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Is Hybrid Work Really About Convincing Employees to Return to Office?

July 02, 2021 Employee Experience
By Dom Nicastro

The numbers are well-documented: employees are leaving their jobs at the highest level in 20 years. And employees are speaking up about company’s hybrid work plans — and not quite favorably in some cases

Microsoft reports 40 percent of the global workforce is considering leaving their employer this year. So why not get it right then? Of course, there likely is no right answer for a hybrid work plan that will satisfy 100 percent of your employee base.

However, if you want employees back in the office and truly stand behind those “it’s better to work together in person” claims, the first step in the process is providing employees experiences that they genuinely value, according to Ryan Anderson, vice president, global research and insights for furniture-maker Herman Miller who leads workplace design efforts.

“No amount of amenities or perks will convince employees who don’t want to come into the office to sustainably do so,” Anderson said. “Organizations should focus on creating desirable experiences that either augment or improve upon experiences that can be had at home.”

Crafting Hybrid Employee Experience

Anderson’s teams put together a Work from Home Ergonomic Assessment, something Anderson discussed in depth in the Get Reworked Podcast put on by Reworked.co. Based upon the data from the 20,000-plus users of Herman Miller’s work-from-home tool and other sources, researchers identified three experiences that employers can focus on supporting to achieve desirable employee experiences:

Individual Focus

The first is comfortable spaces for individual focus. It’s a myth that everyone can focus better at home, according to Anderson. Nearly 60 percent of the users of the Herman Miller WFH tool say that individual focus at home is at times a challenge.

“Offices should offer places for individual focus such as reservable private offices or a quiet zone where someone can confidently find focus to complete a big presentation or work on a creative project.” Anderson said.

Long-Duration Team Collaboration

The second is places for intensive or “long-duration team collaboration.” Teams can easily interact on Zoom meetings for an hour, but when a team needs to dive deeply into a project for longer durations, say two to three hours or two to three days, then video isn’t a good option, Anderson said. “These needs can be addressed by offering team neighborhoods or by converting meeting rooms into project spaces,” he added.

Community Socialization

The third is community socialization. “While people can feel highly connected to their own work team while working remotely, it’s very common for individuals to become disconnected from (or never form) extended networks,” Anderson said. “These extended networks, which sociologists refer to as weak ties, are important — they help to create a sense of belonging and purpose, and enable career and personal growth.”

Providing Support for Employees’ Best Work

There’s also the argument of convincing/selling employees on the idea of in-office work vs. simply supporting them to do their best work, according to Shimrit Janes, director of knowledge for the Digital Workplace Group.

“The word ‘convince’ is an interesting one here,” Janes said. “I’d argue that employers shouldn’t be seeking to convince their people to be coming back into the office. Instead, we have this moment as an opportunity to really think about where and how people can be supported to do their best work. What are the different ‘habitats’ that feel most natural to people for different types of work, different types of connection, at different times of the day, week or year, or even career?

Related Article: Making Collaboration Work in the Hybrid Workplace

Employees Will Have Different Desires

Some people will be desperate to be back within a managed office space, according to Janes. She cited the employee who doesn’t have access to the space or tools or desire to work from home, something that often impacts those from lower income or younger demographics or those living alone.

Others, she added, still will want — and need — to continue working from home, such as those with disabilities or chronic illness, or caregiving responsibilities. Or, simply, because these employees work best alone.

“And, as the world starts to open up, there are huge opportunities for people to discover the joys of being able to work from a whole variety of places outside of the office or home, from the library to cafes to co-working spaces, often with friends who can become coworkers,” Janes said.

Building Structure

Given those diverse needs and desires, organizations, rather than just trying to get butts in seats, should be looking into how to support choice of time and location in structured ways that balance the needs of individuals, teams and the organization as a community.

“Some may be drawn to the office to support ‘focus’ time, in much the same way as people use libraries, while others may be drawn to home or third locations for the same work,” Janes said. “Some may be drawn to the office for in-person social learning, especially those earlier in their careers who rely on peers and senior people for learning their craft.”

Teams may want to take advantage of the shared physical space of the office for a whole variety of specific reasons that are best done in person, and then take advantage of the shared virtual habitat of the digital workplace other times, she added.

“Doing the research to know what these different activities and preferences are, and the ways that different environments can support — or hinder — them, will mean that the office becomes part of a wider variety of habitats that people can choose from, and that it can itself be designed to be more adaptive in its layout and use,” Janes said.

Rather than creating an “us and them” competition of the office versus everywhere else, there is a real opportunity here to support more natural and instinctive ways and flows of working either alone or together, that support us as humans with different needs and relationships, Janes added. “If we can do that, there hopefully won’t be any need to convince anyone,” she said.

Related Article: Are You Ready for the New Hybrid Workplace?

Getting to a Desired State

By designing for these employee experiences, and then communicating that to employees, employers can turn the conversation about returning to the office from being obligatory to being desirable, according to Anderson.

“But,” he added, “if organizations continue to plan generic spaces dominated by small desks and traditional conference rooms, they’ll see lower and lower returns on those real estate investments, and perhaps more importantly, will miss out on the chance to use their offices as value-added assets.”

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