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5 Principles to Guide Decision-Making When Building a Hybrid Workplace

May 10, 2021 Digital Workplace
Kaumil Dalal
By Kaumil Dalal

Hybrid work is a complex topic. Companies won't solve it in the next few months and then move on. Rather, it will become part of a long-term operating model — and should be developed and managed as such. But there are also immediate needs. As vaccines continue to roll out, talk about reopening workplaces is accelerating. Organizations are beginning to make decisions about what that looks like. The actions we take during the coming weeks and months will be stepping stones toward the future hybrid workplace — so it pays to approach them with a high degree of care.

A Pulse on Current Hybrid Work Plans and Concerns

Returning to the workplace is top of mind for both employers and employees. We captured companies’ plans and concerns in our most recent quarterly executive poll. Here’s a snapshot of what we heard:

  • One in five companies are already implementing a hybrid workplace; 48% said they will have done so by this summer, and 93% by the end of the year.
  • Executives consider “maintaining culture” to be the biggest challenge.
  • Two-thirds of companies will track employee vaccinations, but half are not sure how they will do so; 71% said they will incentivize vaccination in some way.

Nearly half (45%) of executives polled said employee expectations are a top priority for designing hybrid work models, and more than a quarter (26%) cited employee willingness to return to the workplace as the most important metric. There’s good reason for that. In our survey, 73% of those polled said their employees want permanent remote work. Employees also want to know where their employers are headed: 68% of respondents said their employees want certainty around the post-pandemic working model.

Related Article: Planning a Return to the Office? Don't Forget This One Thing

Why Getting It Right Matters

In addition to a rise in hiring, many employees may be looking for change. Microsoft research found that 41% of the global workforce is likely to consider leaving their current employer within the next year, with 46% planning to make a major pivot or career transition. In the Prudential Financial Pulse of the American Worker Survey, one in four employees said they will quit their current job when the pandemic is over.

A Clearer Picture, But Diverging Models

Every day, we learn more about companies’ philosophies and evolving plans around the hybrid workplace. These are just a few I’ve noted recently:

  • “For Prudential, working nine-to-five, five days a week in the office will be a relic of the past.” Rob Falzon, Prudential vice chair
  • “Remote work virtually eliminates spontaneous learning and creativity because you don’t run into people at the coffee machine, talk with clients in unplanned scenarios, or travel to meet with customer and employees for feedback on your products and services.” Jamie Dimon, JPMorgan Chase chairman and CEO
  • “Work appropriately means that where the work permits, employees have the flexibility to work where they can have the greatest impact on achieving our goals.” Mary Barra, General Motors CEO

It may be tempting to follow the leaders. But even the few examples cited above illustrate the variations in approach. Every organization must do the work to define its own hybrid working model. This is a transformational effort that needs to be treated as a strategic initiative — as it will, in fact, enable future business strategy.

We believe an effective way to approach short-term decisions while laying a solid foundation for the future is to consider five principles: experience, empowerment, enablement, excellence and environment.

Related Article: What Absolutely Should Not Return to the Physical Workplace?

The 5 Principles of the Hybrid Workplace

Experience

Hybrid work affects how the organization and employees interact with each other and with customers. In the short term, one of the biggest challenges is creating parity between workers, ensuring those who are remote feel as included as those in the office. That can involve everything from consistency of communication to having the right connections and bandwidth.

One of the unexpected outcomes of remote work is the window it created into employees’ lives. This has opened eyes to the fact that employee experience isn’t just about work. Traditional customer/employee experience tools will continue to be relevant. These include employee surveys that surface needs and sentiments around feeling connected and heard, refreshed employee personas that reflect the combination of office and remote work, and journey maps that highlight the moments that matter in the new hybrid work journey.

Harnessing workplace data and insights will be especially critical over the coming months, both to inform decisions and surface issues. For example, a correlation between long hours and low engagement scores could indicate an attrition risk.

Other short-term ideas include:

  • Establishing a hybrid workplace center of excellence to monitor experience and guide strategy.
  • Leveraging employee resource groups to make sure all voices are heard and to surface ideas for new practices.

Empowerment

Cultural norms promote a shared purpose and motivate employees to do what’s needed for success. Thus, significant attention should go into fostering the right norms for a hybrid workplace — and then using them to guide decisions.

A consideration with both short- and long-term implications is the role and effectiveness of managers: How will you prepare managers to oversee a combination of in-office and remote workers while making sure all feel included? What about spotting disengagement of remote employees and taking the right steps to re-engage them? Managerial effectiveness was a concern even before the pandemic.

Most organizations will need to shift their thinking around measuring productivity. Analytics can help. Microsoft’s Workplace Analytics tools provide insights into interactions. For example, trends in frequency of one-to-one meetings between a manager and direct report. This, in turn, can help identify coaching opportunities for managers.

It’s important to be clear about which roles that can be performed remotely and which roles that must be on-site. This will help set proper expectations and position new hires for success.

Other potential short-term steps for empowering employees in a hybrid workplace include:

  • “Manufacturing” opportunities for employee interactions.
  • Helping employees find and participate in organizational networks.
  • Updating knowledge management and learning programs for new norms.
  • Evaluating reskilling and upskilling needs.
  • Establishing an employee champion network that helps employees navigate new collaboration technologies and tools they are expected to use.

Related Article: The 2 Critical Leadership Skills for the Digital Workplace

Enablement

Companies threw all sorts of tools at the issue last year, adding Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Slack and others in an effort to accommodate diverse needs and maximize connectivity. Yet, after more than a year of working from home, employees believe employers have some work to do: 42% say they still lack office essentials.

With the opportunity to now think about the hybrid workplace in a proactive rather than reactive manner, companies will need to address questions such as:

  • Do we have the right security features in place for a more permanent form of remote work?
  • How will we protect intellectual property in places where we don’t control physical security?
  • Should we mandate what to use and when?
  • Do we have the proper enterprise agreements in place?
  • Do we still need all of these tools, or could we eliminate some cost since more people will be in the office?
  • What is the next set of capabilities we should be looking at to increase engagement among hybrid teams — for example, augmented reality or smart cameras that follow the conversation in conference rooms?

This is also a good time to take stock of what employees really need to be productive from their homes. This should ideally look at each individual’s unique workspace and technology needs. Similarly, this is a good time to look at how activities such as collaboration, brainstorming, learning or discussion happen within the new office environment — and how people in the office interact with those who are not. People will also be more purposeful about when they go into the office—they will commute for a reason beyond the scope of performing their work, such as connection and team interaction, learning, or networking.

As organizations review the tools, technologies and use cases employees need to be productive, it’s important to assess them from the employees’ perspective, as part of an overall employee experience to help employees be successful, no matter their location. Whether organizations implement this through a framework like Microsoft’s Viva Employee Experience Platform or Beezy’s integrated Employee Experience, critical decisions are made from the lens of the employee journey.

Related Article: You Rolled Out Your Remote Workplace in Record Time. Now Let's Talk Governance

Excellence

This principle is about the future business operations and the technologies that enable it: modern cloud platforms, analytics, collaboration platforms and automation to maximize efficiency and deliver a positive experience, regardless of where people work. This will extend beyond the coming months, so it will be important to be flexible and iterative. A good way to approach this is by developing a minimum viable product (MVP) concept. This can help you accelerate your vision for a true, digital hybrid workplace and then build on it over time, based on what you learn.

The technology strategy must be driven by and designed to support and strengthen your organization’s value streams, which will need to be revisited to fit a hybrid work environment. Map your value streams and supporting processes so that you can adapt them to the hybrid work environment and select the right tools to strengthen your value streams. Take the opportunity to optimize your processes, identify opportunities for automation or outsourcing, and identify the upskilling needs that will keep you competitive.

Environment

Maintaining culture is a concern. How will employees remain connected with your vision, mission and purpose when working remotely? How will you preserve and perpetuate the most important parts of your culture?

Consider a comprehensive assessment of how hybrid working affects culture and behaviors, and the changes that may be required. For example, how will you measure performance when employees are working “out of sight"? Typically, this means measuring outcomes rather than how people work. This shift will take time, but the sooner you plant the seeds for it, the sooner it will bear fruit.

The looming war for talent has significant implications. Your organization will need to shore up strategies for talent retention, as well as for tapping into the new talent markets and pools enabled by hybrid and remote work.

Some other ideas for promoting a healthy hybrid workplace culture include:

  • Encouraging knowledge sharing to help employees see how their work supports the organization’s purpose.
  • Creating immersive company-wide events and experiences with “ask me anything” leadership forums and two-way digital dialogue.
  • Hosting “project spotlight” sessions where employees from different areas of the company can discuss their work.
  • Encouraging people to conduct regular “pulse check-ins” with mentees.
  • Making sure people take time off to recharge.

This Is Just the Start of the Hybrid Work Journey

This high-level look at principles should guide today’s decisions. Your priorities will depend on current operations and maturity.

Keep in mind this is new territory for everyone. While there is growing pressure to have all the answers, the reality is that no one does. Further, the situation remains fluid, meaning that both organizations and employees must be willing to continue to adapt.

The key for now is to develop a solid direction upon which you can build. Strong change management and transparent communication will be highly beneficial as you formalize your strategy. Convey direction and guiding principles openly — but don’t hesitate to acknowledge that this is a journey, that you are still making decisions, and that the hybrid workplace of the future will continue to come into focus over time.

About the Author

Kaumil Dalal is a director in West Monroe’s Technology practice and a national leader of the firm’s Digital Workplace and Modern Systems Integration offerings. He partners with organizations to establish strategy, capabilities, and tailored experiences that help his clients to enable an employee experience and power intelligent, adaptive, and hybrid digital workplaces.

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