As companies grapple with welcoming staff back to the office after more than a year of working from home, one thing is clear: Gone are the days when every employee reported to a desk five days a week. The hybrid work model has emerged as the dominant return-to-work approach, with global corporations such as Nationwide, Citigroup, Ford Motor Co., IBM, and General Motors Co. all opting to blend the best of in-office and remote working.
Nationwide officially expanded its flexible work options this year. It’s a move that has already helped the Fortune 100 insurance giant to recruit and retain top talent, Executive Vice President and CHRO Vinita Clements told Toptal Insights. “Our leadership team recognizes our employees’ desire for more flexibility—and that remote work can be successful for many roles, while knowing there is value in spending time in the office,” she says.
A Harvard Business School survey of almost 1,500 professionals who worked from home from March 2020 to March 2021 found that 61% would like to work from home two to three days a week, whereas 27% hope to work remotely all of the time. Just 18% want to go back to the office full time. With so many companies struggling to hire right now, employees have more bargaining power than ever—and smart employers will do what it takes to attract and retain top talent.
Whether your company is just starting to consider a hybrid model or has already adopted one, these lessons—from top workforce thought leaders like Clements—will help your team succeed.
Customize Your Company’s Hybrid Model
While a hybrid model has the potential to give workers the flexibility they desire and maximize employee engagement and productivity, it’s crucial for companies to take an intentional approach. “Hybrid is a lot harder to manage than either fully remote or fully face-to-face,” says Anita Williams Woolley, PhD, Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior and Theory at Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business. “By allowing a Wild West, do-your-own-thing arrangement, it’s going to turn out to be worse than all-remote was for a lot of companies, if they’re not thoughtful about it.”
If your team doesn’t have a detailed plan for your hybrid work model yet, you are not alone. In a May 2021 McKinsey & Company survey of C-suite executives, 68% admitted that they didn’t yet have a strategy in place or communicated to employees.
There is no one-size-fits-all arrangement for hybrid workplaces. Some companies, such as Google and Ford, are leaving it up to individual teams to design the schedules of in-office and at-home days. GM has dubbed its new hybrid model “work appropriately,” and will allow employees the flexibility to work where they will be most efficient, job permitting. Other companies are designating specific in-office days companywide. Vanguard Group, one of the world’s largest investment companies, plans to allow most employees to work from home on Mondays and Fridays. At software company Kissflow, based in Chennai, India, employees work from home for three weeks, and then travel to a central work site for one week of in-office collaboration (with accommodations paid for by Kissflow).
Company leaders must do the hard work of figuring out what hybrid structure will serve their businesses best, says John Budd, PhD, Professor and Industrial Relations Land Grant Chair of the Center for Human Resources and Labor Studies at the University of Minnesota. “How will the physical space be managed? The easier it is for employees to set their own schedules, the more space you need and the vision of reduced expenses fades,” he points out. “How will employees work together? Does a team all have to be in person at the same time, which reduces flexibility? Does it become frustrating having some co-workers in person and others Zooming in?”
Consider Adding More Fully Remote Roles
A hybrid workforce is often made up of three groups of employees: those who work on-site, those who work both on-site and remotely, and those who work remotely all of the time. As you customize your hybrid work model, one issue to examine is what percentage of new and existing job roles should be 100% remote. Fully remote work not only reduces the costs of maintaining office space, it can increase employee output. (Academic studies have shown that people were actually more productive working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic.) It can also widen the talent pool and bolster diversity, because employees no longer need to live near an expensive city center.
In the aforementioned McKinsey survey, only 3% of C-suite executives said that employees with roles that aren’t essential to perform on-site would be fully remote—while 80% said these workers would have hybrid schedules, coming into the office one to four days per week. But this balance may change in the coming months. Nationwide closed several brick-and-mortar offices across the US and made all of the employees in those locations permanently remote. As an unexpected additional revenue stream, the company has begun leasing unused, company-owned space to outside tenants, says Clements.
Even once-skeptical Fortune 500 CEOs have warmed up to a future that includes more remote work. (It might have something to do with the record-high $14.2 trillion in profits Fortune 500 companies made in 2020.) A Gartner survey found that 74% of chief financial officers and finance leaders plan to move at least 5% of their previously on-site workforce to permanently remote positions. And in June, Mark Zuckerberg announced that all Facebook employees whose jobs can be done remotely can work from home if they want to.
Beware of Potential Hybrid Workforce Pitfalls
Hybrid work has its complications and drawbacks. For example, if hybrid employees working remotely aren’t provided with the same access to information, professional development, and recognition as those who are on-site more often, it may “inadvertently create status differences and opportunity differences as a function of who is in the office and who isn’t,” says Williams Woolley. One reason this happens is distance bias, a natural tendency to pay more attention to and place more value on things or people that are nearby (and events that are coming up sooner rather than later).
“Nationwide has enhanced our forums, tools, and resources to maximize the interaction and opportunities for all employees in our hybrid environment,” says Clements. “Additionally, our regular pulse surveys help us understand what’s working well, and also where we need to focus more attention.” Nationwide is also investing in its managers, to ensure they are equipped to lead both locally and virtually, and in its learning, mentoring, and recognition programs, she adds.
The hybrid work landscape will include a wide mix of employees—those who are fully remote, fully on-site, or some combination of the two. In many cases, those employees will also work a variety of schedules in different time zones. So, hybrid workforce leaders must also cultivate trust with their employees and between teams, says Robert Brown, Vice President of the Center for the Future of Work at Cognizant Technology Solutions, a Fortune 500 company. “One of the lessons learned from the pandemic is that companies need to be able to trust their workers to be able to get the work of the day done, instead of having an overweening sense of propriety about whose rump is in a seat at a particular time.”
As the world’s largest fully distributed company, Toptal has been 100% remote since its founding in 2010—long before the COVID-19 pandemic created a “suddenly remote” marketplace. The number one problem Toptal has identified with the newly emerging hybrid models is the potential for disconnect. As evidenced by Nationwide’s thoughtful approach, however, businesses can flourish in a hybrid structure in part by leveraging technology, increasing accountability and alignment, and reinvesting in their people.
“People define a company,” says Toptal Chief People Officer Michelle Labbe. “Being hybrid or fully remote doesn’t change that fundamental philosophy.” If anything, distribution strengthens that reasoning because it challenges leaders to constantly innovate how they motivate, evaluate, and collaborate. A successful hybrid approach requires careful strategy and planning. But with the right leadership and resources, businesses will see a big return on the investment.