The hybrid work model is top of our readers’ minds these days, from the IT leaders who are evaluating enabling technologies to the facilities/real estate managers who are adapting physical spaces and updating building systems to the HR professionals who are mapping out new policies and procedures. With so much to solve for across technology, people, and processes, businesses face a real danger of introducing more stress and tension in the post-pandemic workplace than during the pandemic itself.
To Melissa Marsh, our go-to social researcher/workplace innovation specialist, hybrid work is the “hardest condition to organize, because you have to solve for all the things that you solve for in remote work, and you have to solve for all the things you solve for in in-person environments, and more.” But Marsh, who is founder and executive director at PLASTARC
, workplace strategy consultancy, has a few suggestions on how to best think about return-to-office strategy.
Her first bit of advice is not to conflate COVID stress with remote work. Teleworking isn’t inherently an unwell model, but with the shutdown, nobody had time to formalize an organizational transition and put measures in place to ensure remote working was a reasonably healthy proposition, Marsh said. “So, don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater,” she said. Rather — and this is her second point — HR should put in place a guidance framework around remote work, with coaching and self-assessment information that will help people make healthy decisions for themselves. After all, this would likely have been part of a company’s adoption planning around a remote work program had we not “all just been dumped into it,” Marsh said.
HR also needs to provide a clear corporate policy around in-office vs. remote work. Whether somebody does or doesn’t come back into the office should not be left to a manager’s discretion, Marsh advised. An enterprise that takes this route may think it’s being equitable, but in fact, having no policy has the opposite effect, she said. “Relying on the potential biases of individual managers? Yeah, I think you could definitely be about to be watching a train wreck.”
Employees must be clear about how hybrid works across lines of the corporate hierarchy, Marsh emphasized. People shouldn’t be left to wonder if somebody gets to work remotely or, conversely, must come into the office because they’re in a senior leadership position. And, should that senior leader work in the office daily, that will lead others trying to figure out whether they need to follow suit for fear that not doing so will make them less visible and therefore put career advancement in jeopardy, she said. “People aren’t going to accept being second-class citizens on the job, and they’ll eventually trickle back into the office [in that scenario]. So, if we want to commit to long-term hybrid work, we need to solve for that sooner rather than later,” Marsh added.
IT needs to pitch in here, as well, providing best-practices guidance on virtual meeting tool usage on top of etiquette advice from HR, she suggested. The same disparity between in-room and remote meeting participants that existed pre-pandemic will continue in the post-pandemic work model, though the numbers of who’s participating from where will likely flip. A group of eight remote team members could just as easily isolate their two colleagues calling in from an in-office conference room as used to happen at times to remote workers when the majority of participants were in the same room. IT and HR really need to think about how to create equity with the technology and the organizational practices they develop around collaboration to fend off a lack of inclusivity, she said.
As for facilities/real estate managers, Marsh’s messaging on office space really isn’t all that different from a couple of years ago, she said.
“Back in 2019, we were telling organizations to give people the space they need to do their jobs, not an office because they’re a VP, or a medium-size workstation because they’re an associate, or a bench seat because they’re entry level. That’s the same argument right this minute. … Give people the ability to work where, when, and how they want based on the suitability to the function of their job, not tenure or hierarchy, or whether you’re on Joe’s team or Susie’s,” she said. “It’s almost ironic how much we’re making the same point.”