To return to the office, or not? Is hybrid work the answer?
There is a lot of continued hand-wringing and predictable disagreement over the variety of post-COVID return-to-work policies that are being discussed in the media these days, even as the World Health Organization (WHO) just announced that the Covid global health emergency is over. While the crisis has passed, a new one related to has cropped up for employers of all sizes and shapes. The rise of hybrid work has raised controversy between employers and their employees.
As leaders insist on hybrid work models that bring a set number of days in the office, corporations like Amazon, Starbucks, Disney, and others have faced massive employee push-back. Employees cite both perceived issues with increased productivity and work-life balance and real issues with daycare arrangements, commuting time and costs, balancing schedules with spouses and partners, etc. The pushback is against the perception of “old-school” standards that managers find employee time in the office as critical to enhanced productivity, teamwork, the achievement of goals, and quality output.
But what is interesting is that some organizations and industries have been dealing with this set of circumstances for years, where employees are either working outside of a central office for the bulk of their workweek (large consulting and accounting firms) or working with peers who are stretched across large geographic swaths (multi-national companies). Such organizations have faced the same challenges with varying levels of success – how to keep an eye on people’s contributions, progress, and goal achievement, how to maintain culture and employee engagement/connection to the larger organization, and how to assure equal access to development and career progressions.
Research shows overwhelmingly that workers prefer the work-from-home option – so what to do?
It continues to be available
A hybrid work model mixes in-office and remote work to offer flexibility, and some relief from some of the negative aspects of working in central offices – commuting, avoidance of distractions (in now-standard workspaces), etc. In a hybrid workplace, employees can spend their days at home theoretically working without the distractions of coworkers chatting, manager drop-bys, the need to go out for lunch, etc. Working outside the traditional office allows employees to exercise greater autonomy and more control over their personal schedules, with regular breaks and time to attend to errands or appointments with less guilt.
The Pew Research Center reports that 41% of workers with jobs that can be done from home are now working a hybrid schedule, an increase of 6% from last year. Other research shows almost six in 10 remote-capable employees are working three or more days a week. Furthermore, Kastle Systems reports that weekly average office occupancy rates this year at just below 50%, which is half the levels before Covid-19. This is consistent with the reporting from commercial real estate companies on occupancy rates. This is one issue that companies are grappling with – the costs of maintaining office space that is often negotiated years in advance and with long-term leases.
The value of flexible work locations
Offering flexibility in work location brings numerous benefits to both the employee and the organization that should be considered today. The advantages of allowing flexible work locations include:
1. Increased employee productivity: Allowing employees to work from locations that are more conducive to their personal preferences and circumstances can lead to increased productivity. When employees are able to work from home, for example, they can avoid the distractions of a busy office environment and focus on their work without interruption.
2. Improved work-life balance: Flexible work arrangements can provide employees with greater control over their schedules, allowing them to better balance their work and personal commitments. This can lead to reduced stress and improved job satisfaction, which can in turn lead to greater productivity and employee retention.
3. Cost savings: Allowing employees to work from home can reduce company costs associated with maintaining separate/individualized physical office spaces, such as those associated with rent, utilities, and office supplies. Lower expenses are also realizable, such as those associated with employee benefits for supplemental employee commuting and parking cost reimbursements, free in-office meals, and regular petty cash expenses for birthday parties, etc.
4. Reduced employee costs: costs associated with commuting, such as transportation and parking expenses, vehicle maintenance and repair, purchasing of business-appropriate wardrobes, meals away from home, etc.
5. Access to a wider pool of talent: When employees are not required to work in a specific location, employers can expand their search for talent beyond their local area. This can enable them to find the best candidates for the job, regardless of where they are located.
6. Reduced carbon footprint: Allowing employees to work from home can reduce the carbon footprint of an organization by reducing the need for employees to commute to and from work each day. This can have a positive impact on the environment and demonstrate a commitment to sustainability.
7. Increased retention: Research from the ADP Research Institute (ADP Research Institute® Reveals Pandemic-Sparked Shift in Workers' Priorities and Expectations in New Global Study - Apr 25, 2022 - among many others) reported that 64% of global workers surveyed indicated that they have already, or would consider, looking for a new job if their employer wanted them back in the office full-time.
Overall, allowing flexible work locations can benefit both employees and employers by improving productivity, work-life balance, cost savings, talent acquisition, and environmental sustainability.
But the employees are not always correct
While there are many advantages to allowing flexibility in work locations, there are also some potential disadvantages to consider. These include:
1. Reduced collaboration and communication: When employees are not working in the same physical location, it can be more challenging to collaborate and communicate effectively. This can lead to a lack of cohesion and teamwork, which can negatively impact productivity and quality of work.
2. Difficulty in monitoring performance: Employers may find it more difficult to monitor the performance of employees who are working remotely. This can make it harder to provide feedback and support and can also make it more challenging to identify issues or areas for improvement.
3. Risk of isolation and burnout: Employees who work remotely may experience feelings of isolation and disconnection from their colleagues and organization. This can lead to decreased job satisfaction, motivation, and a higher risk of burnout.
4. Need for appropriate technology and infrastructure: Flexible work arrangements require appropriate technology and infrastructure to support remote work in home or remote offices, such as high-speed internet, reliable communication tools, and secure data access. This can be costly to implement and maintain.
5. Potential for work-life imbalance: While flexible work arrangements can improve work-life balance for some employees, they can also make it difficult for others to separate work and personal life. This can lead to longer working hours, decreased quality of life, and an increased risk of burnout.
6. Not all jobs are suited to remote work: The Pew Research Center estimates that 60% of workers do not have jobs that can be done remotely.
Indeed, as some high-profile CEOs state, joint time in the office builds and maintains culture, collaboration, and innovation. Research from MIT supports the notion that remote work may stifle innovation. The report found that during the COVID lockdown, email communications between workers who did not share common colleagues (think of those not in their direct, daily work sphere) decreased by 38%. Those kinds of connections (“weak ties”) tend to underlie the cross-functional and departmental exchange of new ideas that foster innovation.
So how to balance employee preferences with corporate preferences?
Fundamentally, the “cat is out of the bag”, and that needs to be considered first and foremost. The pandemic opened the doors to work outside of corporate locations, and employees jumped head-first into setting up home workspaces (in fact, many took advantage of low-interest rates to move into larger, more suitably laid out homes). They spent the better part of three years enjoying the freedom and benefits of “commuting” to their home offices, wearing a nice shirt with sweatpants, regularly eating leftovers from last night’s dinner, and finding it easier to work with fewer interruptions.
With technologies optimized to enable live, synchronous meetings, collaboration platforms that enable document sharing and teamwork, and remote and shared project management software, the tools that enable traditional teamwork to be conducted remotely are in place (and getting better).
The idea is to find a happy medium that supports quality leadership of work efforts and outputs, individual accountability, culture building and maintenance, corporate capability growth, and employee contribution and development. Key ideas for building a sustainable and successful model include:
1. Flexibility has a more nuanced and integrated definition.
Gartner reports that it is a mix of hybrid models – one that allows for flexibility in work location and times/days in which they come to a corporate location are the key to success. With this, the employee experiences much greater autonomy and discretion over where and when the work is performed. In fact, employees who are allowed to decide when they work are 2.3 times more likely to achieve higher performance than employees without that autonomy. Keep in mind, however, that many employees' work cannot be conducted away from the worksite – think manufacturing, retail, hospitality, healthcare, construction, food service, and related industries. Thus it is not a panacea available to all employees.
2. Be deliberate about how work gets done.
Job design is a crucial element in enabling hybrid work. Clarify what elements of each job require interaction with others, and what can be done individually. And when interactive work is called for, go to the lengths required to understand which of those collaborative activities are best accomplished synchronously (together, either virtually or in person) and asynchronously (on their own, in sequential steps without direct interaction).
For example, the initial (asynchronous) design of a manufacturing process can be prepared by a mid-level expert, with sequential and subsequent comments and updates provided by others. After a design has been developed, a (synchronous) meeting can be held with the experts and a lead engineer and/or manager to review, refine, and complete the design.
3. Set clear guidelines for remote work.
Many companies have or are creating work-from-home or hybrid work policies, but the need for these cannot be more critical to the effective management of employees working from noncorporate locations and schedules. Decisions should be made regarding which jobs can be done remotely, which cannot, and which employees are eligible for home working. These decisions should be made by leaders in conjunction with HR and line managers, with the aforementioned job design activity complete and available for review.
Decisions regarding the number or schedule of days when employees must be in the office should be included and communicated. Based upon several factors, such as depth of understanding of the work that needs to be accomplished, the extent to which there is a need for synchronicity of work, and relative experience levels of employees involves, schedules may well be best set at a team or departmental level. With this, rather than at a company-wide level, teams can better determine their own needs and standards.
4. Update, track, and reinforce managerial tactics and behavior.
The connection between managers and their employees is a crucial element that can be lost in the move to/use of hybrid work locations and schedules. Keep in mind that managerial time with each employee is more critical than ever. Research from Gallup suggests that employees are spending less time with managers while working at home, so the need to increase the regularity and structure of such contact is paramount to success.
As mentioned earlier, there appear to be losses in employee connections inside and outside of the team/function for building networks, impacting ideas sharing and innovation. Managers should be encouraging and even structuring opportunities for their employees to spend time with teammates and network with colleagues from different teams. They should be deliberate about offering cross-functional and departmental work, such as the creation of solution teams to work together strategically on issues or problems that create space for increased interactions.
Managers should be trained and reminded to focus on work outcomes more than activity. Giving employees space to determine where and when work is accomplished (aligned of course with due dates and outcome standards) is key to this updated managerial behavior set. At the same time, they should focus on how to trust their employees while maintaining the ability to verify that needed work is being accomplished.
Finally, increased communications are a must. Managers should be held accountable for regularly updating their teams on key initiative progress and goals. And regular employee check-ins (weekly, whether remotely or face to face) are an essential element of staying up on employee work progress, issues and challenges that require support, and their general well-being.
5. Structure and support hybrid meetings properly.
Keeping in mind that some meetings will necessarily be conducted with mixed onsite and remote employees, take measures to ensure that those are run as optimally as possible. Remember to regularly observe who is and who is not contributing or commenting on these calls. Pay particular attention to the participation levels of both remote or more introverted employees. Set the stage and expectations for more regular input by letting team members know up front that their reactions, opinions, and input will be solicited if not offered during meetings. Another way to implement this is to provide structured opportunities for smaller team discussions (breakout groups) and ask those teams for their input once the larger group has been reconvened.
The previously mentioned MIT research suggests that managers intentionally pause mixed remote/onsite meetings for feedback and chatter as would normally occur during breaks. The use of break-out groups in Zoom, Slack, or other collaboration tools should provide the ability to do this.
6. Fully utilize tools/technology from collaborative contribution platforms.
Train team members in the use of all features and functions of available technology platforms (think Slack, Zoom, Trello, Yammer, Google Workspace, MS SharePoint, etc.) to maximize team engagement on such calls or asynchronous contributions, with voting, thumbs-up/down, requirements for daily commentary by each team member, etc.
In addition, develop guidelines about meeting times such as how much/often each person is expected to participate, and having everyone individually logged on to video calls regardless of location, etc. Assign a note taker for each call and post those within 30-60 minutes after the call so that no one is left without a full understanding of what was decided or covered.
7. Leverage in-office days and experiences.
A recent article in Fortune magazine reported on Cisco’s decision to make offices more appealing places to visit and work by minimizing individual workspaces and maximizing collaboration spaces. The key, according to the CEO is to create a place that employees are drawn to. But it is also critical to structure opportunities to collaborate, relate, and expand networks when people are together in the shared space. Create a regular day for employees to gather in the common office and create cross-functional teamwork and learning events (business problem solving, manager development, coding/hackathons, customer feedback, etc.) where colleagues cross-functional lines to learn and contribute to resolving challenges together.
In addition, as normal socializing and building friendships/relationships can be difficult in a distributed workforce, it is important to replace what is lost with varying schedules and workplaces by making the time spent together more meaningful. Days in the office should be focused not upon individual work, but rather upon team building, all-hands sessions, manager-employee coaching and guidance, fun socializing events around lunchtime, wellness events to start the day, etc.
8. Constantly listen to employees to adjust the experience.
It is critical to measure the extent to which different tactics and programs are supportive of efforts to generate positive employee reactions and outcomes. Leveraging methodologies such as pulse surveys to garner insights into employee reactions to the kinds of arrangements and events described above, for example, are a key element of getting employee input and feedback. Larger, more formal surveying and measurement processes such as focus groups, engagement surveys, tracking of key performance indicators such as turnover or, and executive skip-level sessions can be leveraged throughout the year to assess improvements in the employee experience and desired outcomes.
Bringing it all together
Giving employees and teams autonomy over how, when, and where they work is a key to managing a whole host of positive organizational outcomes. Gartner’s research indicates that employees who are allowed to decide when they work are 2.3 times more likely to stay with the company than employees without such autonomy. Giving those who can conduct their work outside of the traditional workplace the freedom to schedule their own time and place of work, while maintaining a certain level of due diligence over the need for synchronous work and output of their efforts creates a win-win situation.
One key is to work to provide equity in the treatment and opportunities provided to all employees. Care should be taken to make sure that managers are spending sufficient and similar time and effort with remote workers as they are with those on-site to avoid any charges of favoritism. Access to development programs and encouragement to participate in those should also be provided on an equal basis to make sure that remote employees’ career arcs are given the same opportunity to develop as those working on-site.
Provide line managers with the structures, guidelines, and tools necessary to make decisions related to remote work arrangements but do so with measures and feedback loops in place to make sure those decisions (and the subsequent coaching and management behaviors) continue to meet reasonable standards. Managerial training, access to guidance from experienced HR professionals, and active oversight from more senior leaders are essential elements of successfully creating an environment that not only supports remote/hybrid work but enables it to flourish as both a business and talent management strategy.
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