We’ve had a few years where working hybrid has become a new normal for many. Even so, businesses continue to apply trial and error to get it right. Like all workplace strategies of consequence, we are all learning from our mistakes to get better at it. Here are a few things employers are doing to get the best from in-person and remote work in a hybrid model, and what to guard against.
Leader Bias In The Wrong Direction
Many leaders regularly wrestle with the decision of whether to mandate employees back into the office for more days in a week. I hear this concern a lot. The mistake to avoid is to act on impulse rather than on data. Digging deeper, it exposes leader bias toward in-person work simply because at the root of it, it’s familiar, and they may enjoy it more themselves. Businesses need to ask themselves whether they have promoted people while using hybrid models and whether promotions have included young people and new hires. Leaders must also acknowledge that if the current system is working, there’s no reason not to listen to what employees want.
Making The Case To Come To The Office
Leaders have recognized that if they aren’t able to make the time in the office worthwhile, then all interactions will be virtual. Yes, there’s food and snacks on offer, movie night, cocktails and game nights. But most of all, facilitated, human, in-person connection is what draws people together. People want to experience their teammates in person, but the frequency varies. One pharmaceutical company makes it easy for people who don’t work closely together to meet, facilitating random match-making by lottery over lunch in the office. Leaders there frequently organize cross-functional coffees and provide introductions as a way of offsetting the decline of random encounters and shrinking networks. For many leaders, the new priority has become to check in with employees when they are together in the office and enable connections.
Employers are more choosy about creating moments when everyone comes together, working to be intentional about the reasons why to do it at all. One professional services firm coordinates bi-weekly, in-person team meetings and reserves other in-person encounters for annual planning, off-site retreats and year-end events where celebration and being together is something people look forward to.
A financial investment company regularly has large employee turnouts by bringing people together for networking socials, training and skills development and sessions to promote well-being. Whatever the reasons to invite in-person gatherings, I’ve noticed that smart leaders have understood that employees want them to be designed for meaningful participation. There’s less of a desire for passive entertainment or lectures or information sharing where few are speaking and most are only listening.
For many, most days are filled with back-to-back meetings, exaggerated by the ease of virtual communication and WFH where the day starts earlier and ends later since commuting isn’t frequent. In fact, we now know that meetings have multiplied in some cases by more than double. Employees have become challenged with blocks of virtual meetings that can become stale without alone time reserved for thinking, planning or strategizing.
There have been plenty of remedies for the relentless challenge of meeting fatigue such as reducing the number of meetings in a week and the length of each meeting, leaving a day free of meetings, mandating meetings to no more than two people and encouraging employees to reserve time without meetings.
Other changes to make meetings productive are the introduction of meeting management training and training people on the power of negotiating boundaries and how to maintain them. Some have mandated intervals between meetings to leave time for casual chats and so the business of meetings starts on time, and others are clawing back early starts and late days in favor of shorter workweeks for less pay, and offering a compressed workweek.
Securing “core hours” is popular—a dedicated block of time typically in the middle of the day when colleagues are available for real-time collaboration and meetings and personal obligations. What businesses and organizations are realizing is that the sacred cows of pursuing increasing efficiency and speed are exacting a high cost on people over time. There are plenty of ways to make work enjoyable without losing productivity by considering alternate ways to collaborate with others and exercise limits to prevent overwork.
Not Penalizing Women
There was a time when flexible work, part-time work and leaves from work were considered “accommodations” that were encouraged for women, but this often stalled their careers and stigmatized them, as they were viewed as more committed to their families than to their work, which hindered their chances for advancement. Hybrid and other flexible arrangements may bring on fewer incongruities between genders as more men opt in. I know of a technology company that goes beyond having a flexible work policy on paper to actively encourage male and female employees to take advantage of the under-utilized opportunities available to them, with assurances that their careers won’t suffer as a result. Early data shows that they’ve been successful with this approach.
As one senior woman leader I know puts it, there’s finally recognition that working less, taking leave and even working from home isn’t slacking off and that most people are happier to have the option to choose it.
There is plenty we aren’t yet doing well, such as configuring office space where use, not hierarchy, is the sorting decision; promoting inclusivity when not working from home; and driving innovation while reducing collaborative overwork. There’s never been a time when high-performance culture did not require flexibility rather than rigidity, and a workplace approach that balances the benefits of virtual and in-person work is no different. The conversation about the future of hybrid work will continue to evolve with input from all areas, bringing people’s best thinking together.
Thank you to Shridhar Gupta for the image. A version of this article was published by Forbes.com on May 31 2023.