Back to the (Future) Office
Early in the morning, my dog and cat wait in front of the back door, ready to go outside. My dog jumps out as I open the door. My cat stares at the open door for an unnerving number of minutes before she finally steps out. When I receive the announcement that my office is reopening, will I be more like the dog or the cat? Will I stare at the door or jump out?
After more than a year of work at home, employees like myself have had a whole range of reactions to the idea of the office reopening. Some have jumped out right away. They’ve gone to office meetings, customer dinners, colleagues’ gatherings. Others have been “staring at the open door”, uncertain and somewhat in disbelief. Is it safe to go? When should I go? Will I still have flexibility in managing my work and home responsibilities?
The number of companies reopening their offices is rising as vaccination rates climb in the US. A recent poll shows 80% of HR executives expect their workplace to reopen by the end of 2021. But how will they do it? Prior to the pandemic, most considered offices as essential to their business. As the pandemic unfolded, leaders realized employees can be productive at home. And employees realized how productive they could be without commuting or “dressing up” for the office. Now leaders must decide on the optimal way to return to work, which for many will be a hybrid model.
What is the ‘hybrid’ workplace?
Hybrid workplace strategies fall into two buckets:
- Activity Based Working. Employees go into the office when they need social interaction and go home to do focused work. Many will not have an assigned desk. They will rotate between different spaces like meeting rooms, lounges, floating desks, or social “clubhouses.”
- Location Based Working. Workers may choose a different office, often a satellite office closer to home, away from big cities or main headquarters.
Companies are mixing it up, searching for the “Goldilocks” sweet spot that works for them. For example, Google had announced plans for employees to return to the office by September. In May, they changed policy to allow employees to choose where they work – in their home office, in a different office, or at home, part or full time. Similarly, Facebook is allowing workers at all levels to opt for full time remote work. Some are experimenting with things like a work-from-anywhere perk. This allows a number of days where employees can work from any place they choose. Especially in technology, organizations expect 20-40% of their workforce to remain fully remote. The hybrid model also appeals to other industries like banking or retail. JP Morgan Chase’s CEO announced that his company will embrace a mix of in-person and remote work, based on role. Outdoor retailer REI sold its headquarter and is opening smaller satellite offices in sub-urban areas.
But some are going in the opposite direction, mandating employees return to the office. Apple announced employees will go back to work three days a week. In May, Goldman Sachs announced employees would return to the office by July.
What is the best fit?
The type of industry helps define the right mix of in-person and remote work. In industries like IT or Financial Services, the number of workers who can do their job remotely is much higher than in Health Care, Manufacturing, Construction, or Retail. There are other factors:
- Business benefits. Hybrid workplaces bring bottom-line benefits, like real estate savings and access to talent in less expensive areas. Many companies—especially those that are digitally ready —had significant revenue growth in 2020, even with a fully remote workforce.
- The pace of change has increased for many industries, and the next few years will see companies moving even faster towards digital business models. Can companies innovate at the same level without in-person collaboration? History is full of examples of “water cooler chats” turning into great ideas.
- Employee experience and retention. As much as office workers are fed up with Zoom calls, few want to go back to the office full time. Employees like the flexibility of working at home, and many want to keep some form of it. Nearly 30% of working professionals said they would quit if they couldn’t continue to work remotely.
How do we adapt to a hybrid work model?
There are many questions to consider. For example, how do we create a culture for remote workers and in-person workers alike? In today’s work, these groups intersect and shift constantly. How do we onboard remote employees and help them adopt our company norms? How do we build mutual trust when we don’t meet in person?
Some best practices:
- Ask employees – each person may have a different threshold for risk or priorities. Frequently ask your employees what they need to feel safe and motivated.
- Foster “work families” and personal relationships – instilling this value more deeply and purposefully in the culture. This will help remote and non-remote workers stay connected.
- Set up a dedicated team – many have hired leaders to focus on hybrid workplace and tasked internal teams to drive the change.
- Educate managers – managers play a key role in listening to their people, detecting signs of discomfort, and finding available options.
- Offer flexible technology solutions – for remote workers, technology will connect them with the company. It’s not enough to simply move all meetings to video calls. You can’t push all collaboration to a chat room. Technology built by diverse teams may provide flexible solutions for a diverse work population.
In the end
While there’s no single answer, there is one certainty—the need to change. The new work and workplace cannot go back—a post-pandemic world demands something different. Companies need to help employees find a work model that balances business with individual needs. Leaders will need to experiment in this new world. They must be prepared to fail and adjust rapidly before reaching the “Goldilocks” spot of post-pandemic work. To quote sports coach John Wooden: “Failure isn’t fatal, but failure to change might be.”