As post-pandemic industry research continues to emerge, the data confirms that remote work is here to stay. But are all businesses becoming virtual organizations? Of course not. With a healing, but fragile, economy relying on the resilience of the real estate industry, it is critical that our offices and commercial zones revive. So, with office investments to maintain, but half of at-home employees saying they would prefer to continue working remotely, many employers are looking to physical-virtual hybrid workplaces as the best of both worlds.
With an arsenal of eyebrow-raising statistics, Adam Hickman, Senior Workplace Strategist at Gallup, confirms that the business world is headed in this direction. “What Gallup has uncovered, through years of research, is that remote working can be productive for most employees. Gallup reports that 56% of U.S. employees are working remotely to avoid catching or spreading COVID-19. Further, 61% of U.S. employees are wanting to work from home and have embraced remote work because they prefer it now. All signs point to a growing number of hybrid teams in the future — with some members on-site and some remote — and hybrid workers who flex between working on-site and working remotely. The preference for working remotely accelerated the concept of hybrid teams to an extreme during 2020.”
Physical-virtual hybrid models can have a variety of structures or titles — remote first, workplace flexibility, virtual first, flextime, telework, office-optional, or even work life integration — but no matter what you call it, the acceleration of this trend isn’t losing momentum. It’s already coming to fruition as companies are announcing and engaging their permanent adoption of hybrid operations. Alastair Simpson, VP of Design and leader of the “Virtual First” program at Dropbox, shared his team’s particular change management objectives: “Virtual First is a shift in how we work. It’s not telecommuting from Mars. But it is fundamentally different from in-person and standard remote work or hybrid remote. What does this mean in practice? Virtual First means that remote work will be the primary experience for all Dropboxers. So while our teams will work from home most of the time, we still believe that in-person engagement is critical to preserving human connection and culture.”
While this hybrid model may sound like business leaders can have their cake and eat it too, offering workplace flexibility and implementing virtual first change management doesn’t come without organizational risk. Lance Robbins, an international remote work consultant, shares the insight that “the most common hybrid policy rollout mistakes that I see companies make fall into three categories: messaging, templatizing, or discrimination.”
Robbins explains that the first, “messaging,” is when the company leadership doesn’t inform the workforce about the mutual benefits of the workplace change, leaving many employees to jump to negative conclusions about the real motivation, like using worker’s homes as free real estate.
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The second, “templatizing” refers to the habit of change management teams to browse for remote work best practices online, which leads them to marketing materials designed for product promotion or a tech company’s growth history as a distributed team. Neither of those provide customized change management advice based on the organization’s industry, history, workforce size, growth goals, or company culture, and therefore are irrelevant and misleading.
Finally, discrimination is an unfortunately common mistake in many historical case studies of hybrid teams. When viewed through the lens of post-pandemic workplace planning, it means that the rollout process is taken too lightly or qualification for flexibility is miscalculated. This then leads to a wide gap in workplace accessibility, and, ultimately, discrimination between remote workers and in-office workers, each having a different employee experience than each other. Sooner than later, this can lead to miscommunication, poor workplace productivity, talent attrition, and even lawsuits.
So, if your organization is planning on integrating remote work into your return to office plan, you’ll want to take extra precaution to prioritize equality and location-irrelevancy in your future workplace strategy. Start with these five tips that will help ensure a smooth transition to hybrid team success:
Hybrid Hack #1: Provide Workforce Training
We can’t fulfill expectations that haven’t been set. In virtual-first models, it’s critical to effectively communicate how performance expectations, workflows, reporting structures, or communication schedules may be impacted, and how team members will be required to accommodate. Therefore, invest as much time and attention as possible into equipping your workforce with tools and skills necessary for higher autonomy, and training managers on how to measure performance equally and fairly between workers in a variety of locations and time zones.
Hybrid Hack #2: Outline a Workplace Strategy
If return to office instructions from leadership merely suggest to “come back as needed,” it increases the risk for several problems, including workforce discrimination. For example, higher-earning, unattached professionals will have the funds and flexibility to be in the office for more visibility, while working parents or those with transportation limitations aren’t able to join the team. Or, because workers have been starved of team bonding for the past year, they may just go into the office on days they feel lonely, which will sabotage workplace productivity. Instead, Robbins suggests designing a workplace selection guide that outlines which type of work environment should be used for certain types of tasks, and making sure that all team members are equally accountable for being on-site or off-site at the designated times.
Hybrid Hack #3: Equalize Employee Experience Even though some professionals are going “back to the office,” they can’t go “back to business as usual” if half of their teammates won’t be on-site. Hickman warns that “the manager holds up to 70% variance in team engagement.” So, if any managers revert back to habits of monitoring productivity based on presence, developing trust in relationships during shared time, or giving preference to team members according to visibility and recency, the company will be a hotbed of imbalance and discrimination. Instead, focus on equalizing employee experience by updating information accessibility, colleague visibility, and employment benefits to be mutually beneficial for both on-site and off-site workers.
Hybrid Hack #4: Make Information Accessible
When working in an office, there are many opportunities to learn critical information about your team and hear updates just through observation. You may pass the memo on the bulletin board several times on your way to and from the break room, or hear several different team members having hallway conversations about an upcoming announcement. But when working remotely, there isn’t a “buzz” in the office. Instead, leadership will need to create clear and consistent communication channels to effectively convey change management information, such as FAQs, policy terms, or training resource links. Handbooks or dedicated digital pages like Dropbox’s Virtual First Toolkit are a great example.
Hybrid Hack #5: Mutually Agree to Terms and Expectations
Not only do we need to define a new normal as organizations, but each individual is personally going through the same process. So, performance expectations that used to be enforced pre-pandemic may no longer work for your staff members. To prevent surprises and complaints, give your workforce a voice via focus groups or surveys to aid in the creation and enforcement of your remote work policy terms. Then, offer an extensive training and onboarding program to clarify and confirm requirements of participation. For example, Simpson shares the process roadmap at Dropbox, “We are providing guidance to managers and employees so they can autonomously assess their own behaviors and actions and ensure they are aligning to where we want to go. Ultimately, this is a behavior change and we are wanting to shift the mindset around how work gets done, undoing over 100 years of what has become as ingrained and ‘normal.’ That behavior change will only be possible if we carefully balance allowing autonomy and bottom up feedback, alongside some high-level top down guidance.”
With the implementation of these five tips, your team is more likely to see success in building a foundation as a hybrid team. But remember, remote work is not one size fits all. As you design and activate your plans, consider not only the organizational impact, but the individual impact as well.
“Leaders and managers have an obligation each today to not only get the work done, but get the people done through the work as well. This means the fundamental aspect of leading people and process is how you individualize,” Hickman advises. “As your employees begin to return to work – hold conversations as you would if you were onboarding. Collaborate on how work gets done in this new normal, how connections are made, and what quality work equates to in this new environment. The purpose of the organization hasn’t changed, but how work gets done has changed. Make sure each employee knows and lives that purpose.”
So, while organizations around the globe rush to return to their workplaces, perhaps there is an even more exciting opportunity to not just revive the humans of the workplace, but humanity, if leaders construct a new business world based on flexibility that transcends the cubicle.