This summer and fall, more companies will begin welcoming workers back to the office—at least part-time. This rise in hybrid work has sparked all sorts of conversation over COVID-19 safety as vaccination rates plateau, and about the clear disconnect between how eager employees are about a return to the office compared with their managers.
Central to many of these discussions, of course, is the idea of productivity, and how to devise an arrangement that maximizes employee output, while still allowing for the flexibility that many have come to expect.
If workers are only coming into the office on certain days, what tasks and responsibilities should be reserved for on-site work and which should be considered more “heads-down, headphones on” work? What projects are even necessary to be together for? What kind of upgrades to the office will be necessary in service of collaboration? And finally, if some of the team is remote-only, how can managers ensure in-person workers aren’t given an unfair advantage?
“In March of last year, we had this level playing field, where everybody is remote and on Zoom,” says Michael Peachey, vice president of global user experience, design, and research at the communication software company RingCentral. “It was fair, because everybody got sent home. Now that we’re coming back in this hybrid space, Zoom isn’t enough and we’ve got to think about how we use these tools.”
These are are some of the factors to keep in mind as workers begin to test out hybrid work:
It’s all about organizing tasks
For workers whose managers instruct them to be in the office a handful of weekdays, it’s important to think through what responsibilities are best-suited for the home and which are best-suited for the office’s more collaborative setting. “It’s about taking the time to really understand your own personal tasks and then actually prioritizing them relative to these two spaces,” says Martha Bird, a business anthropologist at ADP. “Generally, I think administrative tasks such as checking email, scheduling meetings, and planning for upcoming work can be done at home.”
Meanwhile, other tasks that are more dependent on others’ input or would be accomplished easier in-person, like meetings, can be scheduled for days in the office.
With the widespread use of technology and asynchronous communication, workers also may not see the merit of returning in-person. Bird says there is value in returning to an on-site setting, especially for younger employees who churn away on self-directed assignments and who don’t have much interaction during their workdays.
“When you’re sitting in a room and have all of those sensory cues related to what you see, touch, and hear—I think [this experience] really can’t be replicated sufficiently, digitally,” she says. “There are also social norms and ’embodied work’…we may take for granted. Who sits next to whom? And how do you actually engage with one another in a shared space?”
Bird sees teams meeting yearly for a retreat or summit as one good option to encourage team bonding and creative thinking. “The dynamics of in-person team collaboration will always remain vital,” she says. “You know there’s really something wonderful and energizing about coming together in the same space, for creative problem-solving and debates.”
A shift from “engagement” to “experience”
The employee experience is increasingly rising to top-of-mind for executives.
As Bird has had more conversations about hybrid work in recent weeks, she says companies focused predominantly on policy, such as which employees should be in the office and for how long. But Bird says now is the time to shift their emphasis to real practices that will support employee long-term wellbeing and productivity.
“It’s really important to be mindful that each person has their own pulls and pressures,” Bird says. “What can be done most productively at home is really dependent on [each worker’s] particular domestic circumstances.”
Employees need to hear that managers are sensitive to their needs. Their experiences over the course of the pandemic have been varied—some have found a new way of life, others are still reeling from the trauma—and employees are eager to do their work but also balance their personal needs.
Peachey notes that it’s most likely there will be three classes of employees as more people return: Those who can’t wait to return; those who are dreading being back in the office; and a final cohort who are fine either way.
A continued effort to democratize the workplace
In order to prevent employees from getting left behind, managers need to make it clear how they are dedicated to flexibility. “From the beginning and from recruiting, have a company culture [where] every employee has a sense that they belong,” says Bird.
Leaders should emphasize new rules that explicitly promote flexibility, but also demonstrate a “consciousness…whether you’re in the office or not, you’re going to have the same opportunities for promotion.”
In-person employees will have to adjust to working on teams where some members are remote, and vice versa. This hybrid format may lead to design changes in offices—especially in open offices that used to prioritize communal space.
“It was about creating lots of collaboration space instead of closed offices,” says Peachey. “Now organizations, if they’re going to be hoteling [or scheduling their work space], they’re going to have people who are more or less permanently remote. There’s [an] opportunity to create ‘huddle’ rooms and collaboration spaces.” Peachey says if he were designing a new office for hybrid work, he would create designated areas for using headphones or deep-focus work.
Further, as a workforce evolves to become more independent and far-flung, Bird says that companies may opt for satellite offices and a more decentralized structure instead of prioritizing a main headquarters.