Originally published in the Globe & Mail May 13, 2022
3+2, 4+1, 2+3. In today’s business context, these are not simple math equations but rather the way companies are trying to build consistency for their employees in their hybrid working models.
The figures represent the number of days employees are expected to be in the office versus not. According to Nick Bloom, Stanford Economics professor and co-founder of wfhresearch.com, the optimal mix may be 3+2 … or maybe 2+3, and he believes the arrangement will last, “in part because of technological advances improving the hybrid work-from-home experience.”
Laszlo Bock, former CHRO of Google and founder of Humu, concurs with the 3+2 balance; however, Bock predicts hybrid won’t last more than three to five years, because of various reasons including “bosses wanting people back in the office” and “a lopsided system for employee evaluations.”
But does the ratio of office-to-home days actually matter? Does it need to be uniform and set in stone? Indeed, many organizations are still stuck at the point of figuring out whether hybrid working is a viable option at all.
Part of the challenge is people think in extremes when they are uncomfortable with the unknown. Hybrid working, by definition, is a blend of in-office and remote work. This means employees will be in the office, but not necessarily full-time – which is subject to interpretation and therefore fills leaders with uncertainty and fear that their people will never be in the office. In a hybrid model – different from a remote-first or fully remote model – it is fair to expect employees can get to their workplace within reasonable commuting time, unless they have an explicit arrangement otherwise. Therefore, we need to trust and empower employees to show up when they need and/or want to – when it’s the better choice for themselves and/or their team and/or their client, whether it’s for social, productivity or collaboration reasons. This will take time to normalize, and people will occasionally make the wrong decision, but it’s important we keep the lines of communication open to learn from mistakes and course-correct quickly.
Several financial services companies were first out the gate declaring that hybrid working wasn’t for them. For example, JP Morgan’s chief executive officer, Jamie Dimon, was quoted saying, “Working from home doesn’t work for people who want to hustle, doesn’t work for culture, doesn’t work for idea generation.” But some, including Mr. Dimon, seem to have had a recent change of heart. Last month, it was announced that JP Morgan would allow most workers to work remotely at least part of the time. Whether this decision was based on a true change in belief or because of fear of attrition (anticipated or real), employees have spoken and it’s clear that if their employer doesn’t offer flexibility, they will find one that does.
There have been some arguments against hybrid working that we need to address and manage as leaders as we embark on this next chapter. A few to consider:
“If they’re not in front of me, they’re obviously not working as hard.” Leaders need to focus on being clear about goals, including timelines and driving desired outcomes. I always say, if someone is shopping online or streaming Netflix instead of working, I would rather they do that at home than in an open floor plan for all to see. If they don’t deliver, it’s a performance conversation, not a location one.
“We can’t preserve our culture if we are in a hybrid or remote working model.” The truth is, culture must evolve to be relevant. It is not the physical structure of an office building that matters most, it’s the values and relationships that have been built in its four walls and outside of them. An organization’s culture remains deeply rooted within us and our work practices – it just evolves as we move along our journey. Companies that didn’t already deliberately manage their culture, aligned with their purpose, will need to do some soul-searching to ensure they build the culture they want and need to be successful in this next chapter.
“If I don’t assign set days in the office no one will show up.” There may be days where leaders wonder where everyone is, but giving people a reason to be in the office (and not just free lunch) is the work. Creating pull to the office, a “want to” as opposed to a “have to,” is more sustainable in the long run than having fixed mandated in-office days. People are craving in-person interaction – but they are also looking for signals from leaders regarding when and for what (hint: not for more Zoom calls).
At the end of the day, a hybrid model will not be successful without strong leadership buy-in and role modelling. Like Mr. Bock said in a recent LinkedIn post, ” 3+2 schedule maximizes happiness and productivity, but only if companies and managers are willing to do the work needed to make it successful. Most don’t know how.” Let’s support leaders in developing new capabilities, instead of mandating everyone back to the office because leaders don’t yet know how to lead in this way.