Can Hybrid Work Be Fair to All?
When you think of hybrid work, you might think of offices full of white-collar workers where virtual work can substitute for in-person work on a day-to-day basis. There are probably in-office benefits and opportunities that people can take advantage of by coming in a couple days a week, but if some employees really don’t want to it’s not the end of the world.
In knowledge work, where in-person interaction can be replicated online, in-person customer visits aren’t necessary and the only thing you need is someone to pick up the mail and feed the goldfish, the move to hybrid work can seem like a relatively trivial decision. Sure, there's some worry about culture or collaboration but nobody can also seriously make the argument that work can’t get done remotely.
But it's not such a simple decision when some employees need to be in person or in the field. What happens when there are different types of work environments, all in one company?
When Some Employees Have to Work in Person
"You can't fix a tire remote.”
That’s what Nick Wakefield, vice president of human resources, driver recruiting and retention at USA Truck, said in an interview with TransportDive in June.
Wakefield was reflecting on an issue that many executives are facing: Headquarters and office staff that can largely work remote, balanced with staff that must work in person due to the nature of the job.
In an analysis of 2,000 tasks and 800 jobs over nine countries, consulting firm McKinsey found that the transportation industry joined manufacturing, construction, accommodation and food services, and agriculture as having the lowest potential for remote work. While you may not need a McKinsey analysis to figure that out, it’s also important to note that at least some portion of jobs in those industries — in some cases, up to nearly 1 in 5 — can still be done in a remote or hybrid context.
For an employee who is part of the 4 in 5 that do have to come to the office or be physically present in some way, there can be resentment and annoyance at their out-of-office coworkers. It may be harder for them to connect with remote workers using alternative means, especially considering that many of these people don’t have company-provided devices.
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Balancing Hybrid Work in a Mixed-Role Environment
The easy answer is right there for the taking: Make everyone come into work every day, regardless of whether they can or can’t do their jobs remotely.
While this may seem fair, it may not be smart. The roles that can be remote are oftentimes the most competitive roles that can cross industry boundaries. For example, it may seem fair to bring in your staff accountant because everyone else is working in person. But a staff accountant can get a job at many different types of companies, some of which would be happy to offer employment with a remote or hybrid option.
A better approach is to think about a few key factors that will likely determine how you handle hybrid work:
- On-site employee interaction: What sort of needs do on-site employees need and is it better fulfilled in person? Think of your own HR department. While a recruiter can probably be more selective about when they come in, you probably need someone from employee relations in the office more frequently.
- Complementary support positions: When balancing hybrid headquarters roles, for example, you might need coverage every day but you might have multiple people who can cover that functionality. In that case, think of ways to use hybrid work to both provide coverage, collaboration and flexibility in that area.
- Think about supplementing on-site technology: Can you make it easier for in-person employees to get the information they may normally receive from their colleagues? Even basic technologies like help desks with texting functionality can help improve their experience.
- There’s no one-size-fits-all: Hybrid is about flexibility. Trying to enforce strict policies that apply to everyone won’t work. Instead, ask department heads to take the lead and offer guidance and support where necessary.
- Bringing employees on site can always be a backup plan: It’s worth trying a hybrid model first because the alternative is something that is easy to communicate and understand: Come to work. While it might be disengaging or discouraging to some employees, it is still viable.
Overall, it’s worth thinking about the type of experience you’re driving for all your employees. Like Wakefield said, some jobs can’t be done remotely. Those people still drive your operations forward. You need to be thinking about their experience just as much as the back office that keeps operations humming along.
It’s an important balancing act with uncertainties to navigate. But if you listen to employees and are open to change as you approach this next challenge, you’ll eventually find the right path for your organization.
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About the Author
Lance Haun is a leadership and technology columnist for Reworked. He has spent nearly 20 years researching and writing about HR, work and technology. Connect with Lance Haun: