What is hybrid work and what role will it play in 2021 and beyond?

Belynda Cianci
Belynda Cianci

Nearly a year into COVID-19 and our experience in the working world is changing daily. For companies who were previously “office-first” – where everyone was expected in the physical office during working hours – the transition was sudden and challenging, but yielded surprising results.

Many companies who never envisioned the possibility of remote-work success found that their team not only rose to the occasion, but thrived in it. 

Regardless of the past, many companies are coming to terms with the changes COVID has brought. Chief among them is answering the question: How and where will our employees work longer term?

Enter the era of hybrid work

We’ve seen the term thrown around in headlines and newsletters. But what does it mean and why is it so popular all of the sudden? 

At its core, hybrid work (often confused with the umbrella term “flexible work”) encompasses the concept of supporting employees to do work in-office AND remotely. 

Here’s how we define  “hybrid work”: 


It’s about finding a balance between WFH (work from home) and WFO (work from office).  

Why are people embracing hybrid work now?

Obvious question, we know. A pandemic hit and everyone was forced to leave their offices. Aside from essential workers, most of us used to waking up early for our commute to the office Monday through Friday were transitioned to remote-first for a few months.

According to Axios @ Work, 90% of people picture an office in their future, but not every day, which begs the question, how much office do companies even need?


COVID-19 proved that the office isn’t the only place to get work done. It’s an important place for collaboration, face-to-face interactions, and group projects. But it’s not the only place. 

Companies are realizing this and by listening to their employees and keeping up with local guidelines, they’re coming up with a long-term hybrid strategy that meets the needs of their people. 

Because if COVID has taught us anything, it’s that flexibility is no longer a nice-to-have, but a need-to-have.

The many faces of hybrid work

Hybrid work can take many shapes depending on organizational goals. Here are a few of the most common we’re seeing emerge.

1. Employee choice 

In some cases, it’s feasible to leave the decision up to the individual. In this case, employees can decide whether or not they want to come into the office and when. While it seems like most people are opting for full-time remote work today, the reality has a bit more nuance. 

In fact, less than 10% of employees want to go solely remote, according to a survey by Barclays. Flexibility is far more desirable.  While the majority of workers (64%) desire at least some in person hours upon their return, the previous desire for a flexible work scenario has been pushed to the forefront as a result of COVID-19. 

Since offices are operating at reduced capacity to abide by social distancing, an “employee choice” hybrid work model is pretty akin to a first come, first serve scenario.

Logistically speaking, we’ve seen this strategy work well when employees have a tool to book desks for themselves on the days they want to come in even if the number of days changes week to week. On the admin side of things, they can use desk check-in data and desk insight reports to see who is or was in the office at any given time while having a fail-safe way to maintain a compliant capacity. 

For an effective hybrid work strategy, employees should be able to interface with the office no matter where they are. Robin’s workplace tools make it easy for people to book a desk, schedule a meeting, find a teammate, and plan workdays to come.

2. Company-wide policy

For some organizations, a hybrid model offers the most of what employees desire while still meeting the needs of the organization. Hybrid work can take many shapes: employees may declare a certain amount of time in the office (for instance, three days on, two days off; or 25% in-person, or four varying days a month visiting the headquarters office). A company-wide policy that applies to all employees is one of the easiest ways to manage hybrid work over a longer period of time or for larger organizations. 

For example, HubSpot did this well when introducing their new hybrid work policy to their employees. They surveyed their people about remote working and provided a spectrum of options to choose from starting January 2021: 

  • @office (mostly in-office)
  • @flex (split between in-office, remote)
  • @home (majority remote) 

They put up the guardrails people needed to feel structure from the top down while still giving each individual the opportunity to choose their own flexible work adventure. 

3. Distributed offices

Distributed offices and hybrid work strategies go hand in hand. The distributed model differs from the traditional large headquarters office the vast majority of employees go to and instead offers smaller offices dotted across multiple locations.  

Distributed teams are typically ones that have mastered the “work from anywhere” approach. Employees are spread across different cities or countries even and either come into one of the satellite offices or maybe use a co-working space when they need resources beyond a home office.

This approach allows employees to work from geographic locations outside of a large headquarter’s current reach. This could allow them to save money over metro area cost of living, or live closer to family members, greatly increasing their quality of life.

Many predict that distributed offices and teams will grow in popularity as companies look to downsize from large headquarters in big cities to better meet their people where they are as they work remotely for at least part of the workweek. 


Benefits and challenges of going hybrid

If your return to work will follow a long-term hybrid strategy, getting a plan in place early and communicating it well is the best way to ensure a smooth transition.

Benefits

Embracing this new model of work can open new opportunities and change your company culture for the better.

1. Retainment: for current employees, the move to a hybrid model can keep job satisfaction high. We know work can be done at home now, so providing people the option to work where they choose will support their new autonomy and overall job satisfaction. Maybe they choose to come into the office when they’re working on a collaborative project and stay home for focus work.  

2. Recruitment: the appeal of hybrid work will continue even after the pandemic wanes. After the era of mandatory remote work, most will view this flexibility as the new standard. It creates an attractive perk for prospective employees, for one. From a company perspective, the broader reach of the hybrid model might open the door to candidates who might otherwise have been out of reach geographically. 

3. Change control: our eyes have been opened to the speed with which the work landscape can change. Now companies are better able to weather changes with as little disruption as possible. This model also allows for a malleable workplace approach that can respond organically to growth in the organization.

4. Real estate doesn't go to waste: While offices are operating at reduced capacity to stay within local guidelines to minimize the spread of COVID-19, hybrid strategies make it so employee can come to the office part of the work week. Giving people an option is key for their own autonomy and makes sure the office space you invested in isn't filling with cobwebs.


Challenges

Local government officials told us we had to leave the office, so we did. During that time there was uniform direction across cities and states. Getting back in isn’t as objective. 

The move to the hybrid workplace model will require thought, adjustments, and process changes. These challenges will look different based on how effectively your organization reacted to WFH in the days of stay-at-home orders.

1. Communication: ensuring you have thorough and consistent communication will be invaluable in easing the transition into hybrid work. This refers to both the communication culture of your company and the tech stack in place to support it. Being able to communicate and collaborate effectively and having solid communication and space booking will play a major role in the success of your transition. 

You’ll need plans for: 

  • Corporate communication platform (Slack, Microsoft Teams, etc.) 
  • Secure, decentralized data, project management, and file-sharing/storage (Asana, Trello, AWS, etc.) 
  • socially-distant floor plans, desk and room booking tools, health checkpoints, and more for when people choose to come into the office (Robin’s got you

2. Real estate: one of the biggest considerations is how the transition will affect your real estate portfolio. Real estate is one of the most expensive costs for a company and the temptation to reduce that cost through less square footage is great. However, the decision should be a thoughtful one that carefully considers all the variables. Some common ones:

  • What is the current in-office headcount for your org? What square footage do you require to work effectively (and now, to socially distance sufficiently)? 
  • Who or what roles or departments can be moved to fully remote?
  • What technical considerations must be made before the move to hybrid work? 
  • How will your company foster a collaborative culture for everyone regardless of if they’re in the office or not?
  • Could these needs be met through other means (such as co-working spaces, smaller space rental, cafe options, etc.)?

In some cases, flex spaces as a complement to home office spaces may offer the best solution. Your organization may find that budgeting for home office stipends will provide value to employees while ensuring they have the best tech to get their jobs done effectively.


3. Company culture: before COVID, the office was the nucleus for company culture. It’s where you interacted with your coworkers, got to know people on a personal level, and held company-wide meetings and post-work events. There’s no simple solve for that in-person interaction we lost when we were all sent home, especially when Zoom fatigue is real.

In order to foster a culture that reaches outside the bounds of the office walls, you’ll need a committee in place to facilitate the subtler aspects of remote work.

One way to support a healthy culture and keep morale high is through employee experience surveys as part of your commitment to communication. These surveys may focus on employee preferences in terms of work flexibility, location, and technology, or gather information about the type of in-person experience your people are looking for in their daily life.

Into a hybrid future

As more companies grapple with the complexities of workplace change, public health considerations, and bottom line adjustments, the appeal of hybrid work will continue to grow. 

Though the move to the hybrid model is complex, it can offer rewards for both the company and its people. With a supportive tech stack and an even more supportive company policy, the benefits of lower overhead, greater autonomy, flexible working options, and resiliency in whatever comes next may prove to be a silver lining of this pandemic.

Want to implement a hybrid work strategy for your workplace? We can help. See how today.

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