With a large-scale vaccine rollout underway, more organizations will be wrestling with how best to transition workers back into their offices this year after spending most of 2020 working from home.
Hybrid work models, in which some employees are onsite while others work from home, have become the keystone to corporate reopening plans. Google was one of the first to announce in December 2020 that its planned return to the office—set for September—would feature a pilot program in which employees would be expected to work at least three days a week onsite and the rest of the time remotely.
"The hybrid return-to-work model is top of mind for executives—every client I've spoken with has asked me about it," said Brooke Weddle, a partner at McKinsey & Co. based in Washington, D.C., and leader in the firm's organization practice.
Most executives and employees surveyed by global consulting firm PwC expect the hybrid workplace to begin taking shape in the second quarter of 2021, dependent on the distribution of the coronavirus vaccines. In the short term, employees will rotate between working from home and in the office, but the longer view is still undetermined, said Deniz Caglar, principal, organization and workforce strategy, at PwC.
Weddle said that beyond 2021, data suggests "that we could be in a hybrid workforce situation permanently." She cited McKinsey research that found 80 percent of remote workers said they enjoy working from home, and 69 percent are just as or more productive at home than in the office.
"Companies can engage employees in productive remote work as long as employees' desires and needs for flexibility are balanced with efforts to lead effectively and promote a sense of cultural cohesion," she said. "A hybrid work model also opens the door to accessing new pools of talent without location constraints."
But business leaders need a plan to help smooth the transition from completely remote work to a hybrid arrangement, said Paul McDonald, senior executive director at staffing firm Robert Half in Los Angeles. "A starting point can be a wider embrace of remote work and making a hybrid workforce model a long-term strategy for the business," he said. "They'll need to decide how many people and how much real estate they'll need to support a hybrid model."
The Ideal Balance
PwC research found that 68 percent of executives believe employees should be in the office at least three days a week to maintain company culture, but over half (55 percent) of workers prefer to continue working remotely at least three days a week.
"One hallmark of the hybrid workforce model is flexibility," McDonald said. "However, flexibility does not mean free-form. Businesses will need to figure out which employees should come into the office and how often. And when teams are working remotely, managers must decide how those employees can interact effectively with their in-house colleagues without undermining productivity."
Safety will be the No. 1 concern while exposure to the virus is prevalent, experts agreed. After that, the optimal balance will be "very much influenced by the roles and responsibilities of the individual employees," Caglar said.
Employers will need to think through role-specific criteria, but arrangements will also be driven by personal circumstances, Weddle said. She said questions to work through include:
Why does a specific employee need to perform his or her work in the office?
To what extent does an employee need to collaborate with others?
To what extent does an employee need to rapidly exchange information?
To what extent are specific employees innovating rather than performing more-transactional activities?
Then there are the personal aspects to consider:
How is someone feeling about working from home versus in the office?
Is that person feeling disconnected or overwhelmed?
Is the employee clear about the organization's strategy and his or her role and responsibilities?
McDonald offered additional questions for company leaders to weigh:
Should certain teams be in the office on the same days for in-person meetings and collaboration?
What types of meetings are best to hold in person?
Will there be days when all employees can work from home, such as Mondays or Fridays?
Caglar said managers should also consider where employees are in their careers. "If they are relatively new or newly promoted or having performance issues, they could benefit more from closer support in the office," he said.
Weddle added that it will be important for leaders to ensure equity. "People from different demographic groups have experienced this pandemic in different ways," she said. "If HR doesn't take into account that some people can't come back to work because they have kids at home or are caring for someone, that's a problem. What policies can be put in place to continue to create an equal playing field as much as possible?"
Maintaining Productivity, Engagement
Potential downsides to remote and hybrid work arrangements come from an erosion of the organizational norms that culture and performance rely on, such as trust, cohesion and shared experiences, and from the risk of two divergent organizational structures emerging: one in person, one virtual.
"Employees can easily end up feeling disconnected from the business and their colleagues," McDonald said. "In a hybrid workforce, with various teams coming and going, employers will need to work even harder to keep their teams feeling connected."
Connection is going to be a major challenge, Caglar agreed. "We see managers being more thoughtful about creating emotional connections to the organization and to their colleagues through planned social interactions," he said. "Take time at the start of meetings to share personal news or conduct other exercises which foster mutual trust, care and respect for one another."
Weddle said that motivating employees through meaning and purpose and connecting work to a larger sense of what the company is trying to accomplish will be critical to maintaining high levels of productivity and engagement.
"Business leaders can't count on purpose or meaning or innovation to arise organically within a distributed work environment," McDonald said. "It's hard enough to make that happen when everyone is in the same place. Clearly communicating the vision for what's next as the company formally transitions to a hybrid model will be important."
Employers embracing a hybrid workforce model will also need to think about what technology solutions will work best for employees working in hybrid arrangements.
"The ability to provide connectivity to employees in a virtual environment and have the data be secure, as well as collaboration tools in place to make virtual work much more productive, is important," Caglar said.
He added that upgrades to the office space will also need to be made, including improving the video and sound quality of conferencing technology, putting in place technology that will enable hoteling, and making the office more accessible and collaborative for workers coming in on alternative schedules.