The future will be flexible. That is, if companies want to attract and retain the best employees. Based on findings from Future Forum’s 2021 Remote Employee Experience Index, a hybrid workspace model designed for both in-person and remote operations will be the way forward.
After a pandemic-induced scramble, many organizations are now set up for remote work at scale, and teams are enjoying the benefits of having more autonomy over where and when they operate best. When successfully executed, a hybrid approach gives workers the chance to choose the best of both: less commuting, fewer meetings, and more space for deep work and meaningful in-person engagement.
But, as the current global pandemic laid bare: While we all may be struggling, we are not all struggling the same. And a flexible office model will only work if it works for everyone.
Here are five ways to build a durable plan for both in-person and distributed office life. One that works for everyone, sustains productivity, protects against burnout, and promotes team engagement.
Understand your employees’ needs
Based on Future Forum’s 2021 report, 83% of workers don’t want to return to the office five days a week. But that doesn’t mean remote work has been a cakewalk. Those fortunate enough to stay at home have had to find new ways to build social connections and manage job and family responsibilities, all while dealing with the aftershocks of a supremely stressful year.
In a global survey of 32,000 workers, Steelcase’s Reinvented Workplace report identified five patterns of WFH employees: The isolated Zoomer, the frustrated creative networker, the overworked caretaker, the autonomy-seeker, and the relieved self-preservationist. These personas help leaders understand the range of needs and expectations to anticipate when developing a new working model.
Of course, leaders can’t stop at outside studies. Companies of every size should go to their teams directly to learn what workers want, what they don’t, and what’s giving them pause. Only then can managers build a plan that takes everyone’s motivations and anxieties into account.
Let people set their own boundaries
Data shows that productivity hasn’t dipped since many teams went remote last March. In fact, for many workers, productivity has been higher than it was in the office. According to Future Forum’s 2021 report, 61% of remote workers are satisfied with what they accomplish versus 53% of in-office workers. And when companies allow for flexible working models, productivity scores shoot up 53% higher than those that don’t.
It’s time to let go of the previous working reality’s rigid expectations of where and when teams succeed. Inclusive systems depend on everyone having a voice to define them and, collectively, re-define them.
As long as managers establish and communicate expectations, there’s no need for the one-size-fits-all approach to productivity that has plagued offices of yore. Your colleague who’s a morning person may love to get up at 7 am when they’re most alert and sign off closer to 4 pm. Great. Your manager with young kids may need to log on a little later once school starts. That works! Your direct report with bad WiFi and three roommates may want to come into the office four days a week, but that doesn’t mean the rest of the team needs to, too.
Moving to a hybrid model gives organizations a fresh opportunity to rewrite norms and support ALL employees to help them do their best work.
Rethink your physical spaces
Many workers miss the easy rapport and impromptu collaborations a physical office provides. So, a worst-of-both-world scenario would be opening up an office only to have people alone staring at a different screen from those at home.
It’s time to break away from traditional desk setups and create spaces that promote the things people are coming into the office for. With fewer people consistently working in a shared office, you may need less space overall but more break-out spaces and phone booths. Instead of two massive 20-person conference rooms, try having several five-person rooms.
Depending on your company’s size, there will likely be workers coming into the office not just to collaborate but to focus. Try shifting to hot desks so those who need a quiet area for heads-down work always have it. The key to a flexible model is (surprise!) flexibility—even with your office design.
Double down on digital channels
The digital tools and systems that worked well enough in the “before times” started showing their cracks last year. That was survival mode, and teams are desperate to thrive again. To thrive, workers must feel like they belong.
Tech is now an inextricable part of the belonging equation, and companies should invest like it. Per the Future Forum index, knowledge workers who viewed their company as a leader in the tech space had dramatically higher “sense of belonging” scores (+11.8) compared to those who felt their company was falling short (-4.1).
There are as many solutions to achieve this as there are people on your team, but the one thing they must have in common is utility for both in-person and remote workers. That means it’s time to move your headquarters online, at least mentally. Use company-wide forums to message big announcements, updates, and mission. Create team spaces to build alignment, maintain focus, and share relevant resources. Remember to share offline decisions back into digital channels to keep everyone informed. And finally, don’t forget to develop arenas for socializing to preserve those water-cooler moments for all workers.
Protect and promote shared values
Organizations have to contend with a lot of change: Market shifts, new leadership, unforeseeable global health crises. To weather all the ebbs and flows, there must be a constant. And for the most resilient companies, that bedrock is a strong sense of purpose shared by employees at every level.
Company values and goals act as a guiding light for all decisions, including developing new working models. What’s more, they will help keep your workers engaged and aligned. While compensation and perks are important, top talent are motivated by more. They want to contribute to something bigger than a bottom line and desire the support and freedom to solve intractable problems.
Whether in office or remote, companies must practice radical transparency, messaging company values and detailing how any given decision supports them. This gives all workers the context they need to make bold plans and the confidence to execute them.
For more ways to create an inclusive hybrid office model, read all of Slack’s
Future Forum is a new consortium created by Slack that helps companies reimagine work in the new digital-first workplace. This article was produced on behalf of Slack by Quartz Creative and not by the Quartz editorial staff.