The hybrid workplace is here to stay – three ways to make the most of it

Originally published in the Globe & Mail May 10, 2021

As more countries and companies start to prepare for a post-pandemic future, there are many questions surrounding what the workplace will look like. With such variability regarding readiness for, and openness to, co-locating with colleagues, there’s no doubt we will need to employ a remote-first and hybrid approach for quite some time – and for many, indefinitely.

The big question is how to enable a hybrid way of working – where workers have the choice to be co-located or remote – that maintains or increases productivity and engagement. As we continue to revise and refine return-to-office plans, we must all keep in mind that flexibility will need to be our mantra. While eyes are on HR departments for a silver-bullet solution, no policies will catch all scenarios. A leadership mindset that embraces the unknown and relinquishes control will be a differentiator in making or breaking organizations.

The good news is that 79 per cent of C-suite executives plan to implement or sustain a hybrid working model post-pandemic, according to a study conducted by WeWork in partnership with independent research firm Workplace Intelligence.

Here are a few principles to consider when implementing a hybrid workplace.

Flexibility is purposely flexible: While it may provide comfort to have set days in the office and rules around working time, employees want control over their schedules and location. Telling people they are allowed to work from home on Fridays and can’t send e-mails after five o’clock simply provides new rules. Instead, consider norms that encourage true flexibility. This way, colleagues – including those who don’t have the luxury of working remotely – can adapt to ways that work for their particular situations. For example, one company I work with encouraged everyone to include the following text above their e-mail signature: While it suits me to send an e-mail now, a response or action is not expected outside of your own flex work hours.

Implement digital-first in a more sustainable way: Once we are able to co-locate safely and comfortably, we will need to make more deliberate decisions about use of space (for what purpose or occasions) and digital tools. This requires a change in mindset and behaviour toward trusting and empowering employees, while leveraging options to keep connected in various scenarios. For example, including Teams or Zoom links in meeting invites or, better yet, replacing low-value meetings with asynchronous collaboration through digital tools.

Design with individual human, not just institutional, concerns in mind: In this month’s Harvard Business Review, Lynda Gratton, professor of management practice at London Business School and founder of the Hot Spots Movement consultancy, suggests managers approach hybrid work with the following in mind.

1) Job and task: Consider the corresponding level of energy, focus, co-ordination and co-operation required to drive productivity on both fronts. For example, demands for each can vary significantly between strategic planning (where the primary productivity driver is focus) and team management (whose primary productivity driver is co-ordination).

2) Employee preferences: Factors such as proximity to the office, tenure (and learning curve) in role and extraversion versus introversion contribute to overall productivity. As the article suggests, using a design-thinking approach based on personas, and interplay among them, is critical.

3) Projects and workflows: Consider how technology can be leveraged to better co-ordinate across teams and projects, in absence of co-location. Also take the opportunity to optimize processes that no longer work (or may never have) in a hybrid model.

4) Inclusion and fairness: Remote working has presented an opportunity to level the playing field. Everyone has the same amount of real estate on our Zoom screens, and no one is “in the room” or left out for being the only person to dial in (as opposed to video). However, as we move to a more hybrid model, all eyes will be on leadership buy-in and adoption. The moment it is perceived that flexibility leads to career and opportunity limitations, the model unravels and cultural ramifications ensue.

Each of these presents design considerations for hybrid work along “space” and “time” dimensions. Because organizations are comprised of individuals with diverse needs – who also manage many jobs and tasks concurrently – it’s clear that offering as much choice as possible, with leadership buy-in and adoption as a top priority, is key to optimizing productivity in a hybrid model.

Naomi Titleman Colla is founder of Collaborativity Inc., a Toronto-based consultancy focused on driving progressive talent strategy in this new world of work. She is also a co-founder of Future FoHRward, a Josh Bersin Academy partner.

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