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To be (or not to be) in the office

Thoughts on the hybrid virtual workplace – and why it might be harder to manage than we imagine

The post-pandemic office world is beginning to take shape – and the “hybrid” model appears to be emerging. In this model, there is a blend of working remotely and in the office. On the surface, this makes a lot of sense. Employees had been clamoring for more flexibility pre-pandemic – and 2020 was proof positive that work could proceed without mass gathering in offices. Notably, employers have not seen their worst fears, that productivity would plummet. Instead, most report increased productivity (more on that later). Those responsible for the leasing, furnishing or oversight of office space are scrambling with the reality that the office of the 2019 will not be the office of 2021.

Hybrid makes sense on many levels. However, I do want to put leaders on notice that hybrid will be harder, for it introduces complexity into what, in the past, had been a one-dimensional choice.

In the past we tended to have only one option – work at the company office from early morning to early evening. Be together in person, meet in person, be happy in your little grey cubicle. To travel to get meet important stakeholders or meetings, no matter how short the meeting and how long the trek.

The pandemic put the workplace into another forced choice. The pandemic called the shots, as once again we reverted to “either/or” thinking. Either you were “essential” and must work on site (it’s hard to run a production line or care for hospitalized patients from your bedroom) or you were “non-essential” and could work from home

A hybrid work environment will be much more nuanced, more complex and terribly interdependent. As a leader in an organization, you will be faced with myriad decisions daily that ask you to choose from options with no clear answer. Decisions that must consider a myriad of factors. Decisions that will not have a default.

We’ve learned in the past year that it is possible to be productive in our home offices (or from the kitchen table). We can Zoom instead of spending a day in an airport to meet face to face. We can communicate quickly via Slack, Voxer, What’s App or Teams.

We’ve also learned that remote work can be isolating. That a certain esprit de corps and energy is missing. That there is some work for which being together physically begets better outcomes.

Due to this forced experiment, it is estimated that 42% of the US workforce is working from home, we have found that a far greater range of work can be done remotely, once people are given the permission and tools to do so. Which is why, as we begin to open the possibility of returning to office and workplaces, how to navigate who is in the office and who is not gets trickier.

Once we get past the “essential” or “non-essential” cut, what becomes our decision criteria?

We must answer, individually (by workplace and by person):

  • What is the “essence” of our work? Does it require teamwork? If so, is that teamwork enhanced by in-person time?
  • How do we maximize individual preferences? Does accommodating individual needs (caring for children or other loved ones) also mean honoring those that prefer working from home?
  • How do we manage productivity and individual performance? What’s to be done with the slackers – and how do ensure that our over-achievers don’t burn out as they can literally work round the clock.
  • How do we create and implement organizational guidelines that are clear, fair and straightforward enough to be understood?
  • How do we help leaders measure the things that matter and not just “time at desk”? (Although time at PC or accessible via text can be an easy substitute)
  • How much are we willing to navigate individual choices vs. group mandates?
  • Who owns the responsibility for safe and ergonomically sound workplaces at home?
  • Can we attract more and better talent if we are not bounded by geography?
  • On the converse, is some of the best talent we need now unconstrained by zip code? Can great coders in rural America now compete for jobs in Silicon Valley without the expense of relocating?
  • How do we pay people if geography is not in play? Is the scale based on metros or on middle America?
  • How do we on-board people and give them a sense of our culture if they are not physically present?
  • What defines our post-pandemic culture? How do you define it, nourish it, maintain it if people are scattered and distant?

I’m certain there are about 100 other questions leaders will have to grapple with as they step into hybrid models. And here is the dilemma: There will not be one answer. It will require a deep look and deep discussions about culture, environment, the nature of work, and your philosophy about people. The result most likely, will not be a black and white rule, but a set of principles or practices.

I don’t have answers to all the questions I’ve raised for consideration, but I can share some research and thinking that is emerging that might help shape your actions in this area.

Remote Work and Productivity

Contrary to many managers fears, numerous studies, including a recent study by the International Workplace Group (IWG), indicate that productivity has improved, not declined. The IWG study showed that 85% of businesses had confirmed productivity increases as a result of having greater flexibility.

The underlying reasons for the productivity bump are not quantified. Anecdotal comments indicate that less office drama and distractions amp up productivity. The elimination of community time frees time and bandwidth to focus on work. But there may be other reasons as well.

Some attribute the uptick in productivity as due to employee’s fear of not being seen as productive in a time of employment insecurity and vulnerability. Another theory is that it might it be due to the lack of other tugs on our time during the pandemic. After all, many feel they may as well work if they are stuck at home with nowhere else to go.

The Heart of the Matter

The core question that leaders must answer is what is the office for and how do we create environments where each person can do their best work? The answer to that is at the heart of the intersection between the demands of the work done and the needs of the individual workers.

Getting work environment right, no matter if it is in person, virtual or a blend is a result of finding the optimal mix that supports your culture, your customers, and your employees.

No matter your approach to hybrid, leaders will need to find the way to:

  • Optimize social cohesion in a physical, digital or hybrid environment
  • Demonstrate support in these environments
  • Make information sharing between team members easy and seamless
  • Communicate vision and goals clearly and consistently

In its simplest form, our task is to create Optimal Workspaces rather than Mandated Workplaces.

Stripping the question to its core: How do we create workspace(s) where people can do their best work in pursuit of our company’s mission and in support of our goals? For some, that answer might lean into physical proximity, for others it may tilt toward a remote workforce. And for others, a blended approach.

My Predictions

I suspect that the answer for most organizations will not be an either/or, but a blend of in office and virtual. Based on what is emerging, here is what will likely unfold:

  • Even with widely geographically distributed virtual workers there will be meetings and gatherings that bring people together face to face
  • Management will require a higher level of skill in managing productivity, creating cohesion and connection, and providing support – no matter where their employees work
  • Employees will have a higher degree of choice in where they work if they demonstrate that they can meet productivity and quality goals.
  • Office spaces will be redesigned, with the demise of both the cubicle and a move towards an open work environment. Employees do better with a sense of space that is theirs and teams do better with open and collaborative space. Our space will evolve to give employees a sense of home (vs. hotel) and teams creative gathering space.
  • Online collaborative work tools will continue to evolve – doing their best to mimic the in-person office experience.
  • We will redesign how learning and development occur, accelerating the move away from mass classroom training and stepping into more personalized, just in time developmental support.

Bottom line is that we can create workspaces that work – for employees and the organizations that employ them. Space is merely the physical container, it is the humans within that make it work.

Curious about my sources? Here they are!

4 culture strategies for creating a successful hybrid workplace


2 Responses

  1. Agreed. Your thoughts are so insightful. It is important, as you mention, for employers to not look at pandemic-driven productivity numbers as the new standard. Once the world opens up, and even more remote work spaces and recreational activities become available options, the numbers may change and new models could emerge. We’ll need to continue to stay watchful, and pay attention as the next shift occurs.

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