The pandemic continues to reshape how we work, where we work, and the technologies we use to stay connected to each other. McKinsey predicts nine out of ten organizations will be combining remote and on-site working in the coming years. As hybrid working becomes the permanent way of working, we must ask whether companies are ready for the massive changes this will have on HR processes, leadership practices for engaging a global workforce, and the design of the office of the future.
While many of us have been working in a hybrid model for the past few years, leaders are continuing to ask:
One way to address these questions is to create a framework for communicating the hybrid workplace in your company. The model below details key areas to explore in crafting your vision around building the hybrid workplace.
Let’s examine each of these areas and pose some questions for you and your team to address:
#1 Propose Principles for Flexible Working: Provide Clarity and Autonomy
Hybrid working has gone from a temporary accommodation to a mainstream workplace practice. Pre-pandemic, 20% of U.S. adults whose jobs could mostly or entirely be performed outside of the office worked from home, and that number jumped to 71% during the pandemic, according to Pew Research. One of the first steps companies are taking is to create enterprise principles for flexible working. Royal Bank of Canada has done just this with its set of guidelines for workplace flexibility. These enterprise principles for flexible work demonstrate the importance of providing guidance and autonomy, rather than “top-down policies” in how to be successful working in a hybrid model. These principles are shown on Figure 2.
#2 Re-Invent Work: Where, When, Why, and How We Work
While the pandemic may have eliminated our commute to work, many of us ended up working longer hours and less efficiently, leading to excessive workloads. In fact, Microsoft Teams data shows between February 2020 and February 2021, time spent on Teams meetings more than doubled, and continues to climb, with workers reporting they respond to Teams chats every five minutes.
This hyper-responsiveness is exacerbating our ability to find work life balance, leading to greater stress and employee burnout. The American Institute of Stress reports 83% of American workers suffer from workplace stress, and 52% of American workers surveyed by Indeed are feeling burned out.
Considering the density of our workday, with many back-to-back remote meetings, more companies are starting to ask how we can work differently. This is what Salesforce is doing, with some parts of the organization experimenting with going meeting-free for one week (they did this during the week of June 20-24). This is now called “working asynchronously” at Salesforce. To do this successfully, Salesforce created a preparation guide as well as tips for moving brainstorming meetings to digital channels like Miro, and best practices for focusing on heads-down work for long stretches. Or consider VTT Research Centre of Finland’s future of work experiment with their creation of an ‘offline hour’ when all employees are unreachable via online channels to let everyone focus on work without interruptions. Even before the pandemic, Finland has been a world leader in flexible work and as Kirsi Nuotto, the SVP of Human Resources at VTT says, “we continue to conduct experiments in new ways of working.”
Finally, in addition to re-inventing how we work, we also need to question the role and purpose of the office. Perhaps the on-site office is more akin to the off-site meetings pre-pandemic, a destination for collaboration, creativity, networking, and learning from each other. Leaders need to make returning to the office worth the commute and remember to design the office for both the people in the room and those not in the room!
#3 Provide Equitable Career Development: Unlock Potential For All Employees
Hybrid working is bringing proximity bias into focus. This is the phenomenon of favoring in person workers for career development, stretch assignments, and mentoring at the expense of those who work remotely or in a hybrid work model.
Earlier this year Executive Networks in partnership with MeQuilibrium conducted research among nearly 1,000 HR leaders, business leaders, and full-time workers uncovering the fear remote and hybrid workers have of proximity bias. While 32% of employees prefer a hybrid work environment, 43% view in-person work as the best for career advancement. Perhaps most telling, when we asked business leaders their views on the connection of hybrid working and career advancement, 61% of business leaders say their organization places more value on in-person work than remote or hybrid work, and 56% of employees agree with this.
For hybrid work to be successful, organizations must clearly the principles for success (as Royal Bank of Canada has done) and then be specific as to the guidelines for hybrid working, such as core collaboration hours and also how to engage in non-core hours. Additionally, leaders need to provide opportunities to develop peer connections remotely and assurances that career development will be equitable for all employees— on-site, remote, and hybrid workers.
#4 Model Empathic Leadership: Soft Skills Become Hard Skills
Ten years ago, Google's Project Oxygen started with a fundamental question: do managers matter? The consensus was that not managers do matter, and the best ones are good coaches. These managers inspire trust, provide regular feedback, and build equitable processes for growth and development. Taken together, these skills may typically be referred to as “soft skills,” but have become the “hard skills” of leadership.
In a recent Harvard Business Review article, The C-Suite Skills That Matter Most, the authors analyzed 5,000 job descriptions of C-suite executives and found that the skills that matter most are such soft skills as the ability to listen and communicate well, a facility for working with different types of people and groups, the capacity to be empathic, the ability to infer how others are thinking and feeling, and trust building. These skills are important not only for the CEO, but also for the CIO, CHRO, CMO, CFO, and their teams.
As work norms have been forever changed, developing these soft skills (what I called Power Skills for Jobs of the Future in an article I wrote for the Federal Reserve Bank) are essential to helping all employees feel equally supported in the hybrid workplace.
#5 Conduct On-Going Check-Ins: Focus On Equity
HR processes at most organizations—such as recruiting on-boarding, performance management, and career development—were not designed for the hybrid workplace. So, each one of these processes needs to be examined while considering hybrid working. As hybrid working becomes a permanent way of working, we must examine all the moments in an employee’s journey with us and re-imagine this for the hybrid model. For example, if a job role can be hybrid, is that now clearly described in the job description? And for employees who do work in a hybrid model, can engagement and retention be attributable to flexible working?
If you manage a hybrid team, be aware of creating an equitable employee experience between employees who work primarily on-site vs. hybrid or remote. Does everyone have equal access to stretch assignments? Can both segments of workers equally grow their networks and make peer connections?
As your organization transitions to a new way of working, you’ll need to listen to your employees, understand exactly what they want by conducting frequent employee sentiment surveys, and then clearly communicate how to successfully work in a hybrid model. Let’s remember that conversations about hybrid work are really conversations about inclusion and equal access for all employees regardless of where they work. If you are thinking of the next few months as how to best “return to the office”, you and your company are missing the big picture. Instead, flexibility is now table stakes for most knowledge workers, and if done right, workplace flexibility is the “great differentiator” in attracting and retaining talent.