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What is Hybrid Work? And how should companies get started?

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Hybrid work is a working model that brings together work in the office and work from home. Are you adding third spaces such as cafes or a coworking space? Then we’re speaking of a Work from Anywhere model.

After the long lockdown, more companies are considering implementing hybrid work. So what is it? And how does it work? This article will go into the details of this new way of working:

  • Why companies are considering hybrid work
  • How time and place both are important for hybrid work
  • How flexible work policies can increase productivity
  • How the office can adapt to support hybrid work
  • How to manage people in a hybrid work model
  • How to get started and how to continuously learn and optimize

Why companies are considering hybrid work

During the pandemic, companies and employees learned how to work online. The technology for online and remote work was always there. But the latest lockdown forced businesses to embrace it. Companies and employees realized not only that remote work is possible. And, that it has many benefits.

For employees, more flexibility means that they can better balance work and life. For employers, it means that they don’t need big offices anymore. And that (expensive) reserved desk space for each employee can be a thing of the past. This creates a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rethink work. Starting with when, where, and how people work.

Two questions for hybrid work: place and time

Harvard Business Review recently published an article called “How to Do Hybrid Right.” It stated that hybrid working is challenging for two reasons: place and time. The author, Lynda Gratton, is a management professor at London Business School. She’s also the founder of HSM, a future-of-work research consultancy. Very credible indeed. And what Gratton says, is that companies focus too much on the place alone. (1)

“Place is the axis that’s getting the most attention at the moment. Millions of workers around the world this year have made a sudden shift. A shift from being place-constrained (working in the office) to being place-unconstrained. Less noticed is the shift many have also made along the time axis. Meaning, from being time-constrained (working synchronously with others) to being time-unconstrained.

How flexible do you want to be?

To help managers conceptualize both dimensions of the hybrid problem, Gratton created a 2×2 matrix. If you’re like most companies, you don’t or didn’t offer flexibility in when and where people work. This means you’d fall in the bottom-left quadrant. If you’re thinking about more flexibility, you need to think about where you want to move.

Hybrid Work - Why and How

Do you only want to provide flexibility in place? Then you’re in the “anywhere, 9 to 5” bucket. Are you looking to only give flexibility in when to work? Then you’re in the “in the office, anytime” quadrant. And if you’re going “fully flexible,” then you’re in the top-right quadrant: “anywhere, anytime.”

Fully flexible work can drive productivity

You and every other person have their own time and place when they’re most productive. The psychologist Mihàly Csìkszentmihàlyi has a name for the moment you’re most productive: “flow.” Flow is when you fully use your core capabilities to meet a goal or challenge. He found that individuals who often experienced flow were more productive. And, that they derived greater satisfaction from their work than those who didn’t. (2)

Amongst the ways to achieve ‘flow’ is to understand the time and place you are most productive. This may be different depending on the task. For example, you may do your emails best in the morning before work at home. While you are most creative or strategic between 10 and 12 in the office. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos famously doesn’t schedule any meetings that demand his deep focus after 12 PM. (3)

Fully flexible work helps people achieve peak productivity. This is a win-win for both companies and employees. Of course, there are downsides to working so flexibly too. For many employees, having this amount of freedom is a new concept. They are not used to having to motivate themselves. In fact, a lack of motivation and discipline is one of the main issues for Vietnamese Gen Z when they work from home. (4)

As with everything, hybrid working is something everyone will have to learn. From the leadership, to managers, to individual employees.

Creating an office that supports hybrid work

Hybrid work also changes the requirements for an office. After all, if work can happen at home, why would people still come to the office? The answer is in spaces that accommodate social, meeting, and focused work activities. For companies looking to redesign their office, this means there’s a need to address all three. The best companies also include spaces for balance & wellbeing.

These types of spaces can exist anywhere in the office. It does not matter whether they’re distributed or grouped together. The importance of offering all these spaces is critical. Research shows that offering a variety of spaces drives more employee engagement. It provides them with more opportunities to do their best work every day. At the same time, it also increases the sense that their company cares enough to deliver this to them. (5)

Social

More remote work also means that there is more isolation and loneliness. Feeling isolated while working from home is the biggest concern people identified. (6) Indeed, the top reason to return to the office is to connect with co-workers. A 2020 survey showed that it’s contact with coworkers that people missed the most from the physical office. (7)

People want to have a sense of belonging at work. This is not only good for their wellbeing but it also helps business results. A strong sense of community is the top indicator of people’s productivity. It also impacts their engagement, innovation, and commitment to the organization. (6) Google even mentioned community as a top reason to continue to invest in physical offices. (8)

There are different types of spaces where people gather and have “casual collisions.” They are the places where employees join before, during, and after work. This includes community spaces, lounges, pantries, coffee shops, outdoors, and entertainment spaces. Together, they can help people interact with each other in a more impromptu, casual way. As Thomas Heatherwick, a leading office designer, said: “No Skype chat can replicate the “chemistry of the unexpected” that you get in person.” (9)

Meet

In the past months, we have proven that online collaboration is possible. Still, it’s usually still best done at the office. This is because trust is a critical ingredient for successful collaboration. And trust builds easier in person. (10) That’s why the best collaboration happens when we have the opportunity to walk up to someone. It’s also when we have access to the right tools and resources. This is especially true for Gen Z and Millennials in Vietnam. They say that they prefer to work in groups, in person. (11)

Salesforce’s Chief People Officer shared about their post-COVID workplace earlier this year. He said: “To start, we’ll be redesigning our workspaces over time as community hubs. This accommodates a more hybrid work-style. Gone are the days of a sea of desks. Instead, we’ll create more collaboration and breakout spaces. This is to foster the human connection that can’t be replicated remotely.” (12)

Meet spaces come in five categories. They are: Share & Learn, Collaborate, Brainstorm & Innovate, Converse, and Connect. These spaces allow employees to use their office for what they can’t do (well) at home. From a group training to an in-person one-on-one, Meet spaces are critical in the new hybrid office.

Focus

Of course, focused work is of importance as well. But, in a true hybrid office, focused work no longer happens at one’s own desk. Flexible desks, or hot desks, are a better choice to avoid lots of underutilized workspace. Especially when the company pays for it, whether they use it or not.

Hot desks are often arranged in proximity to the social areas. Companies do this to try and keep down the amount of space they have to rent. This defeats the purpose of having a focus area.

Desks are better placed in an area that is open yet quiet enough for people to do focused work. In larger offices, “neighborhoods” of desks can appear in various zones. This gives individual employees the choice of what works best for them.

Having open space for people to sit – combined with a flexible working schedule – means spaces can get overcrowded. Companies can solve this in two ways. First, by partnering with a flexible office provider. This gives them access to a workspace on an on-demand basis. And ensure that companies pay for space, only when they need it.

Second, they can tap into a desk booking system, also called hoteling software. Companies can use FlexOS, a type of Operating System for flexible workspaces. The platform allows employees to book space so that the company knows when to halt bookings.

Creating a network of offices for your hybrid work strategy

For larger companies, building and operating large offices that offer all the spaces a hybrid office needs isn’t an issue. Still, it requires employees to come to one office no matter what the task. A better approach is to build a network of spaces. The Harvard Business Review article mentioned before highlights a great case study.

Fujitsu wanted to support their team in Japan to get into a flow state, to be at peak productivity. Their hybrid strategy therefore focused not on one single office to supplement remote work. Instead, Fujitsu created an ecosystem of spaces that together formed the “borderless office.” It includes hubs that maximize cooperation, satellites that facilitate coordination, and shared offices that enable focus.

Managing people in a hybrid work model

As places (and time) to work change, management needs to change as well. Both the manager and their reports need to learn how to be at their best in a hybrid work model. Take for example PwC, one of the largest employers in the UK and a global leader in professional services.

In March, they introduced “The Deal” as a flexible work commitment for 22,000 employees in response to changing working patterns. It includes freedom in starting time and ending time, the opportunity to work from home, reduced ‘summer days.’ Kevin Ellis, chairman and senior partner at PwC, said: “We’ve long promoted flexible working. We hope today’s announcements make it much more the norm rather than the exception. We want our people to feel trusted and empowered.” (13)

PwC recently reflected on how “The Deal” impacted management models. They shared it’s now not only about productivity. But that it’s also about employee wellbeing and happiness. Managers additionally need to make sure that employees have a rewarding career and clear role progression. When people work in different places and at different times, video conferencing and planned check-ins have become more important too. A better onboarding program has also become key. (14)

Using technology, process and policies to make hybrid organizations more equitable

One of the main downsides of hybrid (and remote) organizations is that they become inequitable. Both the experience and the opportunities for (part-time) remote workers can be less than those in the office. Zillow’s CEO Rich Barton warned of this earlier in the year.

“We must ensure a level playing field for all team members, regardless of their physical location,” Barton said. “There cannot be a two-class system. Meaning that those in the room are first-class. And those on the phone being second-class.” (15)

Gitlab, the fully remote company that just went public for at a 15 billion dollar valuation, used even strong words. Their CEO called a hybrid model “the worst of both worlds.”

Research shows that people who spend less time in the office, get fewer promotions. And that they are perceived to be less productive. They also received less information. The very information they need to work well and grow in their career.

Remote coworkers also can feel less engaged. This has them potentially detaching from the company, risking resignations for the organization. This is especially true for people in roles that require collaboration.

These problems can be solved in two ways: by using technology and through process & policy.

Technology

Technology can ensure a more equitable workplace. In a recent interview, experts at Steelcase and Gensler gave tips around integrating physical spaces and technology. (16)

Many hybrid meetings are held in conference rooms with a long table and one big screen. This means that all remote participants are shown together on the screen. And that they don’t have the same amount of ‘real estate’ as the in-person participants. Giving everyone their own screen, placed on the table or on mobile carts, can be a great solution.

Audio is very important too. Often, it’s hard for to people joining remotely, or vice versa. Having the right microphones and speakers in the room reduces this issue.

Collaboration software can further solve the ‘divide’. Think for example about whiteboard solutions like Miro. Or working from shared documents through Google Workspace or Microsoft 365. Common tools like Microsoft Teams and Zoom are allowing for more and more collaboration online. These improvements make meetings much more equitable.

Casual conversations deliver a lot of value to in-office workers. It’s not always the meetings, but the chatting before and after. The best hybrid and remote companies focus on finding ways to replace this. Using open “social” channels on collaboration tools like Slack or Workplace by Facebook recreates this online.

Process & Policy

HR has a big role in the success of a hybrid workplace. Beyond technology and platforms, process and policies can help achieve a successful hybrid workplace. These need to be designed, communicated, trained, and checked for by the HR team.

One essential way to ensure equity for non-office workers is by making information available online. Rather than having a spoken meeting, meetings are run by creating a live working document that can be accessed by those who weren’t there. Any conversation is recapped and documented for that same purpose.

For larger changes in a company, practice a “handbook-first” way of working. This idea, coined by Gitlab, means that all changes are documented in near real-time. This means that onboarding someone is as easy as sharing the handbook. It also allows employees to have one source for all information. Whether they’ve just joined or have been there for years.

For office workers, it’s easy to forget that their work from home-counterparts are human too. Training and fostering empathy, therefore, becomes important. Ensure meetings start with a genuine “how are you.” Or schedule time for more friendly conversations after the official part of the meeting. This keeps human connections alive – key for making workplaces equitable.

Leaders can help build a more equitable company by modeling hybrid behaviors. They can work outside of the office for a few days a week. This signals that people don’t need to be in the office to be productive or to get ahead.

Should your company embrace hybrid work?

With so many challenges and required changes, you may wonder where to go hybrid. It’s good to keep in mind that hybrid work, may be challenging to implement. But, that it’s likely to become a must in the (near) future. Companies that offer hybrid work are more attractive to employees.

As companies are nothing but a group of people, the ability to attract, engage, and retain the best talent will remain critical. And with only 9.4% of Vietnamese Gen Z saying that work should happen exclusively in the office (4) , there was never a better time to start with hybrid!

Getting started with hybrid work

Motivated? Inspired? To start implementing the potential win-win of hybrid work, take these three steps first.

Understand your key stakeholder’s appetite

That someone in an organization wants to embrace hybrid work is great news. It’s doesn’t mean that everyone will be equally excited. Before starting a big transformation project, ensure you perform a ‘temperature check.’ With all your key stakeholders. What is their appetite for hybrid work? Are they looking to make changes in flexibility around space only? Or time as well? What would hybrid mean to them? And what would, and wouldn’t, motivate them.

Survey your team

To make informed decisions of how and to what degree you will adopt hybrid work, survey your team. Getting first-line insights into what they actually want, is critical.

The most important information to gather is:

  • Do you need (dedicated) working space in our HQ and how often?
  • How many days would you ideally work from home or work near home?
  • How far would you ideally travel (maximum) to get to work?
  • Do you have requirements that tie you to a physical office like document storage?
  • What are any concerns about hybrid work you may have?

Get ready to measure, learn, and optimize

You’re about to embark on a big and new journey. How do we ensure you’re successful? (Lean) startups have always embraced the build – measure – learn – (and optimize!) mindset. (17) Start by setting goals and picture what success looks like. Then align metrics against that. Ensure you actually measure on those items, and review them. Constantly. This will allow you to not only see what is working but also adjust where it isn’t.

Sources for this article:

  1. Lynda Gratton, “How to Do Hybrid Right,” Harvard Business Review, May–June 2021
  2. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience,” January 1990
  3. Justin Bariso, “Jeff Bezos Schedules His Most Important Meetings at 10 a.m. Here’s Why You Should Too,” Inc., September 2018
  4. Dreamplex and Decision Lab, “Gen Z & The Workplace in Vietnam,” September 2021
  5. Christine Congdon and others, “Balancing “We” and “Me”: The Best Collaborative Spaces Also Support Solitude,” Harvard Business Review, October 2014
  6. Steelcase, “Work Better: It’s time for an experience that’s fundamentally better,” December 2020
  7. Dreamplex, Online Survey, May 2020. N=49.
  8. Jack Kelley, “Google CEO Sundar Pichai Calls For A ‘Hybrid’ Work-From-Home Model,” Forbes, September 2020
  9. Catherine Nixey, “Death of the Office,” The Economist, April 2020
  10. Microsoft, “The New Future of Work,” January 2021Dreamplex and Decision Lab, “Gen Z & The Workplace in Vietnam,” August 2020
  11. Brent Hyder, Salesforce, “Creating a Best Workplace from Anywhere, for Everyone,” February 2021
  12. Laetitia Lynn, PwC, “PwC announces new flexible work deal for employees,” March 2021
  13. Dara Douglas and Simon Dudley, “Building a people-centric workplace within a flexible office environment,” Information Age, October 2021
  14. Avery Hartmans, Business Insider, “Zillow is adopting a hybrid model of work, but its CEO says it’s trying to prevent one major downside: a ‘two-class system’ where those who come into the office are viewed as better employees,” February 2021
  15. Jim Keane and Todd Heiser, Harvard Business Review, “4 Strategies for Building a Hybrid Workplace that Works,” July 2021
  16. Eric Ries, “The Lean Startup Principles,” 2010

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