Remote-first, office-first, part time remote and in-office. There are so many terms for what the return to offices will look like. Whatever your organization chooses to go with, it will most likely combine some amount of remote and in-person work aka hybrid work.
Here’s what we’ll cover:
- The different models of hybrid work
- Pros and cons of hybrid work
- And the steps you can take today to support a hybrid workforce
So, what is hybrid work?
Put most simply, a hybrid work model offers flexibility in when and where employees work. It’s significant that flexibility is allowed for both where and when people work, because employees are looking for that. Workers are showing a strong interest in continued remote work to some extent. According to a recent study from Slack, based on knowledge workers across five countries, employees are still more satisfied with remote work than office-based work. In fact, 83% of respondents do not want to return to five days a week in the office.
However, not all hybrid work is built the same. There are many variations, so it can be helpful to think of it on a spectrum, with remote-first on one end and office-first on the other. Here are some of the typical options:
Remote-first, office optional
The company operates like a fully remote organization, meaning the workforce can be distributed across time zones and the majority of communication occurs virtually. Although remote work is the default, many organizations with this model are opting to keep their offices for occasional in-person collaboration. These organizations are usually widely distributed across locations and time-zones.
Part time remote, part time office
The company keeps their offices like the above model, but they require employees to come in for a part of the week. This can look like a flexible requirement i.e. employees can choose how many days they come in or a set requirement i.e. employees are required to come in a certain number of days a week. This can also be based on role type. Certain teams may decide to come into the office on specific days and work remotely for the other part of the week.
Office-first, remote optional
The company identifies the office as the primary place for work. Remote work is allowed, but it’s not as flexible as the above models, and the workforce is less likely to be widely distributed. This model is the closest to what we had prior to the pandemic, and companies who have a large portion of their workforce that needs to function in-person may opt for this model.
Hybrid is a new beast
No matter what your organization chooses to do, your hybrid work model shouldn’t just be a quick fix to account for current conditions. Assume that organizations will have to incorporate some level of remote work for the long-term. Although hybrid work might seem simple – you just mix remote and in-person work and you get hybrid...right? – there’s actually much to consider.
The unique aspect of hybrid work is that employees have the autonomy to decide when, where, and how they want to work. The above models afford different levels of this flexibility, so whatever you choose, focus on intentionality and sustainability so that both remote and in-person workers feel engaged and supported.
Benefits of hybrid work
The past year has revealed the benefits of working from home, and many employees are not ready to work in-office all the time just yet. In fact, 47% of employees would look for a new job if their employer didn’t offer flexible work opportunities. Hybrid work holds many of remote working’s benefits with some added emphasis on autonomy and flexibility.
The main benefits include:
- Increased autonomy
- Greater employee engagement
- Better productivity
As mentioned, what seems to be the greatest benefit of hybrid working is the level of autonomy and flexibility. Employees are able to have greater control over where, when, and how they work. It encourages a better work-life balance, and empowers employees to fit work around their lives rather than the other way around. And flexibility is the key reason employees are attracted to the hybrid work model. Employees with a flexible schedule report lower levels of stress and anxiety and greater satisfaction with their working arrangement and productivity.
Greater employee engagement
At the beginning of the pandemic, there was a concern that employees would be less engaged when working remotely, however, we’ve disproved this over the past year. In fact, remote workers are just as, if not more, engaged. A Gallup study found that optimal employee engagement occurs when workers spend 60-80% of their time (or three-four days a week) working remotely. Even more significantly, engagement increases when employees split their time working remotely and in-office. The mix of solo work (that comes with remote work) and collaboration (that comes with in-person work) has a tangible impact on employee engagement, and subsequently employee happiness.
In a literal sense, hybrid work cuts down on stressors like commutes and finances spent, and allows for more time spent on work. A more indirect impact is that hybrid work can mitigate presenteeism. Peakon’s CPO, RIck Kershaw puts it well: “It’s clear that many employees still see the need for having the office as a ‘hub’ that keeps us connected through work, but a lot of the need to be in the office is centered around presenteeism – the ability for people to see that you’re busy. A hybrid workplace could eliminate those stereotypes and instead focus more on output, delivery, and value.”
Potential pitfalls of hybrid work
With remote work we saw many opportunities but an equal amount of challenges. It’s the same for hybrid work. There are some pitfalls to avoid, so that your hybrid work model doesn’t become the worst of both worlds.
The main cons include:
- Greater difficulty making connections
- The creation of in-groups and out-groups
- An inconsistent employee experience
Greater difficulty making connections
As a remote worker, it’s already difficult creating connections. The tendency is that you only speak to the four-five people that you see on video calls every day. Hybrid work only complicates things. Coworkers can have widely different remote to office schedules, and if you’re mainly an in-office worker, you may have trouble connecting with remote workers, and vice versa. [Related article: How to Encourage Internal Networking and Empower Employees in Your Remote Workforce]
The creation of in-groups and out-groups
Organizations may unconsciously give preference to in-office workers, just because they’re more visible. Like the saying goes – out of sight, out of mind. Remote workers can easily feel like an afterthought. This not only affects employees’ sense of belonging, but it can also manifest in inequitable career advancement. Because in-office workers are more visible, they are more likely to receive career opportunities and even promotions/raises.
A Gartner survey found that 64% of managers are more likely to give office-based workers a higher raise than remote workers because they believe that the former are higher performers, which is not the case. Especially if all of leadership is based in-office, organizations can unwittingly disincentivize remote work, and reward those who work from the office.
An inconsistent employee experience
The last and perhaps most significant pitfall is that hybrid working can lead to an inconsistent employee experience. Factors such as communication, meetings, social events, and more can vary widely depending on if employees are in-office or remote. And again, remote workers can be at a natural disadvantage. For example, organic, unscheduled conversations can happen naturally in the office, but that leaves remote workers out of the discussion. As such, it’s important to create standard guidelines so that workers are getting a consistent experience, no matter where they’re based.
How to support your hybrid workforce
Despite these potential hurdles, there are some steps that you can take today to support your hybrid workforce (not in sequential order).
Step 1 - Put employee health first
It might be stating the obvious, but what distinguishes supporting a hybrid workforce now is that we’re in the midst of a pandemic. So, employee health needs to be the first priority. This CMSWire article puts it well: “From a people perspective, as offices open again, human resources and business leaders must also open their minds to new strategies that work to ensure that employees not only remain engaged and productive, but also feel safe in all ways – both from a physical and psychological standpoint.”
Step 2 - Listen to your employees
You won’t know how to design the right hybrid model for your organization until you talk to your employees. Survey your employees to find out what their needs are. What are their concerns about going back to the office? What is their ideal balance of remote to in-office work? And how would they like to be supported when working remotely long-term?
For example, we’ve assumed that employees who work remotely will work from home. Organizations have supported workers by providing stipends for home office furniture and the like, however, in the long-term employees may look for work from not home (WFNH) solutions e.g. coworking spaces, a small office outside of the home, etc. Find out what your employees are looking for long-term and remember that not everyone has an ideal home environment or remote location to work, so organizations may want to consider subsidizing WFNH options.
Step 3 - Consider who can be remote
Not all teams are suitable for remote work. Whether you have front-line workers or teams that just work better in-person, evaluate who needs to be in the office more frequently. Check out this guide from Lever to understand how to support remote work by role. Additionally, consider leadership’s place. As mentioned above, if all of leadership is based in-office, that could lead to inequalities and the impression that in-office work is preferred or even rewarded. Be intentional about how leadership chooses to work in-office and remotely, and make sure to equip managers with the ability to mitigate potential bias against remote employees.
Step 4 - Establish culture norms
Even if only some of your workforce is going back to the office, or you’re implementing it in waves, it’s vital that you establish norms from the very beginning. What are your communication guidelines? How will you determine office schedules? How will you document unscheduled meetings that may occur between in-office workers? When will you work synchronously vs. asynchronously?
One example of a guideline for virtual calls is that each person should call in from their own device. In-office workers may want to group together in a conference room and call in from one screen, however, this can be difficult for remote workers who might be straining to see blurry faces or who may not hear side conversations. A suggestion from Atlassian is that teams should schedule time each day for synchronous collaboration, but embrace asynchronous collaboration when possible. Asynchronous collaboration ensures that everyone has a chance to take in information, reflect on it, and contribute, and can serve as a barrier against real-time conversations that may exclude remote workers. Identify what these norms will be for your organization, and communicate them early and often.
Step 5 - Invest in infrastructure
Finally, invest in infrastructure that levels the playing field of communication and collaboration. Much can fall through the cracks when managing remote and in-office workers, so invest in technology that helps you bridge the gap. Ask yourself – do we have the technology needed to equip our people with the ability to build connections? [Related article: Key Tools to Make Remote Work – Work]
If not, look for a solution that equips your people to find and discover one another. Whatever this solution is, consider the following: does the tool allow people to share information about themselves? Their interests, skills, experience, and more? And two, does the tool make this information searchable and does it allow people to easily reach out and connect?
With software like Sift, the ability to find and discover is made easy. Searchable employee profiles paired with a comprehensive org chart allows employees to share information about themselves – their skills, interests, and experience – and to easily search for and connect with their coworkers – both remote and in-office.
Interested in learning more about how to support your hybrid workforce? Register for our upcoming webinar, Hybrid Work Roundtable – How to Plan for an Ambiguous Work World, below!