As U.S.-based companies look to transition employees back to the workplace after widespread vaccinations against COVID-19, one of the most common trends we’ve seen emerge is the shift to hybrid work.
During a state of mandatory remote work followed by an ongoing period of working-from-home, many workers experienced significant drawbacks like remote work fatigue and feelings of isolation. Specific groups of employees, such as younger employees and women, were particularly affected by the shift.
Today, employees are transitioning back to the office to connect with colleagues, improve work-life balance, and help reinstate company culture. However, many employees want to continue to benefit from the flexibility of working remotely some portion of the time. Data from Future Forum shows that 63% of employees want a mixture of in-person and remote work, while 17% want to return to the office full-time. Companies are responding to this data by shifting to hybrid workplace models, with major organizations such as Uber, Ford, IBM, and Slack taking the lead. Keep reading to learn more about how to structure hybrid work models, what to consider before moving to this framework, and how to optimize your real estate strategy so it’s hybrid work-friendly.
What is hybrid work?
Put simply, hybrid work is a structure in which a company’s employees are able to work both remotely and in the office. Hybrid work is ideal for businesses whose employees don’t need to be on-site full-time to get most of their work done, and who want to provide flexibility to their staff while also leveraging the benefits of in-person work. A fully remote workforce can pose problems related to isolation, fatigue, retention, culture, and work-life balance, while requiring employees to be on-site 5 days a week without room for flexibility can be detrimental to employee productivity and wellness. Hybridizing the two helps to mitigate the negative business and individual effects of excessive remote work while giving employees room to choose how they work best.
Types of hybrid work models
Hybrid work can take a number of different forms. These are the three most common variations of the hybrid workplace model:
- Office-first: With this model, the office is considered to be the main place where work gets done. Remote work is allowed and employees are empowered to take it as needed, but it’s not the standard. Leadership typically works in the office in this case. Some remote talent may still be recruited in this model.
- Office-occasional: With the office-occasional format, employees are either encouraged or required to come into the office a few days a week. Those days could be days of their choosing, or they could be specific, mandated days (for example, employees must work from the office on Mondays and Wednesdays). Because of this expectation, most employees will live locally, but will divide their time between home and the office.
- Remote-first: In the remote-first model, businesses will keep their office spaces but not expect employees to work from it; rather, it’s provided as a resource should employees wish to come into the office to work, take meetings, or get to know colleagues. Most notably, Dropbox and Quora have shifted to the remote-first orientation.
The appropriate hybrid work format for your organization will largely depend on your business model, on the preferences of leadership, and on your technological infrastructure.
Things to consider when moving to a hybrid work model
Ensure a seamless experience between on-site and remote workers
The nature of distributed work means that not all employees will necessarily be in the office at once, depending on the way you outline your business’s hybrid work framework. If this is the case, think about how you can optimize the work environment so that there are no communication issues between remote and on-site employees. There are a few ways to improve connectivity among distributed employees:
- Upgrade your video conferencing infrastructure to ensure that remote employees feel like they are as much a part of meetings as employees sitting together on-site. Make sure that all meeting rooms are properly outfitted with the necessary video conferencing equipment.
- For any given meeting, assume that at least one person will not be in the office for it. Make sure that all meetings have a video conferencing link so there’s no last-minute scrambling to include any remote employees.
- Think about what tools are needed to keep meetings running smoothly and to make sure everyone is able to understand the information being presented. This could be virtual whiteboarding tools, project management dashboards, or business intelligence charts — whatever is needed to make sure that information gets properly communicated to all present parties.
Prioritize rebuilding the culture and connectedness that has been lost during full-time remote work
The more we work from home, the more we struggle to retain a sense of connectedness with colleagues, and the more we lose touch with company values and culture. In the first few months of returning to work, prioritize fostering the relationships and trust that are crucial to success. Make sure to integrate employees who came on board during the pandemic and who are consequently missing the workplace relationships that longer-term employees have been able to develop.
Focus on equity
Just like we need to keep both on-site and remote workers feeling connected, we also need to make sure that they all benefit from the same opportunities. In-office employees naturally get more facetime which can lead to them being perceived as more engaged, more committed, and harder-working, even though their remote counterparts may be working equally hard. The approach to combatting any potential bias and inequity is two-fold:
- Clearly define expectations. Make sure that expectations around performance are clearly communicated with respect to your company’s hybrid work policy. Have a discussion with them around what the ideal blend of hybrid and remote work looks like for success in their roles.
- Implement standardized processes for all employees, irrespective of where they work. Whether an employee is primarily on-site or primarily remote, they should be given the tools to succeed. Develop remote-friendly processes activities such as recruiting, onboarding, meetings, and IT support, and evaluate them to make sure they are equitable. Additionally, make sure managers are trained to mitigate unconscious bias and to evaluate performance based on guidelines instead of implicitly favoring employees based on their in-person visibility.
Define the process that’s best for your business
Work flexibility doesn’t necessarily mean that employees are free to work from wherever, whenever. Hybrid work should be something that works for both your employees and your company.
You’ll need to think through role-specific criteria, company-specific criteria, and employee circumstances to come up with a structure that’s right for your organization. Once you settle on the best mix of hybrid and remote work for your company, share guidelines with the team around who should come in, when they should come in, and how often.
How to optimize your real estate strategy for hybrid work
- Optimize your technological infrastructure. As mentioned above, some technological implementations may be needed to bridge the gap between the digital and physical realms. Your workspace may require specific upgrades to ensure seamless connectivity between distributed employees, such as video conferencing technology with adequate speakers. Additionally, consider implementing health and safety tools such as check-in technology and IoT sensors to alert space managers when a zone is overly occupied.
- Analyze and reconfigure your space. The necessary shift to remote working has changed the way employees envision the office. In order to best meet the needs of your on-site workers, you’ll need to understand how your space is being used going forward. In general, employees now crave collaboration and serendipitous encounters that breed innovation, connectedness, and creative thinking. Configure your space to accommodate those needs. For example, you may find that fewer employees are using dedicated desks, instead opting to work together in meeting areas when they’re at the office.
- Think through what kind of office space is best for your employees. With so much change in the past year, going back to your old office and resuming day-to-day operations in a pre-pandemic fashion may not be the right solution. For example, if you have a centralized, downtown HQ but your employees are distributed across the country, you may instead want to invest in a set of coworking spaces wherever clusters of your employees are located.
- Embrace uncertainty. As you navigate the ins and outs of a hybrid work model, it’s important to stay flexible. Be prepared to iterate as situations shift and evolve — along the way, you’ll find the balance that works best for your organization. In order to get helpful feedback, empower your employees to communicate what’s working for them and what’s not.
By staying agile, continuously examining what’s working and what’s not, and keeping in mind the considerations outlined above, you can successfully find a hybrid work framework that works for your team.