PwC’s US Remote Work Survey from January 2021 showed that while 83% of employers consider the shift to remote work as successful, only 13% would consider a 100% work-from-home policy. 87% of employees believe that the office is important for collaboration and relationship building. Hybrid work seems to be the preferred solution. However, the exact ratio of work from home versus office is difficult to pinpoint. 55% of employees would prefer to work at least three days a week from home, while 68% of managers believe that employees should be at least three days a week in the office to maintain the culture. Not surprisingly, those with the least experience, junior workers, are more likely to want to be in the office.
To design a good hybrid working model, you need to consider several aspects: place and time; jobs, tasks, and productivity; company culture, projects, and workflows; individual employee preferences; inclusion, fairness, and belonging.
Place and time
Lynda Gratton, a professor of management practice at London Business School, suggests looking at the problem using two axes. Place, either constrained (the office) or unconstrained (anywhere), and time, constrained (working synchronously with others) or unconstrained (asynchronous work). Historically, most companies operated in the constrained quadrant on both axes, more or less fixed hours in the office. The pandemic forced many companies to work from home but still with fixed hours. Not many completely embraced the completely unconstrained hybrid model, working from anywhere and anytime.
All this gets even more interesting when you consider the global reach of many companies and the fact that the teams are often distributed across continents and time zones. It means that the place is sort-of-unconstrained and the time is asynchronous anyway. The anywhere anytime model is just a natural evolution of the movement that is happening with globalization.
The unconstrained hybrid world requires a significant shift in the way management thinks about running a business. Your goal is to maximize the benefits the new world order brings while minimizing any downsides by managing trade-offs you will have to make. Ultimately it is about flexibility and choice. The company would do well not to impose a specific mode of working unless required by the nature of the business and offer numerous options alongside both space and time dimensions.
Jobs, tasks, and productivity
The hybrid work model gives you the best of both worlds. You get the flexibility and ability to focus at home while getting social interactions, collaboration, and more meaningful relationships in the office. However, for this to work, you need to set it up correctly. It needs to be done in a way that increases both employees’ productivity and well-being. That requires considering carefully which days of the week to be in the office and which are better spent working from home.
Each employee needs to look at their tasks. What parts of your job are better done in which location? Coming to the office on days when you need to work on something better done from home will lead to lost productivity and frustration. Working from home on days when you need intense collaboration with colleagues may leave you frustrated, less productive, and even left out if most of them are in the office.
Track your work for a couple of weeks to determine how much time you spend on what activities. If possible, find metrics that can tell you how productive you are. If you can do the same exercise in the office and at home, you will have something to compare. Once done, look for patterns and see if you can cluster them to have similar activities done on the same days. You may discover that even the same activity, like a meeting, can feel different depending on what type of meeting it is and with whom. This is especially visible in a global team where you are already geographically distributed anyway. Your team meeting with colleagues from the same city may be better done in the office while meeting your virtual team overseas can be better done via videoconference from home. Once you have this done, you can explain why your selected work pattern will work the best for you and the company.
Individual employee preferences
We are all different. Some of us work better in the morning, some in the evening. We play various roles, not just the worker but also a spouse or a parent. We participate in multiple activities outside the workplace. We may have different physical and psychological needs. The pandemic showed that while many people could work from home, not everyone had the same experience. One person may have a big house with a separate room as an office and kids at school. The other may live with an extended family in a small apartment and having small kids running around all day long. The level of productivity, focus, energy, and pure joy from work will be dramatically different. The first person prefers to work from home as it leads to a bigger focus. The second person focuses better when in the office because of the noisy home.
It is not just the environment. It is also us. Nancy P. Rothbard, Tracy Dumas, and Katherine Phillips talk about integration and segmentation. Depending on whether you are an integrator or segmentor, you prefer to live your life differently, both in time and space. Integrators are comfortable working during family time and vice versa. They are fine taking care of personal business during office hours and then work late in the evening. Segmentors prefer to split their time between work and family more clearly. It doesn’t necessarily mean nine to five work, and the rest is family time. They prefer flextime too, but want to have it in blocks to make it clear when is work time and when is family time. The same goes for space. Integrators are comfortable with blurred lines of where work gets done and are comfortable working from their bed. Segmentors, not surprisingly, prefer to keep the spaces separate. If asked to work from home, segmentors will do their best to dedicate a specific physical space just for work, sort of home office. Integrators have an easier time dealing with remote work and with the hybrid world as they are, in principle, more flexible. Segmentors may struggle to build the necessary routines, are not as flexible, but can focus more deeply on the task at hand.
During the work from home times of the Covid-19 pandemic, lots of the advice was targeted at segmentors. Dress for work, have a dedicated workspace at home, keep your routine. This will help you to separate when you are at work and when not. Integrators don’t seem to need these distinctive patterns and are comfortable with a more blended day.
If you are a manager, this means one thing. You need to allow your employees some flexibility. What may work for integrators may not work for segmentors and vice versa. Have a common framework for the hybrid workplace but leave enough flexibility to accommodate personal preferences.
Company culture, projects, and workflows
There is significant evidence that proximity is beneficial to relationships. No technology can fully replace face-to-face communication and frequent spontaneous chats in a shared social setting. It is less of an issue in cohesive groups, but teams that are forming or are not as cohesive nothing can replace physical interaction. Without regular social interactions, the teams will drift apart.
Company culture is built by values, rituals, stories, and consequences. When you start with a hybrid arrangement, you need to look at these and adjust. Rituals and ceremonies that worked in an office won’t work when everyone is remote. What you need is to adopt the remote-first mindset in all your policies and rituals. Everything you design needs to be fit for remote workers. If it works remotely, it will work in the office too. It doesn’t apply the other way around.
Remote work invites asynchronous communication, emails, instant messages, recorded meetings. They all make the workplace more inclusive, but they may negatively impact the culture. You need to enhance these with real conversations to reinforce the company values and get some social bonding.
How does the work get done? Hybrid work needs different ways of managing projects and may lead to adjustments or rework of existing workflows. Again, this will be significantly easier for companies who already operate across different time zone and different offices. A typical example might be a status update meeting. Get rid of it. When you have people working different hours, it isn’t easy to organize, and more importantly, it is not necessary. Find a way to provide a regular or real-time update on demand asynchronously. Now is the time to rework the workflows. Don’t just try to fit the existing processes designed years ago into the current environment.
Inclusion, fairness, and belonging
The biggest problem with the hybrid work model is, without a doubt, the lack of face-to-face interactions. Having some people in the office and some at home can easily lead to a lack of inclusion, an unfair disadvantage for those working remotely, a lost sense of belonging, and a feeling of isolation. This can hurt productivity and team spirit. It can lead to stress and burnout. It reduces collaboration, increases attrition, and leads to weaker relationships in the workplace. Different groups of people may get different levels of flexibility because of the nature of their jobs, which may lead to a feeling of unfairness and resentment.
The strict boundaries between office and home have another interesting impact. Nancy P. Rothbard of the University of Pennsylvania looked at switching between home and office and how it leads to depletion or enrichment of one’s life. A survey of 790 employees showed that depletion existed only for women and in work to family direction. Men experienced in this direction enrichment. Women then experienced enrichment in the family to work direction. Just going to the office, changing the context, and becoming someone a bit different for eight hours a day may positively impact your well-being. You don’t get this shift in context when you keep working from home. The Covid-19 pandemic showed this very strongly when schools were closed, and many parents had to work from home while taking care of the kids. Going to the office was often the only way to keep some sanity.
Putting it all together
Remote and hybrid work feels like nirvana, but since it is being enabled and often driven by technology it may easily lead to even less humanity in work. Humanizing work has been on many people’s minds for many years, but it is questionable whether with the computer-enabled home office we will achieve a more human workplace.
To find out what will work for you and your business, consider engaging a diverse portion of your workforce through surveys, interviews, and focus groups. The goal is to find a set of personas representing your whole population and then ensure you have a good option for each persona. To do that, focus the conversation on place and time; tasks and productivity; company culture and workflows; individual employee preferences; and inclusion, fairness, and belonging.
What is your take on the topic? Do you believe the hybrid work model makes sense? What challenges do you see with this blended approach to work? What aspects of work do you consider when deciding whether to work from home or from the office?
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