The pandemic forced companies to adopt remote work to protect employee health. Company leaders soon learned, often to their surprise, that remote work also provided significant benefits. Many organizations saw increased employee engagement, productivity, and a stronger sense of belonging. These benefits happened even though the move to remote work was not focused on improving the employee experience. Moreover, the emphasis on physical isolation eliminated periodic in-person meetings that are a critical component of effective remote work arrangements.
While people missed in-person interactions and access to workspaces outside of their homes, they welcomed having more control over their time and not having to commute to work every day. As one SAP customer shared after implementing remote work, “we don’t want to go back to normal. We want to go forward to better.” And better means permanently embracing some hybrid mixture of remote and on-site work.
But the after-effects of the last year and a half as well as the best path toward a more hybrid world of work varies across organizations. In the past six months I have talked with scores of SAP customers about different approaches, and read several hundred articles and studies about remote and hybrid work. Based on this experience, here are 10 insights to keep in mind as companies plan their return to the office.
1. Hybrid work is a cultural value. The shift to remote work challenged longstanding assumptions about work itself. This included a common cultural belief that employees need to be in an office to do a good job. Employees wonder where their leaders now stand on this topic as it affects their career and life choices. A good hybrid work strategy starts with clearly stated cultural beliefs about the value, purpose, and importance the company places on employees commuting to offices. It expresses the company’s views about use of remote work (here are examples from SAP, Pepsi, and Steelcase). Like any cultural value, if employees do not like it then they may choose to find another organization that better fits their values and beliefs about work.
2. Employee listening is critical to hybrid work. The move to hybrid work is one of the biggest changes to occur to work in the 21st century. No one knows exactly where it is going or the best way to do it. Companies and employees have to jointly figure it out as they go along. Consequently, the best hybrid work strategies have a strong focus on continuously listening to employees and adapting strategies and tactics over time.
3. Not all employees want remote work, but all employees want flexibility and transparency. People’s desire for remote work varies widely based on their home office environment, commute time, job type, manager relationships, and individual personalities. Employees tend to fall into three categories in terms of remote work preferences: commute to the office about two to three days a week; work predominantly remotely; or commute to the office every day. Most people fall into the first category, but the relative size of the categories varies across companies, job types, and job locations. Employees can also move from one category to another as their job or living situation changes. But there are two things all employees want. First, flexibility to determine when they need to come to the office given their jobs, life situation, and personal preferences. Second, transparency around how their use of remote will impact their career at the company.
4. Remote work does not mean working from anywhere at any time. Effective hybrid work cultures clarify when employees are expected to be working and not working. On the employee side, remote workers should provide clarity around when they are available for meetings and requests. On the company side, employees should feel comfortable periodically turning off their computers and phones and detaching from work. Research suggests remote workers usually put in longer hours than in-office employees, and risk of burnout among remote workers is higher if companies do not encourage workers to set boundaries and take breaks.
Remote work also does not mean that employees can work anywhere they choose. There are financial, legal, and operational reasons why companies might limit where employees live to certain states, countries, or time zones. These restrictions should be clearly communicated to ensure people do not inadvertently move to a place where they cannot be employed. This includes explaining the rationale for different restrictions.
5. In-person meetings are a critical part of hybrid work. What we experienced in 2021 was not normal remote work. It was physical isolation. Periodic in-person meetings are critical to high-functioning hybrid work cultures. A key part of a hybrid strategy is defining when and why people are expected to get together. And investing in meeting space and necessary travel costs to support in-person meetings. Companies should not require people to be together without having a clear purpose for getting together. Travel and meeting spaces require money and time. But there are many reasons for in-person meetings, including new-hire onboarding, team and relationship building, and problem-solving sessions that require collaboration over multiple hours or days.
6. Talent management is more critical and more valuable in hybrid organizations. Remote workers tend to be more productive and engaged than in-office employees when they are well managed. But the converse is also true. Onsite work environments are more forgiving toward leaders with poor managerial skills. Perhaps because employees have more cues to guess what their boss is thinking. In contrast, remote workers need ongoing communication around goals, clarity on how their contributions will be evaluated, and more intentional activities to help them advance their careers. Ensure remote workers are not punished for having less face time with leaders in an office. Effective talent-management methods are extremely important in hybrid work cultures.
7. Remote work enables more inclusive workforces. Expecting employees to regularly commute to an office creates biases against employees with family care obligations, disabilities that limit mobility, or economic constraints that prevent living near the workplace. At the same time, expecting employees to work from home can create disadvantages for people based on their living arrangements or personality types. Companies that embrace more flexible hybrid work models are likely to be more successful recruiting and retaining a more diverse workforce.
8. Companies risk losing talent if they make “willingness to commute” a job qualification. Companies that discourage remote work will find it harder to attract and retain talent in the future. In contrast, companies that support remote work can recruit from much larger talent pools less constrained by candidates’ geographic location. Consider how managerial attitudes impact employees’ remote work experience and retention. Managers vary in their comfort and acceptance toward remote work. Hybrid work strategies should address how managers are expected to define and support remote work arrangements in their teams. And potentially train managers on how to support hybrid and remote work arrangements.
9. Deskless workers and remote workers are different but have things in common. Deskless workers are employees whose jobs are performed outside a standard office environment. This includes frontline and field employees in retail, manufacturing, utilities, healthcare, transportation, and other industries. Many deskless workers do not have the option to work from home. And many continued working onsite throughout the pandemic.
Hybrid work strategies should address how remote work impacts deskless workers. Some employees may see remote work as a perk limited to certain people, which could create tension between deskless and remote employees. But remote work could also create stronger connections between deskless and desk-bound workers by removing physical barriers that define being in an office, on a floor, or in the field. Replacing buildings and work locations with shared digital workspaces that everyone accesses equally in the same way. In addition, having people commute to an office does not mean deskbound workers will interact with deskless coworkers who may not even be in the same building. Hybrid cultures might prompt deskbound workers to actively focus on periodically going into the field or onto the floor to spend time with deskless colleagues.
10. Use the right technology the right way (including offices). Companies have had technology to support remote work for over a decade. But it took a pandemic to get them to use it. Prior to 2020, companies vastly under-used modern technology like video conferencing and online workspaces. Instead they over-relied on a form of collaboration technology first developed in the 18th century: office buildings. Office buildings provide value by creating shared workspaces where people can interact in person. Like any form of technology, they have strengths and weaknesses. In terms of weaknesses, they cost a lot to maintain, their use consumes considerable time and resources associated with commuting, and they can lead to counterproductive cultural norms that value face time and “being seen” over actual accomplishments and contributions.
The shift to hybrid work is pushing companies to take full advantage of modern work technology to create high functioning, agile and inclusive organizations. This involves investing in cloud-based work platforms and home office systems. It also includes rethinking the design of on-site office spaces for a more hybrid world. And helping employees use this technology to support hybrid work cultures. For example, making sure in-office meetings are conducted in a way that does not exclude remote employees from participating. Or ensuring that employees do not over-rely on remote work technology for things that would be better conducted by meeting in-person.
We do not know exactly how the move to hybrid organizations will change the future of work, cities, labor markets, and societies. But keeping these 10 things in mind will help companies to successfully navigate these changes.
There also two more things we can be certain of. First, hybrid organizations will be much more common. We are not “going back to normal,” nor should we. There is no value in returning to a past characterized by unprecedented levels of commuter traffic. Second, this change provides us with a rare opportunity to rethink the nature of work. An opportunity to create the world we want instead of accepting the world as it was. Grab it with both hands.
The work of Steven T. Hunt, PhD; Chief Expert Work & Technology, focuses on design and deployment of technology-enabled processes to improve workforce agility, productivity, experience, engagement, and well-being. He has played a central role in creating human resource solutions that have positively influenced millions of employees working for thousands of companies around the globe. An industrial-organizational psychologist and recognized thought leader in the field HR technology, Dr. Hunt regularly speaks on topics related to the changing nature of jobs, organizations, talent management, and the experience of work. He has written hundreds of articles and several books on strategic HR methods including “Commonsense Talent Management” and “Hiring Success.”