What I Got Wrong About Hybrid Work
Like most executives that have guided companies over the past three years, early on in the pandemic I came to the conclusion that hybrid work was going to be the future of work. It would offer the perfect balance of flexibility for employees and a break from spending 5 days a week in soul-crushing commutes.
On the flip side in-office days a few times a week would offer vibrancy, collaboration, mentorship, and friendship. And because the benefits of hybrid work were so apparent to all, I just assumed everyone would flock to this way of working. We would declare ourselves a hybrid working company and it would all work out.
Boy was I wrong.
Error #1: Hybrid work means the same thing to everyone
My first error was making the assumption that hybrid work meant the same thing to everyone. Turns out there is a big disparity between management’s view of how hybrid teams work and most employees. This is where a clearly communicated hybrid work policy can come in handy.
Management’s hybrid work view: The office is your primary workplace but employees have flexibility.
This view of a hybrid environment at work typically translates into an expectation that employees are in the office 3-4 days per week with flexibility to work from home around personal needs, work assignments, and avoiding commuting every day.
Employee’s hybrid work view: The home is your primary workplace with the option to go into an office.
This view of hybrid work translates into the expectation that the vast majority of work is done at home and that employees have the OPTION to go into an office for team days or for meetings based on the team meetings specific needs. In reality, for most employees this means they are in the office once or twice a month, if that.
The disparity between employer and employee expectations is the biggest barrier to finding the hybrid work xanadu that most executives have been envisioning for the past 3 years.
Error #2: Not addressing hiring earlier
You can’t solve the hybrid work problem with your workforce if you don’t address hiring first. Why would existing employees come into the office regularly if every one of their new colleagues is remote?
Not only does this create real logistical problems on site and for people coming into the office, it also creates real equity and value challenges for existing employees. “Why do I have to commute into the office all the time just because I have worked here for a few years, while all of my new colleagues work remotely from home?”
If you don’t address hiring right away, like right now, you are just going to be creating a bigger challenge when you try to shift and move to a true hybrid model.
Error #3: Assuming that managers will take care of it on their own
I made this mistake and I can think of countless organizations that have made the same mistake. Instead of making company-wide decisions, they make no-decision, and instead make the decree that they would like more people coming into the office and for managers to figure it out.
Then they leave managers to deal with all of the challenges, emotions, and pitfalls of implementing a hybrid workplace while also doing their day job. Well, guess what, if it was hard for you, it’s going to be that much harder for your managers. So what do they do? Nothing. Then you’re left wondering why no one is in your hybrid office.
That being said, the role of mid-level managers will be integral to fostering connections with, and between, colleagues in the post-pandemic workplace since they work directly with employees. Managers need to be more intentional about planning events that enable team building and trust, both in-person and virtually. These managers will also be the ones responsible for monitoring performance and determining the right mix between office time and remote work for different roles and employees.
Error #4: Not implementing structure with a hybrid work policy
Humans are creatures of habit. Think about it - almost everything we do in life is based on schedules, structures, and habits. From brushing our teeth, to working out, to free time on weekends, our lives revolve around schedules.
Yet, with hybrid work, we have basically told employees that have largely worked from home for the past 3 years to figure out on their own and find balance between going into the office and working from home.
Well guess what? Their habit is working from home! That’s what they are going to keep doing unless a structure is created that brings them into the office regularly. Giving your teams clear guidelines via a hybrid work policy can help provide an outline of expected structure.
Error #5: Assuming employees will quit if you implement true hybrid work
For a long time we were worried that we would have an exodus out the door if we created any expectations about what hybrid work should look like.
What we found was that as we started to create expectations around hybrid work, creating some structure to make sure people were collaborating effectively, people didn’t push back or leave.
How to avoid my mistakes
1. Start creating a shared view of what hybrid work means across the company
Is it one day a week, 2, 3, or 4? Does it vary by team? Be clear about your hybrid work policy so employees know what is expected of them.
A critical piece of managing hybrid teams is ensuring everyone has the information they need to work within your organization's specific plans. Remote work still has a place in a hybrid environment, you just need to be clear about the parameters.
Recent Robin research found that over 67% of leaders mandate employees work from the office two or three days a week. Moving forward, employers will be focusing on re-balancing the scales of hybrid work to include more in-person time. In fact, 43% of respondents said their organization plans to increase RTO mandates in 2023.
2. Go slow and communicate often
When communicating plans to employees, leaders must be clear about their expectations and vision of work. The next year will be filled with a lot of trial and error for organizations. Establishing an employee feedback loop to gain a deeper understanding of the hybrid experience will help build trust and remove uncertainty around RTO.
For employees that have been largely remote for 3 years, it is difficult to go straight back to 4 days a week in the office. Start slow with one day a week in the office and see how it goes. Be flexible and allow teams to come up with cadences that work for them.
3. Create some structure and build vibrancy in the workplace
You will not be successful unless you clearly communicate expectations and create some structure. Structure can take lots of forms, but without any of it you will end up back where you have been for the past 3 years.
Define your hybrid work strategy clearly and make that information available to everyone. Structure combined with workplace activities, events, and vibrancy are an incredibly powerful combination that can lead to a stronger company culture.
4. Keep improving your hybrid environment
Listen to feedback and see what is working and what isn’t working. We have done lots of trial and error and continue to hone in on a strategy that seems to be working well. Talking to your in-office workers is a great place to start.
As new developments and technologies emerge to meet the needs of hybrid work, employers and office leaders should also dive into the data in order to make informed decisions rather than guessing. Armed with the insights they glean from workplace analytics, executives can make decisions that bring positive results.
Confidently Managing a Hybrid Workforce
Today, I am more confident than ever that the xanadu of true hybrid work does exist - that perfect balance of heads down at-home work and vibrant in-office time, spending time together with colleagues.
It takes action and purpose to get there though. With the right resources and the right strategy, execution, and communication strategy I know every organization can find that balance.