I’ve talked to a lot of company leaders who are trying to figure out what the return to office work should look like for their organizations. They are looking for answers to a lot of questions that are all related to each other, such as: What is the actual cost of hybrid working going to be for our company’s bottom line and our ability to deliver on what we have promised? How much flexibility do employees want and need? Who should make the decision about who does and doesn’t get to work remotely? If people are spending less time together in the office, can we still maintain our culture? How can we effectively onboard new employees remotely?
There are many challenges involved in being a leader, such as dealing with different types of people, while also having to consider the needs of multiple groups of people. Leaders also have to be able to adapt to change, as the environment they are in is constantly changing. It can be difficult to have conversations about hybridity because people must first understand what makes these conversations so difficult.
I’m talking about work setups that have both employees who work in the same physical space and employees who work remotely. Many senior executives face a challenge when discussing hybridity: What they think is a single discussion is in fact three different discussions in disguise, each with different objectives. Trying to compare three different teams is like trying to declare a winner among teams that are playing different sports. The three conversations mentioned are about productivity, staffing, and culture. Each has different objectives, arguments, and people supporting the conversation.
The three conversations
Productivity. The effects of hybridity on employees’ and teams’ ability to collaborate effectively is an active debate. Some people argue that it is better to work in an office because you can share information more quickly and work together more easily. Other people say that working from home is just as good or even better because people have more control over their time and are not limited by where they live. The goal of this conversation is to decide what the best combination of work arrangements is so that your organization can achieve its goals.
Staffing. The recent trend of employees working from home has clearly changed their expectations of how they should be allowed to work. Some believe that a large proportion of employees will resign if they are not allowed to work from home- meaning that companies who do not offer this significant level of flexibility will have more difficulty both attracting and keeping staff.
Culture. When creating and maintaining a company’s guiding values, beliefs, and norms, we have relied heavily in the past on new and old employees experiencing that culture through firsthand exposure. This is not surprising given that much of our culture is often understood implicitly or even at a subconscious level. Some people believe that cultural beliefs, norms, and assumptions can be communicated through technology, while others disagree. There is no consensus on the best way to do this.
We are facing a potential fracture between more senior employees who experienced the culture first-hand and new employees who did not have that same experience. Around 10% of the workforce changes each year on average, so in regions where the pandemic is occurring, it’s likely that a good portion of the workforce has never been in the office. What are leaders going to do about that? This could be a lost generation or a lost year, or it could be a pivot point. This conversation is meant to make sure that working remotely or in a hybrid model doesn’t ruin the culture of your organization.
Why is this a problem?
The three conversations about hybridity focus on different challenges and use different criteria to assess success. We have a problem when we talk about hybridity without distinguishing between the three types. The fact that each of these conversations aligns with a different leader mindset, which are often deeply held and quite engrained, makes matters more difficult.
Think of a leader in your organization who embodies different perspectives. A leader who focuses on productivity believes that what you produce is all that matters at the end of the day, and that success comes from improving workflows and processes. The leader who focuses on people believes that your advantage is the employees you have working for you. They believe that with the right team in place, any problem that arises can be tackled successfully. A leader who focuses on culture believes that your organization succeeds because of how you work. This is something that is hard to define, but it is what makes you different from your competitors.
Even without taking into account the hybridity of these questions, it is difficult to reconcile the tensions between performance, staffing, and culture. The discussion of hybridity brings the issue of remote work to the forefront, as operational decisions about who works remotely, when, and how are directly linked to all three.
What do we do about it?
Making complex decisions can be difficult because it can be easy to get confused when trying to balance different factors. preventing individual motivations from skewing the arguments I have discovered that companies profit from perceiving this as a cooperative enterprise in solving problems and modeling cues from research on negotiations and decision science. This research has covered material for years on how to handle these types of scenarios efficiently among multiple stakeholders with contrasting and frequently concealed preferences and information. The research provides three steps for leaders.
Step 1: Surface the differences and recognize the value in each position.
It is important for decision makers to be aware of all three of these conversations, and how each one contributes to the overall hybridity of the situation. Here’s how to identify the objectives key stakeholders care about and how they relate:
- Collect data: Use a short survey to ask each stakeholder their top priorities and objectives when it comes to setting hybrid/WFH policy.
- Visualize: Next, you need to help decision makers understand the “lay of the land,” and visualization is the key to doing so.
- Make sense of the data collectively, with a focus on tensions: Based on the data you’ve generated, discuss as a group what the data tells you about your collective priorities.
How to negotiate the trade-offs among the options is the challenge. Remember that the best decision is rarely the one that most people agree on. Sometimes, a discussion about the data will naturally result in a resolution.
Step 2: Focus on integrative solutions.
Now that you understand everyone’s position, it is time to find a solution. It would be ideal to find a single solution that would be the best option for all criteria and stakeholders involved. You may find a relatively straightforward path to a new policy if you try discussing it. However, it may instead become clear that such a solution is not possible, or is unlikely to be recognized in any reasonable amount of time.
Step 3: Revisit
Although hybrid work is here to stay, the work environment is complex and constantly changing. You cannot expect to be perfect the first time you try something or that your first attempt will be the correct way to do it forever.
Companies are looking to set up flexible working arrangements that will help boost productivity and employee satisfaction as we come out of the pandemic. In order to ensure success, managers must take into account four different factors: (1) jobs and tasks, (2) employee preferences, (3) projects and workflows, and (4) inclusion and fairness.
When thinking about jobs and tasks, it is important to understand the things that will make someone more productive at that task- energy, focus, coordination, and cooperation. In addition to those drivers, think about how working arrangements will change along the lines of time and place.
To illustrate, let’s consider a few kinds of jobs and tasks, their key drivers, and the time and place needs that each involves:
The ability to focus is a key factor in productivity for this position. Planners need to be able to work uninterrupted for at least three hours at a time in order to do things like gather market information and develop business plans. The most effective way to focus is to use asynchronous time, or time that is not happening at the same rate. If planners have more freedom in their schedules, they can do their work either at home or in the office without worrying about being in a specific place.
Here the critical driver of productivity is coordination. Regular communication with team members is necessary for managers. Providing feedback in the moment helps ensure that employees are aware of what is expected of them and that they are meeting those expectations. To improve their team’s performance, they need to have conversations and debate, share what works well, and mentor and coach team members. The most likely way to encourage productivity is to have time be synchronous. If that can be arranged, then place again becomes less critical: Managers and employees can do their coordination tasks together in the office or from home, using tools such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams.
For this role, the critical driver is cooperation. But now the important axis is place. Innovation is most often stimulated by speaking with others in person, whether it’s brainstorming with a small group, running into someone in the hallway, or having a conversation between meetings. This kind of cooperation is most effectively fostered in a shared location, like an office or a creative hub, where employees have the chance to get to know one another and socialize. In order to achieve that goal, tasks that require cooperation must be done at the same time and in a space that is shared by everyone involved. In the future, technology will be more advanced and allow people to cooperate without being in the same physical space.
Productivity in this role—indeed, in most roles—requires sustained energy. Both time and place can play a role here. During the pandemic, many people have found that they have more energy when they are at home. This is because they don’t have to spend time commuting, they can exercise and walk during the day, they can eat more healthily, and they can spend more time with their families.
How productive and performant we are varies a lot according to what we personally like. When designing hybrid work, take into account what your employees want and make it possible for others to be aware of and accommodate those wants.
Projects and Workflows
You need to consider how work gets done to make hybrid a success. Consider how changes in working arrangements will affect key productivity drivers—energy, focus, coordination, and cooperation.
Other companies are taking this opportunity to change the way they do things. New hybrid arrangements should not copy existing bad practices from when companies automated their work processes a long time ago. Many companies simply added new technologies onto existing processes instead of redesigning their workflows to take advantage of what the new technologies made possible. This replicated their flaws, idiosyncrasies, and workarounds. After investing in new technologies, it often took many years of painful reengineering for companies to start seeing the benefits.
Inclusion and Fairness
As you develop new hybrid practices and processes, make sure to consider questions of inclusion and fairness. This is vitally important. Unfairness in the workplace can lead to a decrease in productivity, an increase in burnout, reduced collaboration, and decreased retention, according to research.
To make your firm more accessible anywhere, anytime, follow these steps. Begin by brainstorming significant roles and corresponding duties, consider what elements would most positively impact productivity and performance for each, and contemplate what types of arrangements would support them most effectively. Surveying, interviewing, and creating personas of employees can help to understand their wants and needs. The amount of money that a company makes will vary significantly, so don’t take shortcuts. Think of ways to be more efficient in your work by eliminating duplication and unproductive elements. Make sure to communicate with everyone involved so that they understand how hybrid arrangements will improve their productivity instead of decreasing it. Training leaders to manage hybrid teams and investing in tools to help coordinate schedules will help align team schedules.
Ask yourself if your new plans help to show your company’s values and if it helps to maintain the company’s culture.
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