The way we work has shifted. Since the beginning of COVID-19, the pandemic spurred a sea change in how offices function, while forcing us to take a long look at what we want out of our jobs and need from our companies. Today, what started as a necessity has evolved into a new perspective on what work—and that not-so-elusive white whale of a positive life-work balance—can be.
As we transition away from the requirements of working alongside COVID-19, we now get to choose how to move forward. And blending in-person and remote work into a successful hybrid workplace will play a major role. So, what is hybrid work? How can we make it work for us? And how do we ensure our team members feel supported and included as we embark on a lasting shift in structure?
Is hybrid here to stay?
As businesses and the economy adjust on a worldwide scale, we’re all faced with a “new normal.” And while some of us may prefer to wipe that past year and a half from memory and get back to a pre-pandemic “usual,” business today is anything but. What does that mean?
Well, while mixing remote and in-person work isn’t a new concept, thanks to the pandemic it’s gone from a side note to the main story. As CEO of Steelcase Inc. Jim Keane and Gensler principal Todd Heiser report for Harvard Business Review, “52 percent of U.S. workers would prefer a mix of working from home and the office, saying it has a positive impact on their ability to be creative, solve problems and build relationships.”
Businesses are handling this shift in a variety of ways. For example, Google’s “flexible work week” asks employees to spend three days per week in the office and the others at home. Microsoft’s “hybrid workplace” allows for a 50/50 split between in-person and remote work. And Ford Motor’s “flexible hybrid work model” leaves the decision up to workers and their managers.
Ultimately, when we ask, “Is the hybrid model here to stay?” it’s safe to say, “absolutely.”
Does your hybrid workplace support your workers?
Okay, so if hybrid is the new normal, the next question has to be: How do we make it work?
Thankfully, a silver-lining of the past year and half is that we’ve learned a lot, especially about managing remote work. We’ve learned what to do, what not to do, what the challenges are, and how we can amp up the benefits. Altogether, the simple answer is: balance. Of course, putting that into practice takes a bit more effort and finesse.
Evolving culture: Finding the happy medium
None of us are exactly the same. We each have different strengths, weaknesses, needs, and circumstances. And when it comes to the desire to work remotely, our individuality stands firm. Reporting for the New York Times, professor of economics at Stanford University, Nicholas Bloom, says, “We’ve found that 30 percent of U.S. employees never want to return to working in the office, while 25 percent never want to spend another day working from home.”
So, if some of us thrive remotely while others of us flail, where’s the balance? Well, in shared goals, choice, and flexibility. As one manager told Bloom, “I treat my team like adults. They get to decide when and where they work as long as they get their jobs done.”
In practice, this means that though a blend of remote and in-person work isn’t new, there are some essential differences between pre- and post-pandemic hybrid workplaces, such as:
- In-office and remote days aren’t always scheduled in advance.
- The balance of in-office versus remote workers has shifted, with hybridity becoming the standard rather than the exception.
- Instead of being static, this shift is fluid and continually changing.
Building your FLOCS
If a thriving hybrid workplace is the intention, how do we implement it? Senior lecturer at MIT’s Sloan School of Management Robert Pozen and technology researcher Alexandra Samuel suggest focusing on your FLOCS.
FLOCS stands for function, location, organization, culture, and schedule. For building a successful hybrid workplace with flexibility to suit your employees’ needs, we can break it down like this:
- Function: What is your team member’s function? How does your team work as a collaborative whole? If they do a lot of brainstorming as a group, then more time spent in-person will be a boon. If they focus more on separate tasks, then the quiet of remote work is a better fit.
- Location: What are your team members’ locations? If they’re all located within the same city, meeting up in-person is relatively easy. If many of them commute or are already remote, then meeting virtually will be more conducive.
- Organization: What is your organization’s existing structure? Pozen and Samuel report that “a flatter hierarchy helped facilitate virtual work, because remote workers didn’t feel too far from the center of the organization.”
- Culture: What is your company’s culture? Research has found that focusing on the individual creates smoother transitions to virtual work while companies that highlight “us” over “me” are often slower to make the change.
- Schedule: What is your team’s existing schedule? Even flexibility needs parameters, and this is one of them. If your team members already work using a similar schedule, it’s a good idea to maintain that. But if your talent is spread across cities, time zones, or even countries, it helps to set windows for conferences while allowing other work to be completed on schedules suited to the individual.
Facilitating a hybrid workplace might seem like a scheduling nightmare. But if the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we’re more than capable of positive adaptation. If we shift our attitude as we adjust our approach, lasting positive change is possible.
Evolving culture to meet the moment
Successfully reimagining and rebuilding workplace culture isn’t about a little change here or there but rather an active shift in perspective, intention, and function. And while that may sound daunting, remember that we’ve done it before. Work before and after, say, the internet, looks pretty darn different. And embracing hybrid workplace models post-pandemic could have a similar effect. Writing for Harvard Business Review, Jim Keane and Todd Heiser suggest strategies for moving forward:
Balancing the physical and digital experience. It’s time to rethink the go-to of a long meeting table with a single screen filled with tiny remote faces at one end. Instead, Keane and Heiser tell us to focus on three things: equity, engagement, and ease. Try giving each in-person worker their own screen to improve sightlines. Use software that splits content and video call-ins into different areas of the screen. And always make sure to have adequate lighting and audio so that everyone can be easily included.
Rethink the “open plan” office. While the shift to open plan layouts in workplaces has been years in the making, it’s likely time to rethink that approach. Instead, let’s flip the script. Rather than having personal workspaces in an open environment, make these private and enclosed. On the other side, collaborative workspaces should be more open with flexible designs that facilitate problem-solving and co-creation.
Embrace physical fluidity. When we aren’t tied down to a specific workspace, we can move around to different environments that better suit our needs and creativity. Today, offices are beginning to embrace this physical fluidity. For example, at Keane’s company Steelcase, “we’ve optimized our own space by designing an open area that supports hybrid meetings in the morning, becomes the cafe at lunch, hosts a town hall in the afternoon, and can be rented for an evening event.”
Sometimes, when we look at an oncoming sea change, we see nothing but big waves. And it’s easy to wonder, is it worth it? Or to worry, what if it doesn’t work? But, in the end, there’s peace of mind in knowing first, that we’ve dealt with big changes before. And second, embracing a hybrid workplace and culture doesn’t mean abandoning or even changing our existing goals. Afterall, regardless of the size or configuration of your physical office, despite the number of employees who work in-person, at home, or on some sliding scale of in-between, we’re all seeking a more productive, more innovative, and more successful future.