human resources officer at IBM, and Brian Elliott is executive lead at Future Forum.