“Hybrid is much more complicated. It requires planning, intentional leadership, intentionally building the right technologies, norms and processes …” – Tsedal Neeley, ‘The Dos and Don’ts of Returning to the Office’
The world at large is experiencing a radical rethink of how we work and where we work. As workplaces tentatively move back to the office, many industries are now finding they need to reassess what this working environment will look like. For many of them, this is a hybrid-first approach for their employees. So much so that many countries are now introducing new laws around hybrid and remote work. The world is changing, and quickly, and it seems that everyone is scrambling to discover the best way to adapt to this new way of working. The remote work debate can be divisive, as we saw recently with the leaking of Elon Musk’s email to his Tesla employees. But the reality is that there is now overall greater demand and expectations around the right to work remotely. Companies are having to keep up with this demand or justify strongly why they cannot and risk losing talent for it.
An idealistic view of hybrid work would be that it is the best of both worlds: you get the freedom of working from home with all the perks that come with an office space. Studies are showing that there are countless benefits to allowing your employees to work remotely. However, it is becoming abundantly clear that there is not one right way to do the hybrid workplace. The only way that a company can build a successful hybrid workplace is by being agile and open to trying new things. And (arguably the most important thing) by taking a people and culture-orientated approach to any frameworks they put in place to make their organisation a hybrid-first workplace. It’s all about the people.
Companies are finding that the biggest challenge they are facing at the moment is finding and retaining great people. Workers have experienced the freedom and autonomy of remote work over the past couple of years. They adjusted, they grew and now, quite rightfully, they do not understand why they should be expected to go back to the same office and work schedule that they were experiencing before. The Great Resignation, an economic trend that emerged during the coronavirus pandemic, saw workers searching for more desirable working opportunities and higher wages due to there being more work-from-home options. While in the wake of high inflation, this trend is slowing, its impact is permanent: companies are now implementing frameworks in their workflow with a hybrid-first approach in mind. Recruitment is difficult, but with a hybrid-first approach, companies can now find brilliant candidates without being limited by location. And a well-thought-out hybrid workplace culture can see your organisation becoming sought after by candidates, as was the case with Canva’s progressive culture, which attracted over 300 000 job applicants in a year.
Hybrid work is here to stay, it would seem. So what are some ways that you can ensure it is done well? We will reiterate here that there is no one-size-fits-all approach. But there are some general tips we have learned that companies can take into consideration. Tips that will help companies ease into the transition and keep their staff engaged along the way.
- Develop a long-term internal communication strategy
Communicate. Communicate. Communicate. While developing new frameworks around best hybrid work practices be aware that things will always be fluctuating. Expect things not to work and be ready to change, but be prepared for how you want to communicate these changes going forward. This does make it difficult to strategise long-term, but one thing you can prepare for the long term is how you will communicate new changes with your employees. Who will communicate what and where? And how frequently? Plan for how to communicate the introduction of new practices and plan on how people can provide feedback on these practices. This is an opportune time to learn from one another and share.
Think carefully about your people and how you can keep them engaged in the mission to provide the best hybrid workspace for everyone. It’s better to ask the hard questions first than to later receive the complaints. How can you keep communication open so you can spot problems early on? How can you promote healthy discussion amongst your employees so that everyone feels they are being heard? Put structures in place to facilitate these important, transparent conversations. Whether it’s regular check-ins, listening sessions, or surveys, find a way that makes your employees feel like they truly have a voice. That they are safe to put forward opinions and exchange ideas about what they want to see in their hybrid environment.
- Plan for human connection
Humans long for connection and this is just as true in the workplace as it is in any other area of our lives. Companies need to keep this in mind when developing ideas around their hybrid workplaces. There cannot be an expectation from leadership that their employees will be proactive about seeking human connection in a hybrid environment. Good leadership will facilitate and encourage these interactions.
Hybrid events can be challenging and these things take practice. They need to happen frequently for people to become accustomed to them and for them to get the most out of them. Give your hybrid events the time and effort they deserve. Your people will see and appreciate the care you put into them, especially your remote employees. Provide opportunities for your employees to build stories together both online and offline regularly. Build new online traditions: keep your yearly live Summer event, but also develop an incredible yearly online Winter event. Something that becomes a special occasion for everyone to look forward to, especially your remote employees.
Celebrate company successes and milestones in a space where everyone can share in the joy, whether this is through a Slack channel, or by producing kick-ass intranet content. Make your remote employees feel as involved as those that are in the office that day.
- Create a wholistically hybrid culture (that is built to last)
This may seem obvious, but it’s important to keep in mind to keep your thinking hybrid (or remote) first. Be clear about your purpose to be a hybrid first company and keep that mission at the forefront of any decision-making. Ensure your workplace is wholly hybrid and that your culture reflects this. This doesn’t mean having a workplace with some hybrid and online elements thrown in occasionally to cater to your remote workers. This will only isolate your remote workers. Decisions need to be made based on all of your team members is included. Ensure that hybrid becomes a part of your culture and you do not compromise on that. Your digital tools now need to become spaces where people meet and experience your culture, and the office needs to become a tool that is built to suit what your employees require of it.
This needs to be reflected in every aspect of your business: in workplace practices and workflows, in strategy, in management, in communication, in the tools and infrastructure you use, in the social events you organise, in your recruitment and in the way you onboard your newcomers. Teach your people what your company means by hybrid first.
Engage them early on in this hybrid way of thinking. Ask them questions: what do you want to see in your office when you are in the office? Why are you coming in when you are in the office? What do you need from the office and how can we refit it to suit your purpose? Do you need more meeting rooms, soundproof rooms, and collaborative spaces that cater to hybrid collaboration? Find ways to communicate your hybrid culture consistently and naturally. Is there a centralised communication and information point that is accessible to everyone?
- Promote productivity and wellbeing
Just by being hybrid, you are already showing that you care for your employee’s productivity and well-being. Your people will see if you care about their well-being and experience it. Prioritise and ask questions about well-being. Find out what parts of their well-being they value from working from home and what parts of well-being they feel working at the office offers. Set clear guidelines around availability and working hours and lead by example. The management team should encourage work-life balance and the importance of free time.
It is important to have conversations about the type of work your employees want to do while they are in the office. These conversations will highlight two important things: they allow for expectation management around productivity and also ensure that your company’s physical and virtual spaces are catering to your employees’ needs. For some, the office is a place where they feel less productive, but gain valuable connections with their colleagues in this in-office time. They could feel some apprehension about coming into the office as their productivity will be affected, especially if this productivity has played a big factor in their right to work remotely. Be open that it is OK to be less productive on those days in the office and that your company places the same importance on connections as they do on productivity. On the other hand, for others, the office may be a refuge where they can escape a distracting home environment and get some deep-focus work done. Does your office cater for both these needs? Are there communal and collaborative spaces for some, and quieter spaces for others? Consult regularly with your IT team and workers to see how productivity can be improved with technology. And talk to your workers about their physical space. Is it giving them what they need when they do come to the office? How can it be improved? By building spaces around the well-being of your employees, they will consistently experience that you value them, which leads to better productivity and staff retention.
- Invest in training, support and onboarding
This is truly a time when you and your employees will be learning alongside each other. Sometimes you are not going to have the answers, and the best thing you can do then reaches out for external support for training, development and coaching – specifically ones that will make your employees better hybrid collaborators. Having the skills to communicate and collaborate effectively in a hybrid environment is essential to the success of any leader and their team, but is something that is rarely taught.
A lot of the time, people have to navigate this through trial and error. Seeing this, Locus Quest developed our executive coaching game, Airplane. Built specifically for executive leadership teams, Airplane shines a spotlight on team dynamics and specific issues in communication. With the safety of an experienced executive coach guiding them over two sessions, the teams identify any communication issues they have, assess how they can improve, and continue to play the game to put these improvements into action. We have found Airplane to be an invaluable intervention tool for teams experiencing communication issues. It is also for teams who do not need an intervention, but who are open to improving how they can collaborate better together in an online environment. Plus, an added perk, it’s a massive amount of fun to play.
And finally, we come to onboarding. We cannot stress the importance of investing in a great onboarding experience for your newcomers. Onboarding is a whole world in itself. To do it justice, we dedicated an entire blog to the online onboarding process alone, which you can read here. But in summary, the onboarding process is crucial to ensuring that both your newcomers and your established teams can build bonds and find their place in the company. It’s the first impression that newcomers have on what it is like to be a part of your company, and first impressions count. This is especially so in a hybrid environment where chances are some of your newcomers are experiencing their onboarding phase from their homes, without the impact of the physical office environment to help them build their founding connections.
In conclusion, we can only reiterate that a great hybrid workplace is built by and for its people. The most valuable tool that any hybrid company can have is open communication with its employees. Any steps they take towards ensuring that this is a priority will be one step closer to building a better hybrid workplace. Start having the conversations now, look at ways to make your people feel safe to voice their opinions, and educate your leaders so that the hybrid way of working becomes a more natural way of working for them. In time you will build your own unique practices for your hybrid-first workplace.