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Did Google Get Its Hybrid Work Plan Right?

May 27, 2021 Digital Workplace
By Dom Nicastro

What will be the standard-setting principles of hybrid work plans? Too early to tell, but companies like Google have emerged at the forefront of hybrid work approaches — at least in publicizing them. If they’ll work is another story to tell months down the road — for Google and others that tend to set industry standards

How Google Approaches Hybrid

The search engine giant, which had about 140,000 employees as of March, shared earlier this month its approach to hybrid work in a blog post from CEO Sundar Pichai.

The main principles include:

  • Three days in office, two days somewhere else: Most Googlers will spend approximately three days in the office and two days “wherever they work best.” In-office will focus on collaboration, and product areas and functions will help decide which days teams will come together in the office. Some roles may need to be on site more than three days a week “due to the nature of the work.”
  • Applications for changing locations: By mid-June Google will have a process by which employees can apply to move to another office. “In granting approvals, they’ll take into account whether business goals can be met in the new location and whether your team has the right infrastructure in the site to support your work,” Pichai wrote.
  • Applications for full remote work: It was easy enough to get remote work opportunities in 2020, but this year at Google you’ll need to apply for completely remote work. Managers will evaluate whether remote work can support the goals of the team and business. Compensation will be adjusted according to the employee’s new location.
  • Work-from-anywhere weeks: Googlers can work anywhere in a full week up to four weeks per year, with manager approval.

Pichai noted the changes will result in a workforce where around 60% of Googlers are coming together in the office a few days a week, another 20% are working in new office locations, and 20% are working from home.

“The future of work is flexibility,” he added. “The changes above are a starting point to help us do our very best work and have fun doing it.”

This is actually an updated approach from reports that surfaced in April. Google then, according to reports, was planning to require employees after Sept. 1 who want to work remotely for more than 14 days per year to submit a formal application.

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

Why Three Days In-Office?

Google’s hybrid approach allows time and flexibility for employees to adjust to in-person work, according to David Niu, CEO of employee engagement software company TINYpulse. Employees will also appreciate that there is an outlined process for applying to become temporarily or fully remote, he added, and Google has also offered other points of support through “reset days” and “focus time” to increase flexibility for employees.

But why three days? Why set the in-office days per week to three?

"There was little justification behind why three days was selected," Niu said. "Returning to work is a complicated process. Given the huge impact that the transition to in-person work will have on employees’ lives, they want to have a voice in the process. Before formulating return-to-work plans, organizations should survey their employees to understand employees’ needs and concerns."

Another potential sticking point for Google employees may be that the number of days in the office for certain roles will be determined by company leadership. "Employees may be left with a sense of unfairness,” Niu said, "when some colleagues get more flexibility than they do. Leadership at Google should be transparent and communicative to ensure that employees view the decision-making process as fair and justified."

Set Days for In-Office Are Limiting

Google’s set three days in/two days remote schedule is limiting — for employees whose lives now require the flexibility they’ve experienced over the past year, but more importantly for recruiting, according to Bill Wagner, CEO of customer and employee experience software provider LogMeIn.

LogMeIn made the shift to long-term remote-centric status in 2020 like thousands of other companies. The end result? It started to recruit for best talent it could find, without proximity to an office being a factor. It now has new leaders in key roles — CFO, CMO, CISO and VP of engineering — who wouldn’t have been found if the company looked for people who could be in the office on a regular basis.

"We trust these leaders to effectively run large organizations from a remote location, and we extend that trust to our employees as well," Wagner said. "Google isn’t alone in concerns about whether business goals can be met with employees in new locations, but as leaders we need to trust our teams, and the data, that remote employees can meet those demands."

Related Article: Could the Future of Work Be Hybrid

Flexibility Is Nice, More Transparency Better

David Rosenblatt, principal solutions architect for digital workspace at employee technology and services provider World Wide Technology, said Google can stand up for a more flexible work model because it has a high-performance culture of trust. Culture, he said, comes to life in the behaviors and relationships between managers and employees, and the whole flexibility model is only viable because of Google’s collaborative culture. “They’re great at building creative and innovative spots in their physical spaces,” Rosenblatt said.

What Google can work on its hybrid work plan is transparency, he said, behind statements like these: "There will also be roles that may need to be on site more than three days a week due to the nature of the work."

"In the employer-employee relationship decisions like this should be consistent," Rosenblatt said. "Otherwise, it opens up a possibility of bias, differing levels of flexibility that might vary by manager or leader. A more structured approach, say based on workforce personas, would offer a framework for decisions about who can be remote full-time, part-time or none of the time. Such a process will set a framework based on real work factors, like a dynamic persona model, and would take the ambiguity out of this for both Google leadership and Google employees."

Ultimately, going from remote to hybrid presents a dilemma for most companies: the flexibility they gave employees to work from anywhere in 2020 full-time is suddenly being taken back. Can they just yank employees back to the office? What happened to all those empathy promises? Google’s application processes is a formality that does seem to be at odds with the “flexibility and choice” that has been touted, Rosenblatt added.

Will Google Alienate Employees?

Google or other companies mandating a specific schedule for in-office and remote days may risk alienating valuable employees who have adjusted to the remote work lifestyle. They may ultimately seek out new companies that allow for that flexibility, according to Wagner. While companies are still experimenting with different approaches, Wagner added, they cannot overlook the importance of personal choice and flexibility for employees.

“Some may need to remain fully remote, and that should remain an option,” Wagner said. “We know that many job seekers are looking for flexibility, as are the majority of today’s workforce. Gone are the days when people needed to spend time commuting in order to sit at a desk to work independently. There are too many benefits to remote work to return to such a status, from the ability to exercise more, flex schedules for parenting needs, and even reducing emissions. Those fully-remote benefits shouldn’t be reduced to just four weeks a year.”

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

Hybrid Requires Thoughtful Collaboration Strategies

Another big fear for organizations embracing the hybrid work model is creating a divide between in-office and remote employees. Brian Muse, chief technology officer at Robin, which offers a workplace platform, said Google will need to recognize this as it prepares for 60% of its workforce to work in-person a few days a week while the remaining employees work remotely or in new locations.

“CTOs will need to collaborate with facilities, IT and HR teams to design a consistent workplace experience across groups that make the workplace seamless, simple, and highly mobile so employees can focus on performing their jobs well with their preferred devices,” Muse said. “New guidelines around compensation adjustments should account for location, experience, role and expertise."

COVID-19 pandemic has turned every company into a hybrid workplace, Muse said. However, he added, "Now that employees have grown accustomed to the benefits of working from home, they aren’t going to be receptive to going back to ‘business as usual.' Allowing workers to work from anywhere without becoming remote full-time is a good low-risk experiment for the company that will likely provide insights into future improvement areas for its hybrid work model."

No Perfect Formula

Google’s intentional focus of in-office time on collaboration is a good one, and it’s a smart idea to have product areas and functions help decide which days the teams will come together, according to David Nour, CEO of business consultancy Nour Group.

“My question is what about employees who continue to feel uncomfortable meeting in person, or getting a vaccine for that matter,” Nour said. “How will they fit into this hybrid work model?”

Leaving open the door for complete remote work allows Google to cast a much wider global net for talent, Nour added. Many of their sharpest technical talents will not want to come into an office and can be very productive continuing to work from everywhere.

Bottom line? The entire employee experience journey (EX) is getting massively shifted to home-centric first, Nour said, and this will have a ripple effect on every facet of touchstone moments, from interviewing and hiring, to onboarding, managing, performance reviews, development opportunities, peer reviews, recognitions, promotions and exiting when the employee’s values and priorities no longer align with the organization.

A Real Opportunity To Reimagine Work

Many organizations, however, are thinking completely wrong about “coming back” to work, Nour finds. There’s no going back, he added.

“We’re all emerging from this grand global experiment ... and it’s worked surprisingly well,” he said. “If anyone thinks they’ll magically want to return to physical offices tomorrow, they’re kidding themselves.”

When employees want/need to collaborate, they may be happy to come in, but employers need to provide sufficient value in the outcomes from those collaboration opportunities. “I don’t need to get professionally dressed, drive, park and come in for a ‘chit chat,’ Nour said. “I can do that in five minutes over Zoom.”

The real opportunity, Nour said, is to rethink, reimagine, and reinvent work. How can we focus more on outcomes and value creation vs. simple outputs and often value diminishing activities? How can we create micro enterprises, focused on a common mission or vision, driven by independent P&Ls, where members of the micro enterprise share in the profitability of our micro enterprise? How can we create greater opportunities for self-governance, and for shared services to compete for micro-enterprise business, as well as be open to exploring outside opportunities?

"In essence," Nour added, "how can we create a new operating model for an intrapreneurship mindset, skillset and roadmap in the post-pandemic world?”

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