The pandemic forced a majority of organizations to transform their workplace—many businesses went from always in the office to fully remote, virtually overnight (with the exception of essential services). As vaccination rates increase, employers are thinking about bringing employees back to the office. However, organizations now need to contend with the new demands of their employees—and most employees do not want to be in the office full-time anymore.
So where does this leave employers? A hybrid future of work—a combination of on-site and remote work. It balances the in-person benefits of innovation, brainstorming, and team culture with the convenience of remote work. There are a lot of variations of the hybrid model employers could use, from fully flexible (each individual employee chooses) to company-defined (a centralized model where the employer defines the remote and on-premises days). But each of these extreme models and the variations in between pose risks related to team culture, diversity, work-life balance, and space management.
While many organizations expect to move to a hybrid model, I’m finding that not all executives have defined a vision and plan to execute the change. To figure out the details of the hybrid model, executives need to determine the specifics, such as the level of centralization, the days of the week for remote work, roles that could be fully remote, costs, etc.
The starting point is to determine the range of centralization that works best for the organization. The fully centralized model has chief human resources officers (CHROs) determining the in-person versus remote days. Apple is an example of a centralized model where the CEO, Tim Cook, defined Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday as the in-office days, and Wednesday and Friday as remote. While this might not be a popular position with employees, as those days might not be the most convenient for all, it does provide the opportunity to have all members of the team in person for onboarding new team members, meetings, and customer interactions. This model allows teams to bond, with three days to organize in-person meetings, one-on-ones, performance discussions, etc., and it prevents the risk of isolation with mixed models where remote workers do not feel like they’re a part of the culture. It also reduces the risk of inequity, or privilege, for those who are remote compared to those who are in the office, which often impacts women and employees with disabilities.
The fully decentralized model has each employee selecting their work-from-home schedule. While this option offers the most flexibility for employees, there are risks of a fragmented team culture and the privilege of proximity, where in-person employees are promoted more quickly than remote workers. Organizations are also looking at options in between—Google, for example—where the CEO sets the number of in-person days and some boundaries while each team/department’s manager determines their team’s schedule. While this model still opens up some company-wide risks, the culture, diversity, and fairness in promotions can be better addressed.
Once the type of hybrid model is designed, what does the organization need to have in place to make it successful? I’ve advised executives in organizational transformations for over 15 years and recommend four steps once the hybrid model is defined:
1. Conduct an in-depth review of the roles and activities within the organization to determine whether some can be fully remote and which roles can be successful in a hybrid model. Even in organizations (e.g., consulting firms) where a majority of the work can be done remotely, managers should look at activities that require in-person interactions, such as onboarding new employees, performance-related discussions, and activities requiring innovation and creativity.
2. Train managers to engage with their remote teams differently. This includes training managers on soft skills and empathy, options for virtual team connectivity, the level of documentation and/or explanations required with a virtual team, and experimenting with team norms and ways of working.
3. Articulate the organizational costs and financial benefits. Several organizations have provided employees with an annual benefit (usually a lump sum amount) to configure their work-from-home setup. Many organizations are also finding that they do not need pre-pandemic levels of office space with the hybrid model they’ve chosen and are realizing benefits from updating their lease arrangements.
4. Communicate the hybrid model and timelines to your employees, as there is a lot of uncertainty and stress related to the future of work.
The duration of the pandemic is uncertain, and whether organizations will be ready to deploy hybrid models in the fall of 2021, spring of 2022, or beyond remains uncertain. To ready your organization for the future, defining and communicating the future of work is important. This also allows your teams to build the skills needed in the new hybrid world and experiment with different ways of working. A hybrid model can also be used as an incentive to attract employees in the current, challenging labor market.
Krishna Kutty is Managing Partner & Co-Founder at Kuroshio Consulting, advising clients across North America on strategy, transformations, and leadership.