Almost exactly one year ago, I summarized companies' key hybrid challenges in this post, which generated a lively discussion among experts and practitioners.
That post turned into a popular whitepaper, The Hybrid Work Starter Kit.
Fast-forward to today, almost every company in the region has hands-on experience in what it's like to run a hybrid workplace. The challenges from last year aren't the same ones they face today. In short, an update was due.
Over the past months, we dove deep into the realities of hybrid work in Singapore and beyond, focused on answering three questions:
- What hybrid employees want from their company
- Which hybrid models companies in Singapore are embracing
- The best practices for running a hybrid company
Why Hybrid (Still) Makes Sense
No matter what some media may have us believe, hybrid still makes a lot of sense.
- Hybrid work increases job satisfaction, engagement, commitment, and employee retention.
- Hybrid work helps reduce real estate and operating costs by up to 50%. (Even Elon Musk came back on his word to return to office by sending people in Seattle to work from home due to high office costs.)
- It’s a must to be competitive in the job market: 52% of Singaporean hybrid workers would consider quitting their job if they no longer could work flexibly.
What Employees Want from their Hybrid Workplace
The best-performing companies in the world are overwhelmingly employee-centric.
As a company is little more than a group of people working together towards a common goal, understanding the needs of your people and delivering a workplace experience that aligns with those needs is key.
We, therefore, set out to understand more about what Singaporean hybrid workers – those who already enjoy a hybrid working model in the past year – about what works and what doesn’t for them.
Based on our research, conducted in October and November 2022 with a sample size that’s statistically significant for the 4+ million Singaporean labor force, we landed on five key findings that we published late last year:
- Hybrid work is a must: one in two employees would quit if they no longer get a flexible work schedule from their employer
- Employees go to the office for collaboration, focused work, and learning on the job
Creative, wellbeing, and other Workshops are the #1 driver for Singaporeans to come to the office more than required
- Employees want to take an active role in staying connected to their colleagues
- Office FOMO is real for 6 in 10 Singaporean employees, even more so for older Millennials
Creating a hybrid workplace that supports employees in their desire and need for flexibility while still making it attractive to come in a few days per week is the win-win companies need.
So, what are companies doing?
Let's first acknowledge something very important: that there isn't just one 'hybrid.'
Hybrid is an often misunderstood term that spans a wide spectrum of ways to deploy it. Companies can embrace working and office models ranging from fully remote-first to office-first and anything in between.
Building the “right” hybrid policy questions companies' needs and the type of work that needs to be done.
What are the best practices?
Our team has been researching hybrid work best practices since it started taking off in the region. What do the best hybrid workplaces have in common? Taking a data-centric approach, we noticed the following best practices:
- Create clear hybrid guidelines, communicate them well, and improve them over time based on data and feedback from your employees.
- Create great, engaging, intentional office days.
- Optimize the entire Employee Experience journey for hybrid work, and take Culture, DEI, Wellbeing, and Technology into account at each stage.
- Create a best-in-class Hybrid Workplace that’s optimized for activities that the office is best placed to fulfill, and then measure and improve that workplace.
- Use data, personalization, and optimization throughout.
We summarized this in a neat visual, which we call our Hybrid Work "Hamburger."
Start with the Fundamentals: Hybrid Guidelines
As discussed in my interview with Adrian Tan, clear hybrid guidelines are a must.
Research from Microsoft shows that only 28% of companies created clear team agreements. Not setting clear expectations leads to confusion and a subpar employee experience.
Good hybrid "guidelines" or "policies" define when and how often employees should come to the office. Additionally, they codify how employees should engage with each other, their managers, and their work.
These hybrid guidelines don’t have to be like a typical “HR Policy.” Rather, we can see them as a way to capture a mutual understanding between employers and employees about working together in this distributed, hybrid world of work.
Some questions to answer include:
Create Great In-Office Days
A vast body of research shows that when we’re physically together, we more easily create shared understanding, feel connected, and collaborate. Even video meetings can’t replace the way we connect in person.
Companies also find it easier to create and maintain culture in the office, especially for new hires. So for most companies, getting people to come into the office still makes sense.
However, Microsoft research shows that 38% of employees say their greatest hybrid challenge is knowing when or why to come into the office. With employees sometimes having spent almost two years successfully working from home, that’s no wonder.
Companies must answer a simple question: why would people come to the office when they can work from anywhere? Forcing people to come back to the office without the proper motivators will make employees resentful.
The key is to be intentional about the why of office days and clearly communicate what employees can expect.
Great In-Office Days unlock hybrid excellence.
For example, Riot Games builds on their company’s DNA of Innovation and Creation with core working days designed to drive innovation and creation.
Draft a schedule of the office days or let managers do this for their teams. Combine team meetings, collaboration or co-working hours, learning & development, social activities, and more.
Jam-packed meaningful days like this may drive office FOMO, but at least employees give a compelling reason for why to make the sometimes expensive and draining commute into the office.
Optimize the Employee Experience Journey for Hybrid Work
Employee Experience, every interaction employees have with your company, has never been more important. In fact, Employee Experience Manager was one of the fastest-growing jobs in 2022.
McKinsey identified Excellence in the Employee Experience Journey as one of the eight most impactful innovation shifts in 2023 as HR moves away from the "classic Ulrich model."
So how can we ensure that the Employee Experience journey is fit for hybrid? Following Gallup’s Employee Experience model we can ensure that each interaction is optimized for hybrid work across the seven stages of the employee journey, specifically Onboarding, Engaging, Performing, and Developing.
Onboarding: Give New Hybrid Employees a Flying Start
Even before hybrid work, onboarding has been a tough nut for most companies. More than one-third of companies lacked a structured onboarding process, and only 29% of new hires said they felt fully prepared and supported after being onboarded.
The onboarding challenges in hybrid workplaces are even more true for those just coming out of university in the past 1-2 years. They have been working only remotely and don’t understand the need for an office yet, such as creating a culture of trust and belonging, having deeper conversations than remote calls, accessing tools and resources, and making more friends.
Older employees can be reminded of the benefits of working together physically. For freshers, this has to be educated.
As Kaelyn Phillips from Monster says:
"The onboarding process - whether it's happening remotely or in-person - should be all about people. It's about making connections and making sure the person feels that they have joined a place that wants them and a place that welcomes them.”
The Hybrid Excellence paper shares 5+1 ways to create a great hybrid onboarding program.
Engage: Proactively Create Connections & Community
Only half of remote employees maintain thriving relationships with their direct teams, and even fewer (42%) have a strong relationship with those outside their immediate team.
Employees who come to the office engage with little effort. Small talk and quick sidebars happen naturally in the elevator, the kitchen, and between. Lunches or drinks after work are quickly and informally organized.
These encounters, which often reach across departments, fuel many great ideas, a sense of fellowship, and the feeling that we're part of something bigger – a community.
Communities allow like-minded employees to connect and stay connected while further growing their company roots. These communities can become a crucial retention effort and a substantial competitive advantage.
When people don't connect and bond simply by being in the office simultaneously, connections between coworkers must be created and sustained more purposefully and programmatically.
The role of individual employees is key to making employee engagement a shared mission for the entire company. It also helps increase the sense of authenticity and the uptake amongst colleagues.
The paper shares three steps to (re)engaging your hybrid teams:
As my friend Andee Chua, Community & Culture Builder, HubSpot & LinkedIn Top Voices 2022, says:
“Building relationships in a hybrid world takes intentional effort. At Hubspot, we host monthly community lunches centered around a theme to get conversations going and spark new ideas as a group. It’s such a nice way for the community to come together, and share their thoughts with much vulnerability.”
Perform: Shift to Outcome-Focused and Drive Productivity
Now onto what's, especially in this economy, the most pressing topic for most companies: performance and productivity.
Some doubts have been raised about productivity (how efficiently a person completes a task) in hybrid work models. The research varies, but it's clear that hybrid workers need a different approach to productivity with a focus on outputs.
Employees want regular informal feedback and recognition for their work to stay on track and keep their motivation up. While this happened organically in an office, with few (sometimes not even overlapping) days together, this can be challenging.
Here’s how to do performance management for hybrid teams:
Make it frequent. The world is moving too fast to review performance once a year. Go for a more informal, on-the-go style of reviewing and providing feedback, via line managers. This helps people look forward and boosts effectiveness.
Set balanced targets. What does (high) performance look like for your team? If targets are too easy, they won't improve performance. Reversely, people won't try to hit them if they are out of reach. Where possible, focus on outcomes, not outputs.
The best targets are attainable with a healthy stretch.
Per Gallup, good goals directly impact your business outcomes and motivate employees by showing them their influence on the big picture.
Track transparently. Ensure you have the right tools for tracking progress. You can use Performance modules in your HRIS like HiBob or BambooHR, or a dedicated solution like 15Five from the super impressive David Hassell. Tracking transparently reduces employee anxiety and "Toxic Productivity."
Guide where work happens to boost productivity. Help employees assess which activities are best done on-site. Let them build productive work days by understanding which works is best done where and when. Katrina Ganikaa Lavery reminded me of this in a recent conversation, and I believe it's spot-on.
Keep it equitable. Employees must feel that their performance, reflecting their achievement, team collaboration, and customer value, is reviewed fairly and comprehensively.
But proactive, hard-working remote employees earn smaller pay raises and fewer promotions. Train managers to focus on the numbers, not their feelings towards people, often skewed by attendance and “Productivity Paranoia.”
Develop: Create a Hybrid Learning & Development Structure
Personal and professional growth can be crucial to employee engagement and retention. LinkedIn research shows that companies who commit to training their workforce for internal mobility have double the average employee retention versus those who don't.
In a typical workplace, most learning & development happens following the 70:20:10 rule: 70% on the job, 20% through collaboration, and 10% through formal training.
Companies need to become intentional and support learners regardless of location. Hybrid learning also creates an opportunity to personalize L&D and make it as asynchronous as hybrid work – increasing efficiency and effectiveness.
As the ever-impressive Jennifer Dulski from Rising Team (highly recommended!) shared: "The transition to hybrid can be hard on employees. People also feel more disconnected from their teammates and managers. Blended learning solutions like Rising Team don’t just train teams, but also help them rebuild trust and improve how they work together – remote, hybrid or in the office.”
Specifically, train your managers and your employees:
- Managers are critically important for hybrid success. Humu, a Perceptyx Company calls managers the most important "connection points" between the upper levels of leadership and the workforce of any organization, as "information flows through these managers from multiple channels." Harvard researchers, therefore, concluded that "the key to successful hybrid working is good management." But managers are often unprepared for hybrid challenges like building culture, virtual communication and meetings, equity, wellbeing, and more.
- Employees often lack the knowledge and experience to be great 'hybrid workers.’ Companies have to help them master a new skill set. Key topics to train are technology and tools, digital communication and collaboration skills, equality, and what's expected of them versus what they can expect from others.
In the words of Jason Fried, author of the book "Remote: Office Not Required":
“The technology is here; it’s never been easier to communicate and collaborate with people anywhere, any time. But that still leaves a fundamental people problem. The missing upgrade is for the human mind.” – Jason Fried
Throughout it all, focus on Culture, DEI, Wellbeing, and Technology.
Rethinking the Employee Experience journey – especially onboarding, engaging, performing, and developing, is crucial. Throughout it all, companies should pay particular attention to 4 key drivers of hybrid success:
- Defining, Building, and Retaining a Strong Hybrid Culture. Culture often suffers in remote and hybrid models, and companies need to invest additional time and effort into something that in the office happened more organically.
- Promoting Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. While hybrid and remote models can improve equity, they can also challenge it. Companies should prevent in-office inequality, train managers and employees, and give employees a voice.
- Ensuring Mental and Physical Well-Being. Well-being greatly suffers when work is always-on in the shift towards hybrid and remote work. Lack of work-life balance is among hybrid workers' most frequently mentioned struggles. Companies need more explicit ways to drive employee well-being, by setting clear expectations, allowing for downtime, and helping create work-life harmony, amongst other things.
- Embracing Technology and Transform Digitally. According to Qualtrics, employees are 230% more engaged and 85% more likely to stay beyond three years if they have the technology they need to support their work. Technology can help collaboration, keep people connected, drive equity and inclusion, and since recent developments in AI in particular, get work done faster.
Create a Best-in-Class Hybrid Workspace
Besides the "software" of great in-office days, the "hardware" of the physical hybrid office matters more than ever.
Most offices from before the pandemic were designed for heads-down solo work. The best hybrid offices are designed differently, with less space for individual-focused work and more meeting and collaboration spaces.
Create a human-centric office where employees can flexibly meet, collaborate, and focus in a way they can’t at home. These offices will drive productivity, collaboration, and engagement. Key questions companies should ask to the ultimate hybrid office design include:
- In your specific company, what kind of work do people do? Now, but also in the future – offices aren't typically short-term solutions.
- What kind of spaces and amenities would enable them to do it? For individuals and groups?
- How do you embrace the company and personal values in the way you design your workplace? How can it strengthen your company culture?
- Think about key imperatives like DEI and well-being; how can they come to life in how you put together your new office?
- What would make the office so compelling that it's worth commuting to for your employees? (One of the key questions on people's minds right now)
This can help drive which mix of social, meet, focus, and balance spaces are important for your company to include.
Let's get to Hybrid Excellence, together!
Sounds like a lot? No worries – we've summed it up in a simple checklist. And, we're here to help. Just reach out, and our team would be glad to help you with any of your largest hybrid challenges!
Have a great (hybrid) week!