It looked like the pandemic was nearly over – at least over enough for companies to consider bringing their employees back to the office. The past several months saw employers focus on the Return to Office (RTO) debate: require employees to return to the physical office, remain remote or something in between? Recent studies from Mercer, Gartner and others indicate a combination of required in-office time and remote work has emerged as the preferred workplace model, and companies are preparing their facilities and their employees for the next normal.

Well … who knows what the next normal will be. The recent rise in COVID-19 cases has some companies delaying the return to the office. But in office or out, over the next several months, companies will continue to face challenges with managing a work environment that we haven’t experienced before. While a hybrid work model offers many advantages, it also increases the potential for confusion, frustration, work silos and decreased levels of connection among employees who are working from different places on different schedules.

One thing is certain: the work environment will continue to evolve. Returning to the pre-pandemic “normal” is no longer an option. Smart companies are now accepting rapid change as part of the new normal and finding ways to create equal (but not necessarily identical) workplace experiences for employees working in different locations. Here are some tips for making a hybrid work environment work better – whenever it’s implemented.

Preparing for change and unforeseen challenges

  • Clear, consistent, transparent communication continues to be key to building trust and driving engagement. Always explain the “why” behind company decisions, especially those related to RTO, vaccine and masking requirements, which can be polarizing.
  • Be clear about behavioral expectations related to topics that trigger strong opinions. Treating each other with respect is non-negotiable, no matter what side of an issue they support.
  • Prepare your people leaders to lead in new operational work structures. They’ll need to supervise employees and manage work differently in a hybrid environment, or with fully remote employees. Prepare them for the difficult conversations that are likely to arise during this period of adjustment (Why can Jack work remotely five days a week but I can’t? Why do I have to be in the office on Tuesdays – I’d rather be here on Fridays?). Give them tools to help guide those conversations.

Building the hybrid work experience

  • Almost every employee will need to participate in virtual work from home or in the office. Make sure employees are equipped with the supplies, technology and tools they need to do their jobs – no matter where they are sitting. If you are requiring some in-office time, make sure collaborative space is equipped for virtual as well as in-person meetings.
  • When determining whether to designate in-office days or not, remember to balance the desire to support individual flexibility with team collaboration needs. I know … easier said than done.
  • A positive in-office experience and effective collaboration requires multiple employees to be in the office. Consider designating one or two days per week as in-office days.
  • Remote employees may be at a disadvantage during virtual meetings – they miss out on body language, social cues and side discussions that occur naturally during in-person meetings. Consider holding all virtual days during which all employee meetings are via video, even for those in the physical office. Or adopt this practice for high-stakes meetings to ensure all participants have the same experience.
  • When employees are in the office, encourage them to spend meaningful time in collaboration with their colleagues. Facilitate collaboration by establishing comfortable, inspiring workspaces and provide physical and digital tools to support innovative thinking.
  • In-person time is especially important for new employees – to accelerate learning, build relationships with colleagues, develop networks and find mentors. Consider requiring some in-office time for new employees, at least during the first six to 12 months of their employment.

Your company values should guide your actions and decisions. It’s a good time to re-examine your values and the behaviors that support them to identify any adjustments that need to be made to support new ways of working and changes in employee expectations that have emerged from the pandemic.

Overall, offer flexibility and provide guidance, but empower teams to determine what works best for them. Listen, experiment, learn and adjust. It’s going to be an interesting year.

Contact us for more information about hybrid work environments and employee engagement.

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