• Hannah Ubl

The Hybrid Work Environment: Will It Work? And Other Questions...

Lisa and I have studied how to create great workplace cultures for a while now. Naturally, in the past year the focus shifted a bit. Clients have been asking the ever-so-relevant question: how do we keep/create/build our culture when so many people are working from home?

And these days, they’re asking an even more timely question: how do we make this work in a hybrid model as people start returning to the office?

We want to have a straightforward, simple answer to this question, we really, really do. Alas, we don't have one. Because while companies and researchers have invested thousands of dollars and hours trying to figure out how to create vibrant in-office cultures, learning how to do the hybrid thing has not been top of mind. At least not for most.

The simple fact is that we’re living through history. There are no case studies or records of times past when companies made employees work from home en masse during a pandemic, and then navigated to a hybrid WFH/office environment and thrived. They just don’t exist.

Because this year we’re all living through is a first. There’s so much that we still don’t know. At GCC, we're conducting our own research, reading reports, listening to clients, and seeking solutions as much as anyone else, but it’s important to recognize that, by and large, the hybrid work model, at scale, is uncharted territory for the vast majority of us.

So we’re approaching the learning process, as usual, by asking a whole lot of burning questions. Here are the ones that top our list:

  1. Are new policies and procedures a help or a hindrance? We’ve seen organizations adopt Zorms (Zoom + norms, i.e. standards for virtual meetings, including rules for when the camera needs to be on, what kind of background is acceptable, dress code, etc.) and other virtual or hybrid work standards. Is this ultimately going to create more rigidity and rules when, in many ways, working remotely has felt like freedom to be more human? Are these policies going to be written with various home situations taken into consideration? Or might it actually be helpful to have a guideline of expectations? A mentor once told us that policies and rules can be an act of lazy leadership, and we can’t stop thinking about that.

  2. Workplace friendships lead to higher engagement at work. How can those friendships blossom when people are dialing in from different spaces and places? People are most engaged and tend to stay with companies longer when they have work friendships. According to Gallup, it’s even more beneficial when employees have a best friend at work. But virtual/hybrid work environments are more asynchronous and thus can lead to less exposure to colleagues, and the hours spent working can easily become transactional. Can we organically make friends at work in hybrid environments? Will this continue to be a measure of success at work? How do we authentically create moments of connection when people are both in the office and dialing in remotely?

  3. How do we ensure that those working from home are NOT getting left behind? The office environment makes it easy to get to know each other on a more relational basis. The hallway run-ins, spontaneous lunch outings, pre and post-meeting conversations all help people learn about each other. So, the next time that a new project team is being formed, or a job is up for grabs, how can we be certain that those working in the office vs. at home vs. a blend of the two are being treated with the same consideration (and without favoritism)? Is this really going to be good for everyone? Or will it do the opposite of what we intend?

  4. How can you get everyone on board with a hybrid environment when some didn’t even want it in the first place? Moving to remote work was not a one-size-fits-all experience. Some found it beneficial, of course. There were many more who found it difficult, whether for personal challenges from constantly being at home or because it was so outside the norm of what they knew. Generationally, there were different perspectives, and not in the way you may think (Millennials topped the list of the most stressed by WFH). No matter where peoples’ opinions are coming from, the truth is that feelings about hybrid work will be all over the board. So, how do we create an environment of consensus where colleagues embrace the hybrid model, and support whichever mode of work is best for the individual (while, of course, not hindering the team or organization at large)?

  5. How can organizations and people who work in those organizations maintain energy to continue reshaping their hybrid workplace culture? The past year has been one of constant change. It's proven what is possible when everyone is on a similar change trajectory (turns out we can work from home!). Continuing on this path of transformation is necessary, and… it’s also super exhausting. Many people are operating on near-empty energy tanks. It’ll be easier for people to throw their hands up and say, “You know what? This hybrid model just doesn’t work, and we need everyone back in the office!” than to continue evolving the hybrid workplace model. Where is the grace and energy for continued change going to come from? And how can we hold each other accountable to it?

As we move further into 2021 these questions will continue to inform our work, and undoubtedly, new and unforeseen dilemmas will pop up that urgently need answering. The great news? We’re all figuring this out together. There’s no small bit of solace to be found in that.