Before asking, “How do we get everyone back into the office?” and arbitrarily assigning mandates of 3, 4, or 5 days of required time there, leaders should step back to learn what works for human teams in a new era.
This begins by asking these essential questions:
How much face time do our people need to maintain bonds? Is there a better way to achieve that than having their desks next to each other?
If productivity is greater when our people work from home, how much of that productivity should we sacrifice by requiring office attendance?
The hybrid workspace is about enabling as much productivity as possible without costing our employees too much personal time, sacrifice, or ability to control their workday. Some attendance at the office is likely a component of cultural bonding and team productivity, but not necessarily a main element of work.
There’s a powerful reason leaders need to get this right: Companies stand to lose employees if they don’t. For instance, Microsoft’s Work Trend Index found that 41 percent of workers are likely to consider switching jobs within the next year, and 46 percent say they plan to switch careers entirely if they can’t maintain control over where they work. And a recent Monster.com poll indicates that a stunning 95 percent of employees are considering leaving their jobs.
All of this is occurring in a market where many companies are struggling to find enough workers. That means many companies are willing to do whatever it takes to attract them, and more are expected to join their ranks. And that means companies who are married to the “everyone must be in the office” mantra are the most vulnerable to staff turnover and will have the most difficulty filling vacancies.
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Let’s not forget that by the dawn of 2020, stress levels in offices were at an all-time high and many employees reported feeling undervalued and commoditized. Burnout and turnover were reaching all-time peaks, so office workers were already eyeing the exits when the pandemic arrived. Then, during the ensuing year-plus of working from home, those same workers found surprising satisfaction in the challenges of adaptation, self-reliance, and working out new rhythms of productivity.
In addition, office workers couldn’t help but notice the hundreds of hours they regained each year by not having to commute. For example, those with a 45-minute commute recovered about eight work-weeks worth of time — uncompensated and frustrating time — which they could spend sleeping in, having meals with their families, and taking the dog for a walk.
Many workers are hesitant to give that up. Those who have found ways to work harder, longer, and more productively at home will not cheerfully embrace a return to the pre-pandemic work conditions.
Here’s my point: if you want your people back in the office, it had better be for reasons that are better for them, their workflow, and their well-being, not just for the convenience of the company or to justify the expense of a commercial lease.
Looking toward the future — the long-term, not just the immediate — we must recognize that employees achieve their highest productivity in different ways, in different environments, and at different times of the day.
So, it follows that companies wanting to be more productive than their competitors will support — or better, embrace — whatever makes their employees most productive. It takes courage to re-evaluate what role an office plays in that productivity, but the time for that re-evaluation is now.
So, what is the role of the office?
In a nutshell, an office must be a place for some workers to locate and others to visit for meetings or learning sessions, depending on their preference. It must be flexible and adaptable in design and offer connections beyond performing tasks at desks. It is at the water cooler that bonds are formed and casual conversations occur.
Above all, in the hybrid era, the office must not be the sole locus for the performance of tasks. We now know that office tasks can be done almost anywhere, and that office workers want the freedom to make their own decision about where to perform their daily tasks.
Mistakes to Avoid
Here are five crucial mistakes for leaders to avoid as they drive toward a hybrid future.
Top-Down Arbitrariness. A one-size-fits-all mandate from the executive suite, created without extensive employee input, can result in a plan that workers resent, with the unintended consequence of accelerating resignations.
Lack of Trust. If a leader’s impulse to force workers into an office is based on the mindset that employees are not working unless they’re visibly present, those leaders need to revisit the facts. Productivity soared during the pandemic when relatively no one was in the office, no one was physically supervised, and only essential workers commuted to work.
Lease-Based Rationales. Forcing employees to leave their homes to occupy an office because the company has signed a lease is head-in-the-sand reasoning. Yes, it hurts to know that only 11 people show up at a space that fits 200; but that’s no reason to ignore the obvious indicator that times have changed.
Failure to embrace appropriate technology. A company that doesn’t support and pay for new equipment or software for remote use will result in employees and teams “punting,” patchworking their communications and data, and inviting a significant security risk.
Rushing into a plan. Going hybrid is a complex undertaking, and some answers are not yet known. So, committing to a full and final plan now (rather than phasing things in stages that can be tested) is setting up your organization for potential failure and employee distress.
The pandemic forced a shift in the relationship between employees and offices. The hybrid workplace is the emerging solution to that change, and how each company orchestrates its hybrid approach will have a profound effect on its future. Companies can adopt flexibility in both policies and physical places, using hybridization to accommodate individualized employee preferences and keep their productivity high. Although these changes challenge the traditional thinking of the pre-pandemic era, they offer enormous potential benefits to employers who can break free of those limitations to embrace the hybrid office approach to expand operations, retain productive teams, and thrive in an increasingly competitive landscape.