Over the next months, many companies in the U.S. will begin the process of returning to the office. But offices won’t look like they did before COVID-19. Our research firm, Forrester, projects that 70% of companies will pivot to a “work-from-anywhere,” hybrid work model in which at least a selection of employees can work anywhere at least two days a week, while spending the remaining days in an office.
Even reluctant leaders will consent to these changes to capture an array of business benefits: lower talent attrition and better recruitment successes driven by the improved employee experience of hybrid work, for example.
The benefits of anywhere work may appear small at first but act like compound interest that accrues over time. Let’s say that you don’t offer some form of flexible, hybrid work. Your employee attrition rate increases and your Glassdoor ratings fall. And you now have trouble recruiting because other employers offer a better employee experience with hybrid. None of this leads to an immediate meltdown, but slowly, over a period of a couple of years, your organization’s talent base will diminish.
And yet, if not offering hybrid work can hurt your company, so, too, can jumping deeper into anywhere work than your company is ready for. While organizations adapted heroically during the involuntary work-from-home period, results were uneven; a study in Harvard Business Review showed that well-run companies saw productivity gains but that poorly run companies saw declines.
The same will be true for hybrid work. Not all companies are ready to seize all the benefits of hybrid work immediately. They operate with different business models, goals, technology stacks, and cultures. Leaders must determine both how ready they are (since no company is perfectly ready), and which areas they must invest in to clear the path to hybrid work. Here is a multi-step process that we recommend to leaders.
These are the basic questions you must ask about your potential readiness: How many employees can engage in anywhere work? What percentage of employees worked remotely pre-pandemic? What percentage of employees could potentially work remotely long-term? What’s the relationship between knowledge and frontline workers? And how will customers be impacted?
Your answers to these questions might change over time. As an example, one enterprise leader told us the company started out thinking 50% of workers would have to return to the office full-time after the pandemic. But because of positive anywhere work experiences, they will only bring back 10%.
Establish goals and their timelines
To gain the benefits of compound interest, you need to align with the goals that will drive value in the first place. You must declare, track, and measure your progress to capture this value. Ask yourself how important each of the following goals is and whether you have metrics in place to measure, track, and understand them over time:
- Your employee’s experience, productivity or performance, and retention
- Your customer’s experience
- The adaptability of workforce
- The ability to recruit the best talent anywhere
- Your business’s level of resilience
- The decreasing commercial real estate costs
Review if your technology is advanced enough
For hybrid work, you need to reach a level of technological maturity around key tools. The fulcrum here is employee experience: Technologies that “solve” employees’ problems but that are slow, hard to use, or don’t work undermine it. Delivering via the cloud, by contrast, solves employee problems while simultaneously making IT leaders happy.
Leaders should focus on several key technologies as part of this stack. Collaboration tools have become crucial during the pandemic and must extend beyond videoconferencing to asynchronous tools like Slack. Investments in conference room technologies must drive hybrid experiences in which at least a few participants are remote. Cloud technologies and software as a service makes it easy for “anywhere workers” to flexibly reach key systems. Security and technology management technologies provide the underpinnings of successful distributed work. And employees must have access to personal technologies like laptops, webcams, and 4G or 5G to equip them for success.
Understand your cultural readiness
To drive a culture that supports hybrid work, you must reinforce key values. Employees must have the self-efficacy to easily adapt to new tools, processes, and values at work. They must also feel happy and proud to work for your company, driving flexibility and high morale.
You should also avert key points of failure. Burnout is a common ailment among remote workers, so having programs in place to find balance will avoid that malady. Programs designed to drive engagement and avoid boredom will also fortify the workforce.
Start a plan and evolve it
The good news is that, while the return to the office seems like a one-time event, it’s more of a rolling experiment. Companies need to collect data on what works for them in their own context and iterate on policies, even as they invest in new technologies and physical renovations. In essence, they should be able to make a plan and adjust aspects of it over time.
This means there’s time to act, especially as companies will be refining their strategies for years to get this right. But we all need to start somewhere when we get back to the office. Well prepared companies can consider giving non-frontline workers the latitude to work anywhere three or more days a week. Less-prepared companies must build a plan to shore up areas of weakness beforehand. Understanding where you stand today is the first step to building a successful long-term strategy.
J. P. Gownder is a vice president and principal analyst on Forrester’s Future of Work team. He leads Forrester’s research into the impact that automation technologies like artificial intelligence, smart software, and robotics have on the future of work, the future of jobs, and the economy. His research also covers the role that anywhere work has on the future of how and where we work.
James McQuivey, PhD is a vice president and principal analyst at Forrester tracking and defining the impact of digital disruption on traditional businesses. His consumer models identify the ways consumers have embraced digital experiences and platforms, and his strategy models help companies prepare to serve those consumers. In February 2013, James published his book Digital Disruption: Unleashing the Next Wave of Innovation.