Hybrid work is trending, and it seems almost every organization that can, is planning to offer some kind of hybrid working arrangement for the majority of its employees. Of course, there are some types of businesses or jobs for which hybrid just isn’t an option. But many—including those who never would have imagined it before the pandemic—are now moving in the direction of hybrid.
There are plenty of good reasons to implement hybrid work: Organizations want to offer more flexibility to employees, and they want to support work-life. For many employees, the opportunity to avoid the commute or their button pants offer efficiency, convenience and comfort. Companies also recognize the reality of the talent revolution in which large proportions of people report they plan to leave their current employer—39% according to one study—if their employer doesn’t offer an option for remote work.
The Importance of Being Intentional
But companies cannot just decide to implement hybrid work without a lot of planning and strategic thinking—or they risk inefficiencies, inequity and the deterioration of their culture. In fact, a pitfall in implementing hybrid work is to over-simplify, or to underappreciate the depth of thinking that must be part of the planning.
Most companies want to know what others are doing. The request for “benchmark” information is often code for, “We really don’t know what to do. What can we learn (copy) from others?” The challenge is that few companies have fully implemented hybrid, and many are pressing the pause button on bringing people back—at least until the Delta variant is under better control.
But we do know how some companies are choosing to implement hybrid work, and these approaches can provide breadcrumbs for those who come after.
The Importance of Both-And
As companies are implementing hybrid work, they will be wise to stay out of the debates about whether working remote or in the office has merit. Much of the popular press has turned the hybrid conversation into a debate about which is superior. In truth, both modes of work have benefits as well as drawbacks for employees and employers. And the true advantage of hybrid is the extent to which it offers greater choice and flexibility and the opportunity to work in multiple places—whether in the office or away from it.
The Range of Options and Their Rationale
Companies are taking many different approaches to hybrid work, from an all-back-to-the-office model to a work-away-from-the-office-forever model. Think of these on a continuum which features a range of rationale for the various solutions. Here are the details:
Some companies are requiring workers to come back to the office full time. Even when they are delaying the return, they plan to bring people back except in cases where employees have a unique need to continue working from home.
Rationale: These companies tend to believe they cannot (continue to) serve customers effectively with people out of the office. They may also believe their work requires a more in-person model based on a high need for information security or a desire for in-person collaboration because it is integral to their ability to compete. One CEO who is in the “all-back” camp said, “Make no mistake about it, sending people home to work was a response to the pandemic. It wasn’t a choice we made because we thought it was the best strategy for our business or our future.”
Days of the Week Models
Mandating number of days and days of the week. Some companies are taking an approach where they are mandating the number of days people come back and which days people are in the office. A popular model is a three-two model, for example. In this case, companies are mandating people come back three days a week (usually Monday through Wednesday or Tuesday through Thursday) and giving people the option to work from home the other days of the week.
Rationale: Businesses which are taking this approach want to find a balance between giving people choice and also maintaining their culture and the synergies which arise from people working together. By structuring a three-two (or in some cases a two-three) approach, they are hoping to provide overall guidelines which create consistency and equity while providing more efficiency in terms of team members coming together in person. They reason that having structure about when people are in the office will reduce the burden for team members and leaders who would otherwise have to put more effort into coordinating connections.
Mandating number of days, but not days of the week. Another group of companies is mandating the number of days people must be in the office, but leaving it to team leaders to determine the days of the week. For example, they are mandating people must be in the office two, three or four days a week, but allowing team leaders to be the decision makers about exactly which days of the week.
Rationale: Companies taking this approach are seeking to bring people into the office for necessary collaboration and critical mass, but attempting to provide flexibility so team leaders can make decisions specific to their teams’ work and the unique needs of individual employees.
Mandating weeks per month. While most companies are planning based on weekly segments of time, some are considering monthly rhythms. In these cases, companies are mandating people must be in the office one or two weeks a month. As with the models above, in some cases they are pre-determining which weeks, and in other cases, they are leaving this decision making up to leaders.
Rationale: Their rationale is similar to the rationale above—the difference in the model is they are thinking of a monthly, rather than a weekly unit for decision making. Often, this works best when the business cycle is based on a monthly or a quarterly cycle of activity.
A few companies are saying employees must come back some of the time, but leaving the specifics (ex. number of days, days of the week) up to leaders.
Rationale: They believe there is value in bringing people back to the office but want to provide plenty of discretion and control for leaders to decide how many days and which days of the week will work best for the specific work of the team.
A handful of companies are announcing their employees will not need to come back to the office at all. However, when you read the fine print of their polices, most of these are asking leaders to make decisions at the team level in cases where the work demands some in-person presence.
Rationale: Companies taking this approach believe they can be just as effective and maintain their cultures when people are working at a distance. Many of these have strong (and long-standing) leadership development programs which equip leaders with skills to lead effectively from a distance and engage and motivate employees based on outcomes. Many of these companies also have well-established systems for managing performance that is outcome-based. Many of them are also in especially competitive markets where talent is at a premium.
While many organizations are developing hybrid working models with an emphasis on where people work, a small number of companies are trying innovative approaches which prioritize when people work. Some are experimenting with the shift to a four-day work week. Some of these are paying people for 40 hours of work, and others are paying people for 32 hours of work. In either case, they are asking people to avoid working on Fridays, so everyone benefits from a longer breather each week.
Rationale: These companies are seeking to tip the balance toward plenty of support for work-life and ensure they keep strong talent. They are also seeking to experiment and try new models so they can grow, evolve and innovate to be on the cutting edge of their value equations for employees and for customers.
The Need to Keep Culture Top-of-Mind
Keep in mind how you decide and the models you adopt will be critical to your work, but will also send a message about your culture, your respect for people and your values and priorities. Be sure you’re making decisions which are best for people and for the business and which are truly fair and also perceived as fair.
A pitfall is to focus so much on the details of your model that you miss the bigger picture of your culture. Remember the old saying, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”? Beware getting into a situation where “process is eating culture alive.” Focus on how you’ll implement hybrid work, but not to the extent you miss the bigger picture of your culture and the messages you’re sending to employees and to your customers and shareholders.
The Criteria for Decision Making
As you’re deciding on your approach, you’ll want to consider all kinds of variables:
- Your culture—including the degree of in-person work necessary to maintain it
- Your customers, your market and your ability to compete
- Your talent and the extent to which you can attract, retain, engage and develop your people—and the extent to which you’ll need to differentiate through the working models you offer
- Your real estate and workplaces, and how you’ll accommodate people and create compelling places they want to be
- How you’ll support hybrid working through home office furniture or tech accommodations, work club memberships, apps to connect people, or the like.
In addition, you’ll need to balance individual needs with team and organizational needs and ensure you’re balancing choice and flexibility with firm expectations for performance. You’ll also want to implement approaches to measure and monitor your processes over time, not only so you can respond to changing circumstances, but also so you can continuously improve based on what you will surely learn as new patterns of behavior emerge.
In a macro sense, this will be the most significant reinvention of work in our lifetimes. It is a moment for all of us to deeply consider (and reconsider) the value our companies deliver and how we innovate and compete, as well as how we create the conditions for people to be happy, fulfilled and bring their best to their work. Finding the right balance won’t be easy, but it represents an opportunity for brilliant new solutions that serve people and organizations.