Guided Insights

After the trauma of 2020, many of us were hoping that 2021 would be a banner year by comparison. Vaccines had become widely available by early spring, people could once again socialize almost anywhere, live entertainment venues opened up their doors, people started traveling, schools were back in session, and many organizations were starting to send their employees back to the office. But as new variants began to emerge, many of our most optimistic plans have become far less certain.

And that continued uncertainty is weighing heavily on employees who have little guidance to help them plan their lives for 2022 and beyond. If the following conversation sounds familiar, you’re not alone. I hear exchanges like these all the time:

“So, where does your organization stand in terms of returning to the office? Ours claims to be sending us back at least a couple days a week starting sometime in January.”

“All I know is that our organization is moving to a completely hybrid model, whatever that means.”

 “Do you have any clue whether all jobs will be done remotely, some of the time, or just some? Do you have a say about where you work, and how often?”

“Even if I wanted to give input, I have no idea how that would work. And I get the feeling no one would listen anyway.”

“How can you plan your life with so little information?”

“It’s almost impossible. It sounds like we’re pretty much in the same boat, doesn’t it?”

“You got that right.” 

While many organizations have declared that they will be moving to a hybrid work model “sometime in the New Year,” few organizations I work with have actually communicated many details to their teams as of this writing. Naturally, this dearth of information is making people anxious. They’re asking questions like: Should I reply to the recruiters who are offering jobs with more flexibility? Can our family continue to get by with just one car? Will I be able to drop off my kids at school (or my partner at the train station) before work? Do I need to rearrange my life to build back in 90 minutes of commute time each day? Can I be loyal to an employer that doesn’t seem to care what works best for my life?

So why haven’t more organizations been more decisive about their future work plans? I think it comes down to fear… of losing employees who want more flexibility than the organization may be willing to give, or losing those who don’t feel safe working close to others; fear of announcing return-to-office plans that end up having to be scrapped for one reason or another; fear of getting a backlash from employees who see the new policies as unfair; or fear that a hybrid work model may somehow “dilute” their organizational culture.

Mostly, I think many organizations are stuck because they aren’t sure what it will take to create and implement a hybrid model that works for them. (And many realize that this is no time to force-fit “best practices” from other organizations, if for no other reason that it’s too soon for many organizations to declare success.) Despite assurances from those who may insist that it’s quite possible to make a smooth transition to a hybrid model, in reality, it’s usually a pretty messy proposition, and understandably so.

In working with clients who are planning to move to some sort of hybrid work model, I offer the following questions to help make well-informed decisions that they can defend, which can help pave the way for an easier (but never really easy!) transition to hybrid, whatever form that might take:

  1. What decisions need to be made and communicated sooner rather than later, and which can wait?
  2. Who makes the final decisions?
  3. Whose input is needed, from within the organization as well as external stakeholders, like clients, partners and vendors?
  4. What data do we need to make our decisions, and who’s responsible for gathering and analyzing it?
  5. Which of our assumptions do we need to validate? (For example, if we believe that some employees will leave without a certain amount of flexibility, how do we know?)
  6. What aspects of our company culture are most vital to preserve, regardless of where people work?
  7. How can we make sure that important elements of our culture are obvious and visible in how we work, versus focusing on where we work?
  8. Assuming that certain jobs lend themselves to remote work, which ones? Can some job descriptions be rewritten to allow for remote work at least part of the time?
  9. Which jobs can never, or rarely, be done remotely, and why? How can we validate our conclusions?
  10. In what areas do we most need to agree on shared principles and norms to help us to collaborate and communicate most effectively, whether on an enterprise level, or across a project, functional or geographic team?
  11. Which policies or standards, if any, must be applied consistently across all functions and/or positions? (For example, must all employees be onsite a certain minimum number of days a week? If so, does it matter which days?)
  12. To what extent will managers and supervisors have latitude to make decisions about where and when their employees work? Under what conditions?
  13. Which business processes should we consider revising with the advent of a hybrid workforce? Who should be involved in these discussions?
  14. What kinds of conversations or activities are better done face to face? How do we know?
  15. How can we structure our existing office space to make the best use of time in the office? (For example, if we plan to use our office space primarily for collaborative work, team building or group training sessions, how should we rethink our office areas?)
  16. How can we better create a level playing field between people who work onsite and those who work remotely? (For example, how can we ensure that all have access to professional development and career opportunities, mentorship and coaching, assignments to sought-after projects, access to and visibility with senior leaders, and other opportunities that often favor onsite personnel?)
  17. What technology investments do we need to make in our shared office space to accommodate our hybrid work model? What will remote workers need that some may not have now?
  18. What tools, resources and training will managers, supervisors and employees need to create and sustain high-performing hybrid teams?
  19. What metrics will we use to assess the viability of our model? At what point? (For example, how do we measure increases or decreases in productivity? How and when do we gauge employee, manager and (perhaps) customer satisfaction?)
  20.  Who will communicate our decisions, along with our rationale? By what means? Timing?

No matter what decisions your organization may make, there’s a good chance that some people may see your decisions as unfair, regardless of how thoughtfully you’ve deliberated and how clearly you’ve communicated your rationale. Remember that any plans you put into place for the next three, six or 12 months aren’t irrevocable. But the more quickly you make some kind of decision, and the more actively you seek input and feedback as you do so, the more likely you’ll be to implement a sustainable model that most people can live with. The clock is ticking. 

Happy Holidays! I’ll be going to the Jersey Shore for the holidays, to celebrate with my big extended family. We missed last year, and can’t wait for the laughs, spirited conversation, (way too much) delicious food, and so much love. We are blessed to have found a pet-sitter for our puppy Honey, who’s now 60 pounds at barely 8 months. (Yikes!) Whatever you do, and wherever you go for the holidays, I wish you a happy, healthy and fulfilling holiday season, and a New Year that exceeds all of your hopes and dreams.

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