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Designing a hybrid work model that works for (almost) everyone

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“Keeping employees safe was, of course, our #1 principle when we began devising our return-to-office plan. But when we tried to agree on other principles such as who has the choice to work where and what creating a ‘level playing field’ actually entails, things started falling apart. Here it is Q2, and we still don’t know what our workforce will look like for the rest of the year, or the year after that.”

This is the dilemma shared with me recently by a senior HR director for a Boston-area company. And clearly, she’s not alone. In a recent Boston Business Journal article interviewing more than a dozen leaders from prominent area companies, the overwhelming majority agreed on three key points: Their return-to-office plans were not yet settled, they will have some form of a hybrid workforce, and fairness and equity must be kept top of mind. Most seemed to agree with Laurie Peck, the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute’s Director of HR Strategic Initiatives, who said: “Our goal has been to create an equitable work experience for all staff, regardless of work location.”

This longer-than-expected period of uncertainty is one of many trends I’ve been seeing in my client work and in my research, and it’s probably the one causing the most stress across the board. In this article, I share a handful of trends and pressing challenges, along with advice to help resolve them.

Organizations have been slow to articulate and communicate their principles regarding return-to-work plans. While it may be premature to formulate specific plans, people deserve to know what principles will be applied, so they can make well-informed decisions about their future plans. Team members who are left in the dark for too long may be in danger of jumping ship, which has become much easier to do these days. (More on this below)

Advice: Even if you don’t have all of the data you need to devise specific plans today, at least agree on—and clearly communicate—the principles you’ll be using, which may include factors such as office location, job function, role, nature of work, level of autonomy, time with the company, ability to perform job remotely, available infrastructure and other factors. Seek input from a cross-section of employees and managers along the way, especially in regard to perceived fairness, and be prepared to revise your plans as a result.

The use of office space is being turned upside down and inside out. Many organizations are considering whether to maintain any office space, and even more are rethinking its size, configuration and use. Many offices will be redesigned for collaborative work that’s almost impossible to do remotely, significantly cutting back on space devoted to individual work. Creating spaces that allow for serendipitous conversations and problem-solving, like acoustically private alcoves, are being added. The trick will be how to integrate physical office space with the virtual workspace of remote workers to allow for free-flowing information, spawning of new ideas, and close collaboration.

Advice: Assess the level of interdependence typically needed to achieve performance goals by job function and role, project type, time of year, location, and other factors. Consider where certain types of collaboration may be best done remotely, in person, or a blending of the two. Imagine how you might use office space differently if your virtual collaboration tools were more robust and easily and quickly accessible by all. Perhaps most important: Determine whether your office configuration will help guide your decisions about who works remotely vs. in person, or whether your policies about remote vs. in-person work will dictate the use of your office space.

An increasingly mobile workforce makes poaching of top talent, and jumping ship, a lot easier. Companies that are making remote work an option (or a requirement) are actively recruiting talent from almost anywhere, often paying higher wages than local companies. For example, a systems engineer in Rochester or Omaha no longer has to move to a community with higher cost of living to enjoy higher wages. In fact, they don’t have to move anywhere. As a result, many second- and third-tier cities are losing local talent, which can be harder to backfill. On the other hand, as more people can work from anywhere, they will, which in many cases will mean moving away from high-priced cities and into communities where they can enjoy a higher standard of living.

Advice: Do some reconnaissance, ASAP. Find a way to candidly assess the inclinations of managers and employees, starting with your most valuable players. If you conduct employee satisfaction or engagement surveys, mine the latest results for insights that may help you retain staff as the competition tightens. For example, if training, coaching and career-expanding projects are especially important, ask your leaders to provide meaningful growth opportunities for each employee. For especially valuable employees, consider assigning senior staff to act as mentors or coaches. Meanwhile, be on the lookout for the competition by searching job-matching sites, Linked-In searches, and postings on company websites and recruiters’ ads.

Longer working hours + back-to-back video meetings – collegial social interaction = sheer exhaustion. Most remote workers surveyed report putting in longer hours, mostly spent in meetings or catching up on email, both of which have proliferated since the pandemic, even for organizations using sophisticated virtual collaboration tools. The frequent result: More people report multitasking through meetings to catch up on emails or to get work done, often leading to disconnected conversations, poor decision-making and a constant sense of fatigue without a corresponding sense of progress. Social interactions with colleagues, which can help energize even the most tired teams, seem to be few and far between.

Advice: Don’t wait until you’ve formalized the details of your return-to-office plan to create shared principles, or norms, for team communications. Start the conversations now, if you haven’t already, so team members can agree on what communication channels, methods, processes or systems will be used for what purpose. Areas that need special attention: Meetings, use of email, sharing of information, access to shared documents, status reporting and perhaps most important, social interactions. Regardless where people work, think about how you can shift your emphasis away from synchronous communications to async, enabling more people to fully participate and contribute their best thinking.

Newcomers are struggling to gain a foothold, especially when it comes to understanding and adapting to the organizational culture. Since March 2020, most organizations have been recruiting, interviewing, hiring and orienting new hires remotely, with little or no face time along the way. Unless an organization has clearly-articulated values that its people embody in their everyday behavior, it can be difficult for new people to understand or fit in to the organizational culture, especially in a virtual world. As a result, many new hires miss the contextual information that they might have gleaned in person, which could help them determine, for example, whether it’s acceptable to ask for help, volunteer their expertise, or give candid feedback to a colleague.

Advice: Explicit operating norms or principles can go a long way to helping newcomers understand and adapt to the organizational culture when there are few opportunities for side conversations. For example, a principle such as: “Employees are encouraged to propose new ideas to those in the best position to act on them,” sends a message that hierarchy is less important than speed when it comes to assessing and implementing new ideas. Appointing a “culture guide,” provides a safe way to help a new hire to make sense of the organization. This might be a “buddy” assigned to the new hire, or someone who’s a particularly astute interpreter of cultural nuances. Map out a well-defined one-week, one-month and three-month plan for your new hire, including a list of objectives, resources and contact information, and check in at least a few times a week in the early going.

Work siloes have become more impenetrable. While it may be easier in the virtual world to extend a meeting invitation to anyone you can think of, it’s a lot harder to have the kind of small-group conversations that strengthen relationships and build trust with those outside of your own teams. Where before you might have bumped into someone in the hallway or sat next to someone new at a meeting, the opportunities to make those serendipitous connections are much rarer today. The result: Many people have retreated to working with increasingly smaller circles of cohorts, which tends to insulate them from other perspectives, stifling opportunities for learning, and often leading to myopic decision-making.

Advice: Reach out to people outside of your immediate circle for a conversation, letting them know what you’d like to learn from them, what you can offer them, or both. Volunteer for interesting projects with people outside of your team, and look for opportunities to share your knowledge with other groups. Consider inviting people from outside of your team to participate in your team meetings, perhaps as a panelist or subject matter expert. If you’re a virtual team leader, offer to make introductions to those your team members would benefit from knowing. Encourage team members to join committees or raise their hand to be part of cross-functional projects as part of their professional growth.

Summary

In a recent Harvard Business Review article, “Covid Killed the Traditional Workplace,” two of my favorite professor/authors summed up the road ahead perfectly. Rosabeth Moss Kanter cautions: “To emerge successful post-pandemic with top talent intact requires more attention to the human side and reaffirmation of mission and values.” Amy Edmonson, known for her work on psychological safety, emphasized the importance of co-creating this new hybrid work environment: “To get started, organizational leaders need to commit to telling the truth about what the company needs, while engaging people in the hard work of creating solutions together.”

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