In this segment of “Office Optional with Larry English,” Larry shares how to figure out the complexities of hybrid work.
Hybrid work is emerging as a winner for workers and organizations alike.
There’s just one problem: Hybrid work is most definitely a “messy middle,” forcing companies to navigate numerous complexities in an attempt to find an arrangement that works for everyone.
Why go through the hassle? A recent Stanford study by economist Nick Bloom found that most employees prefer hybrid work, valuing flexibility as much as an eight percent increase in pay. Their top reasons for wanting some office time include socializing, collaboration and better boundaries around work.
Organizations that go hybrid see benefits too, including lower attrition and increased productivity compared to fully remote or fully in-office setups.
The Many Complexities of Hybrid Work
Unlike fully remote or fully in-person work, hybrid organizations have a lot of gray areas to navigate.
How often will employees be on site? How will that be enforced? Will there be a strict delineation between what work is completed at home and what’s saved for the office? How will a hybrid setup impact the design and size of the office space? These are only a few of the questions leaders are grappling with as they try to figure out hybrid work.
“It’s impossible to say one size fits all in this world of hybrid work, especially for an industry like ours that has a large and diverse workforce,” says Jadine Riley, executive director of workforce strategy at Providence, a national not-for-profit healthcare system. “For us, the needs are very different based on which part of our system you’re looking at. For some caregivers (employees), virtual work isn’t possible, while for others, it makes a whole lot of sense. It’s been essential to provide clarity around our flexible work model so people understand the guardrails and intention behind our hybrid philosophy.”
Tips For Navigating the “Messy Middle” of Hybrid Work
Although there’s no one-size-fits-all for hybrid work, common themes emerge when talking to leaders about how their organizations are figuring out the puzzle. These include:
Communicate clear guidelines.
Hybrid work demands clarity around how often, when and why you need employees in the office. Even if your organization isn’t mandating a strict number of days in the office, employees need to understand the intent behind the organization’s hybrid policies and flexible work arrangements so they can operate confidently within those guardrails.
This is especially true for large organizations like Providence, where some teams have a greater ability to work remotely than others and discretion is often left up to team managers.
“We want to make sure our remote work policies feel consistent and that decisions made by each leader are transparent,” Riley says. “A lot of it is driven by the nature of work. However, when leaders are assessing suitable work settings for their teams, it is important for them to consider implementing solutions that further our commitment to human connection while providing the flexibility our caregivers need to maintain balance in life.”
Team norms are also important. It can be helpful for teams to understand when they should aim to be available, how quickly they’re expected to respond to messages, and so forth. The goal isn’t to shackle employees with rules but rather to give them some guidelines to operate within while they take advantage of flexible work.
Train leaders in new ways of measuring productivity.
In the era of remote and hybrid work, visibility can no longer be a hallmark of productivity. Leaders need to understand how to set actionable benchmarks for employees and measure success based on outcomes, not hours worked or how often employees appear to be online.
The Adobe 2023 State of Work Report underscores the importance of setting goals to empower flexibility. “New operational cultures need to embody ‘aligned agility’ – providing maximum flexibility around the ‘how’ of work, with tight consensus on the ‘what’ and ‘why,’” the report notes. “Employees need to be empowered to determine the ways they work best and to shape how they deliver against their goals.”
Make office time valuable.
No one wants to commute to an office only to sit on Zoom calls all day – that’s a sure recipe for brewing resentment among employees. Instead, design office days to capitalize on relationship-building, collaboration and other elements of work that are harder to replicate virtually.
“For our employees who can work virtually, we make sure there’s a good purpose behind when they do come together in person,” Riley says. “For example, that purpose may be about deep collaborative problem solving or creating some of those natural ways for people to interact and make new connections.”
The big takeaway for Providence, Riley adds, has been how important in-person time can be. “Our leaders have been sensing a need to bring people together more frequently and continue having the right kinds of meaningful connection,” she says. “We put a lot of effort into helping people understand how to connect with each other virtually. And yet there’s a unique form of interaction that happens when you have some in-person time that’s hard to recreate with technology.”
Align office design with how you’re using the space.
If employees are saving deep-thinking work for remote workdays and coming into the office largely for socializing and collaboration purposes, then cubicles and private offices no longer make sense.
Organizations need to align their office design with how that space is being used in a hybrid world. “During Covid, we quickly realized that going back to widespread cubes wasn’t going to be the right answer,” Riley says. “We’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the purpose of bringing people together and how we can create spaces to support that purpose. We’ll need to continue evolving as we learn.”
Why It’s Worth Cracking the Code of Hybrid Work
Some experts say hybrid will win the ongoing “remote work” wars. Earlier this year, Bloom predicted that in the future, half of all jobs will be hybrid.
Why? For all its complexities, hybrid work offers valuable benefits. Employees experience a balance of remote work’s flexibility with the easier relationship-building and collaboration of face-to-face time. Organizations get more productive, engaged employees and see more success in recruiting and retaining talent.
“We’re going to need to continue to evolve and change,” Riley says. “For us, that starts with listening to our caregivers. What’s important to them? What’s working? What’s not working? Do they feel they’re getting the human connection they need? Are we getting the outcomes we need?”