Our way of working may never entirely be the same. When the workforce went home because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it caused a rippling effect that changed the expectations of employees and therefore the way companies will need to approach their work environments going forward. The resiliency and adaptability that were crucial for companies to operate productively through the pandemic have now created a paradigm shift.

The once-coveted open concept corporate office with game rooms, stocked kitchens, and contemporary stylings will be traded in by some for remote-based roles, flexible work schedules, and a focus on well-being.  Other employees are eager to return to the office as it once again becomes an option. The stage is set for the hybrid model to become a viable solution for many businesses moving forward. How can this flexible arrangement be successful for organizations and what are some caveats to be aware of when incorporating this model into your culture?

Embracing the duality of remote work and being in the office

The road to re-entry is a two-way street. The seeds of enduring change have been sown for some who feel strongly about working from home. The percentage of US employers offering some sort of remote work arrangement increased from 30 percent pre-pandemic to 73 percent during the COVID-19 outbreak.1 According to research from Guardian’s 10th Annual Workplace Benefits Study, “Inflection Point: How COVID-19 is reshaping the employee benefits paradigm,” more than half of employees say that they’d prefer to work remotely at least part of the time going forward.2 Remote work is also tied to a better work-life balance with more employees who work remotely agreeing that they’re “excellent or very good at maintaining work-life balance.”3

On the other hand, a similar percentage of workers look forward to returning to the office. The same Guardian study also found that 42 percent would prefer to work fully on-site, including 56 percent of Baby Boomers and 46 percent of Gen Z workers, illustrating a desire for in-person work that spans across generational gaps.4 This poses a challenge for employers who will need to address the preferences of both those who like to work remotely and those who would like to return to the office.

Embracing the duality of employees’ needs is the first step down the road to re-entry. The hybrid workplace is the compromise that provides a flexible work option, enabling some to continue working remotely, while allowing others to return to the office or alternate between both options. Even if your company is returning to a hybrid model, developing an effective program that meets the needs of your entire workforce will be a balancing act that will most likely deviate from your pre-pandemic status quo.

Finding the right blend of flexibility and consistency

Clarity around the hybrid work model is going to be important for a successful and sustainable implementation. One of the core challenges is that flexibility can come with a lack of structure and too much structure takes away from flexibility. Finding the balance that works for your team is going to be unique to your specific work environment. Deciding on the tasks that are performed while remote versus those in-person will be important as managers plan their team’s work schedules with collaboration and deep work in mind.

The key will be to structure hybrid work so that it’s just as predictable as either all remote or all in-person. This takes coordination to plan schedules for when employees are in the office or working from home and then communicating that plan openly to colleagues. Also determining the tasks that are done while in the office versus at home will help establish clarity around the purpose for each of those work locations.   

Guardian’s CIO and Chief of Operations, Dean Del Vecchio, emphasized the importance of structure from the perspective of both employees and managers during a recent Guardian and ADP webinar, Next Generation Work Tech: Empowering people and boosting productivity. “I think being consistent about the days in the office to plan on the activities and purpose of why people are in the office will provide the most benefit, both from an employee experience as well as the predictability of managing the hybrid environment.”

Many elements will play a role in determining what hybrid work looks like for your organization, such as the needs of each team, the needs of the business, the workers’ location, the available technology, and office arrangements. What works for some companies won’t for others. And that’s okay. There is no one-size-fits-all approach. Listening to internal data from your workers can be the north star for building out a custom program that aligns with everyone’s preferences.

Listening to the preferences of employees

We know that happy workers are more productive.5 Utilize the same strategic approach that’s essential to remaining competitive in your given industry to learn about your employees' hybrid work preferences. There is no better place to look for answers than internally. Polling workers to assess their preferences will be insightful guideposts in developing your hybrid work model.

Perhaps your employees will opt for in-office meetings but time for focused work at home. Maybe remote Mondays and Fridays are preferred by all. Or there could be a desire for split days with mornings spent at home and afternoons in the conference room. You’ll never know until you ask.

Not only can crowdsourcing be effective in understanding what’s truly important for employees but showing that your leadership team actively listens is also remarkably valuable. More than 60 percent of workers say that leaders make decisions without seeking input, which leaves employees feeling disengaged.6 With a program in place that encourages active listening of their concerns, you can boost employee morale and potentially have a positive impact on your retention percentage, which is especially valuable as the job industry enters a period dubbed as “the great resignation.”7

Employees took notice of how their employers handled the pandemic and that will likely hold true for the post-pandemic workplace as well. Among those who say their company handled COVID-19 well, nearly 50 percent would like to stay at their organization for 10+ years compared to just 28 percent of those who say their employer handled it poorly.8 Learning about the preferences of employees will help to avoid introducing any out-of-touch policies that could undermine the advantages that the hybrid work model offers.

Avoiding restrictive policies and isolating communication

There can be pitfalls when it comes to hybrid work that companies should consider. Beware of blanket policies, prescriptive schedules, and unfair space allocations that can quickly stifle the benefits of hybrid working. These can quickly turn something that should be focused on flexibility into a micromanaged mess.                                                                                                                              

Be mindful of your communication when re-introducing the option to work from the office. Messaging that implies workers are more productive when inside company walls will leave a portion of workers feeling isolated. Many employees have committed themselves to countless productive hours working from home throughout the last year and a half while balancing caregiving responsibilities, remote education, health crises, social justice issues, and their mental health. A polarizing position of in-office work versus remote work may create a divide in a workforce that’s been on a level playing field while everyone was together working remotely.

When preparing for the workforce of the future, active listening and an agile mindset will lay the foundations for a productive culture where employees are comfortable working in the ways that best suit their individual needs. Policies developed with flexibility at the forefront will help retain current employees, attract new talent, and establish an environment that’s ready for whatever change is next to come.   

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