Employers and employees are navigating uncharted waters where the rules for how and where work gets done are still taking shape. Hybrid work models that let people spend some of their time outside the office provide several advantages. For example, we can now align work experiences, locations, and individual preferences to the work itself. Collaborative and independent tasks can both be more productive. And, ultimately, we can exchange a rigid approach (that many would argue is obsolete) for flexible, co-created solutions that better enable employees to thrive. To be sure, hybrid work is a work in progress, but it is also a new benchmark in personalization that greatly improves employee experiences.
In organizations around the world, work is becoming more flexible, personalized, and fluid than ever.
The Covid-19 pandemic forced many employers to set aside fears about remote work. Productivity remained strong while many employees worked independently from home, and most of them appreciated new flexibility and autonomy. But employees also missed many aspects of being in the office, such as in-person collaboration, social interaction, and spontaneous encounters. While technology can facilitate some of these moments, it simply cannot replace the in-person work experience that’s instrumental in shaping workplace culture—the shared times that connect people, teams, and organizations.
Enter the hybrid work model.
Employees want the best of both worlds: 73% prefer the option to keep working remotely, while 67% also want more in-person interactions with their colleagues.1 And bosses are generally in sync. Nearly 68% of executives in the US believe employees should be in the office at least three days per week, and only 30% are worried about the effects of a hybrid model on their workplace culture.2
The hybrid workplace provides much of the balance and flexibility employees enjoyed for over a year, as well as the social interaction they missed. It’s a viable alternative that still meets the requirements of safety, efficiency, versatility, and connection. That said, organizations need to examine its impact on the employee experience. How will they allow flexibility in a hybrid model while meeting the unique needs and expectations of hybrid employees? How and where will people work, and how can leaders best support their hybrid workers?
It’s time to rethink the future of the employee experience and how to build an organizational culture to support it. The hybrid workplace cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach; it requires adaptability from both the employee and the employer. For this new model to be successful, organizations must create space—both physical and virtual—to connect people to purpose, accomplishment, and one another.
“Success in a hybrid work environment requires employers to move beyond viewing remote or hybrid environments as a temporary or short-term strategy and to treat it as an opportunity.”
—GEORGE PENN, VICE PRESIDENT AND HR PRACTICE ADVISORY, GARTNER
FOUR KEY ASPECTS OF EFFECTIVE HYBRID EXPERIENCES
Hybrid workers have different needs and expectations of their employee experience than fully remote or fully in-person employees. Organizations need to rethink how they engage with, set goals for, and interact with hybrid workers.
A major challenge for hybrid workers is learning about and seizing opportunities for growth and development when they’re physically distanced from their leaders. The fewer days each week employees are in the office, the less they (and their work) may be seen by leaders and people with influence, and the more difficult it may be to build important relationships. Consequently, they may be overlooked for important meetings or new assignments. And, at times, it may also be harder for leaders to recognize and celebrate the achievements of employees who are working remotely.
To address this challenge, organizations must intentionally bridge the gap and reimagine how they provide growth opportunities for hybrid workers. Those that prioritize career development for hybrid workers see increased likelihood of employee engagement (+115%), sense of opportunity (+167%), and sense of success (+152%).
Organizations can help hybrid workers develop their careers by providing opportunities to grow in specific areas, learn and practice new skills in their current roles, and work on special projects. And, for those organizations that do, the probability of increased engagement is 3.7x higher.
From formal career development programs to informal efforts like mentoring and networking, organizations must have a robust strategy that integrates multiple opportunities for development. Physical office space and remote work technologies can both provide meaningful development experiences to help hybrid workers feel connected to their organization’s culture.
During the pandemic, many employees enjoyed a freedom and autonomy they did not have before, and many of them now expect that same level of independence in their future work experience.
Our research shows 42% of hybrid employees currently work 3–4 days a week in the office and feel that three days per week is ideal because it allows enough time to meaningfully connect with their teams and organizational culture. Other studies show nearly half of employees would look for another job if their employer did not offer a flexible, hybrid workplace.4
“Flexibility can mean different things to each of us, and we recognize there is no one-size-fits-all solution given the variety of roles, work requirements, and business needs we have.”
—KATHLEEN HOGAN, CHIEF PEOPLE OFFICER, MICROSOFT
Flexibility also applies to the nature or type of work. In our research with knowledge workers, about half of employees feel their typical tasks are as easy (or as difficult) to do at home as in the office. But the other 50% of employees say tasks that require focus, like creative thinking, or have a firm deadline were easier to do at home, while connecting, collaborating, problem solving, and career development were easier in the office:
Emphasizing the types of work best done in each place can help employees thrive in a hybrid work environment. Meetings and brainstorming sessions, for example, are ideally conducted in-person when employees are in the office together. Likewise, tasks that require concentration or speed might be better to do at home. Career development, a top priority for hybrid workers, should be done in the office where employees are collaborating with colleagues and staying informed. To get the most out of the hybrid workplace, employees should dedicate their time in each environment to the tasks most effectively done there.
Employees who are new to a remote or hybrid work model often have difficulty setting boundaries between their work and home life. By default, many employees will keep working well after regular office hours, answering emails or finishing projects at night, even if it’s not requested or expected. Not surprisingly, this tendency leads to high levels of burnout.
Leaders and employees should together determine remote work hours, as well as expectations for working after hours and weekends. Being clear about what work gets done in the office versus at home, along with providing ongoing communication and feedback, can also help prevent burnout. By setting expectations for work hours and availability, the probability of high engagement increases 96%, leadership scores jump 121%, and wellbeing improves 52%.
Opportunity for connection
Connection is crucial for hybrid employees, especially during the times they’re not in the office. Connecting with colleagues and reconnecting with the organization and its purpose are the top reasons employees want to return to the office,6 and employees are eager to resume those in-person interactions.
However, it’s a mistake to assume employees will find ways to build those connections on their own—especially virtually. Organizations need to create opportunities for hybrid workers to feel connected both at home and in the office. Providing more physical space for collaboration, social interaction, and meetings can make a significant difference, as can setting aside time for employees to network and gather socially.
On days employees work remotely, calls where employees can connect with their teams either on a project or socially are equally important. Leaders should check in on the days employees work from home, and organizations should provide tools to connect; however, both should be respectful of employees’ time. Less intrusive methods, such as email, to share information or recognize great work help employees stay connected to each other’s work. Recognition, in particular, is a powerful way to help employees feel connected to the organization’s purpose, their accomplishments, and their peers. And, in most cases, leaders can still give appropriate recognition and celebrate remotely.
THE OFFICE AS THE CULTURAL INCUBATOR
Corporate offices remain the center of interactions fundamental to the development of workplace culture: collaboration, innovation, and connection. And organizations should provide space for these in-person experiences to build strong cultures that will sustain hybrid workers when they work remotely.
It’s also now more important to define the purpose(s) of office space. Why should employees come into the office? How will it help them accomplish or improve their work? How will it promote connection and culture? While employers say the number one purpose of an office is to increase productivity, employees say it’s to enable collaboration.8 Organizations have a crucial opportunity to rethink workspaces and employee experiences and redesign them around clear goals for their people and cultures.
While the office becomes the place to improve interactions and socializing, employees’ workspaces at home need to be conducive to concentration, creative thinking, and efficiency. Organizations can continue to build culture by providing tools and technology that enable communication, collaboration, and connection remotely.
Shared experiences, interactions, stories, and memories are the heart of organizational culture. These can take place in a variety of locations, but regardless of where they happen, it’s imperative for organizations to create a shared identity and a sense of belonging for every employee.
“Once companies identify the purpose of the office, they will likely need to redesign the space to best serve that purpose. Thus, in most cases, employees won’t be asked to return to the traditional workplace, but one that has been redesigned to suit post-pandemic work.”
—BRADFORD BELL, DIRECTOR OF THE CORNELL CENTER FOR ADVANCED HR STUDIES, CORNELL UNIVERSITY
To create a culture where employees can be productive and thrive in a hybrid workplace, organizations must meet employee needs for career development, flexibility, and connection.
1. Create space for interaction and career development in the office
Offices should enable a variety of interactions. Employees report that their ideal workspace would have more open areas for team and collaborative work. Open spaces also encourage movement and spontaneous interaction, facilitating the chance encounters with colleagues that 70% of respondents say they value. These types of encounters have a positive impact on the individual and foster collaboration and innovation that benefit the organization as a whole. Our research shows 61% of employees say the workplace is where they form most new friendships and that their social group at work inspires them to do their best work.
2. Provide flexibility, time, and tools for office and remote work
Allow employees some discretion in when they come to the office and when they work from home. Also, recommend reserving remote time for getting work done after collaborating and solving problems in the office. Clarify working hours and set expectations for availability when remote, and then give employees time to focus and finish projects without disruption.
To keep employees connected outside the office, leverage tools and technology for collaboration, communication, recognition, and training. Keep remote experiences top of mind as you adopt new technology to stay connected. Tools should be easy to access and use so they don’t compromise experiences, particularly when employees are focused on getting work done.
3. Connect and inspire employees with recognition
Recognition can be a powerful tool in the hybrid workplace, especially if it connects employees to purpose, accomplishment, and one another. It aligns people with important goals, helps them see their roles in the organization’s success, and strengthens teams and culture.
The more types of recognition an organization incorporates, the better the cultural and business outcomes for hybrid employees. Companies should, at a minimum, recognize everyday effort, above-and-beyond work, and years of service.
HYBRID WORKPLACE—KEY TAKEAWAYS
Flexibility, career development, and connection help hybrid workers thrive.
Work that requires collaboration or interaction with others is best done in the office, while work that requires concentration is more productive and efficient at home.
Rethink the role of office spaces and, if necessary, create more space for in-person interaction.
Hybrid employees need time to focus and tools to connect when working remotely.
Hybrid Workplace Sources
1. “The Next Great Disruption Is Hybrid Work—Are We Ready?” Microsoft, March 22, 2021.
2. “Hybrid Work Model Likely to Be New Norm in 2021,” Kathy Gurchiek, SHRM, January 27, 2021.
3. “What Is Your Organization’s Long-Term Remote Work Strategy?”, Erin E. Makarius, Barbara Z. Larson, and Susan R. Vroman, Harvard Business Review, March 24, 2021.
4. “Survey: Employees Would Rather Quit than Lose Remote-Work Flexibility,” Mary Yang, Inc., April 7, 2021.
5. “Iconic American Automaker Ford Motor Says Employees Can Work from Home ‘Indefinitely’ with Its Newly Redesigned Hybrid In-Office and Remote Model,” Jack Kelly, Forbes, March 21, 2021.
6. “Employee Expectations Have Changed. Is Your Workplace Ready?” Steelcase, 2021.
7. “WFH Doesn’t Have to Dilute Your Corporate Culture,” Pamela Hinds and Brian Elliott, Harvard Business Review, February 1, 2021.
8. “It’s Time to Reimagine Where and How Work Will Get Done,” PwC’s US Remote Work Survey, January 12, 2021.
9. “Four Principles to Ensure Hybrid Work Is Productive Work,” Lynda Gratton, MITSloan Management Review, November 9, 2020.
CASE STUDY—DEVELOPING EMPLOYEES FROM AFAR
GE uses a coaching app that replaces their traditional performance management system. The app provides real-time feedback to employees and allows managers to schedule touch points throughout the year to mentor employees and help them develop. It also holds managers accountable for connecting with their people.
The app ensures that no matter where employees are—in the office or working from home—they have access to feedback, development opportunities, and mentorship.3
When employees have schedule and location flexibility at work, the probability of cultural outcomes increase:
LIKELIHOOD TO BE A PROMOTER ON THE ENPS SCALE
CASE STUDY—BUILDING A ROAD-WORTHY HYBRID WORK PLAN
Ford Motor Company recently announced office employees can work from home indefinitely with flexible hours approved by their managers, but they should be on-site for meetings and group projects. The company also redesigned its offices to include more conference rooms and collaborative spaces, along with video-calling capabilities and other technology to connect virtual workers.
The changes addressed a company survey that found 95% of office workers wanted flexibility in where they work. Ford believes empowering employees to choose when to come into the office and when to work from home will lead to better work/life balance and job satisfaction.
According to Kiersten Robinson, Chief People and Employee Experience Officer, “If there’s one thing we’ve learned over the last 12 months, it is that a lot of our assumptions around work and what employees need has shifted.” The company considers this an evolution of policy as it continues to learn and adapt its work practices to employees’ changing needs.5
CASE STUDY—SUPPORTING HYBRID WORKERS HOLISTICALLY
IBM has a “Work from Home Pledge” that details how employees can be supportive of one another as they work remotely. This includes supporting work/life balance, allowing time away from work to spend with family, and connecting with each other virtually. IBM employees also create their own sign-ups to help colleagues pick up groceries for elderly family members or even read stories to kids at night.
The fact that employees organize these initiatives themselves reflects IBM’s culture of inclusion and employee ownership, and it sets the foundation to support remote workers and hybrid employees moving forward.7
CASE STUDY—DESIGNING FOR PERSONAL ENCOUNTERS
The Melbourne office of the design firm, Arup, encourages collaboration and connection by promoting movement. The company has few closed personal offices and opens up space with sightlines across the building that allow employees to see each other. In addition, cork flooring muffles ambient noise so people can converse more easily.
The space has created “all important moments of serendipitous encounters,” says Arup’s Global People and Culture Leader, Jenni Emery. “We need these encounters with each other, and the quality of the space is crucial to how we listen and how we learn. We had to be really intentional and considered.”
Design Leader Joseph Correnza believes limiting personal space to allow for more shared space, having teams meet in the open to generate buzz, and rearranging seating often so employees can meet new people are easy, low-cost ways to create collaboration and connection in the workplace.9
Organizations that implement and use technology with their people in mind see increases in the probability of improvement across multiple cultural metrics:
FEELINGS OF SUCCESS AND OPPORTUNITY