Move fast to keep people
Let employees and teams co-plan their new hybrid work schedules—to a degree
Don’t be too attached to “random collisions”
Use employee clusters for cross-team collaboration
Embrace the complexity
See through the eyes of the employee
Test it out
Train managers to recognize proximity bias
Every job should be evaluated according to objective output metrics
Get used to writing things down
Lower your expectations for productivity
Ban productivity tracking software
Be super specific about how quickly you think people should be able to get into the office
Be careful if you segregate employees based on vaccination status
You don’t have to jump on the hybrid work bandwagon at all
Keep the office space for now, if you can
Don’t ask employees about changes that your leadership team is not willing to make
On March 4, 2020, Lynne Oldham was driving to San Francisco from San Jose for a large conference when she got the call. Zoom, where she was chief people officer, was closing its office and sending everyone home to work remotely. Employee travel was called off. Oldham drove back to Zoom’s headquarters to find staff wheeling their chairs, stacked with monitors and laptops, out to their cars. “I literally made a U-turn on the highway,” she says.
Everyone who toiled in an office before the pandemic has a similar story about where they were when work as they knew it changed—possibly forever. Oldham, however, was running HR for the company the world would come to associate with “the office” throughout the pandemic. Now, though, as parts of the world reopen, even Zoom has to figure out whether to keep employees all remote or to bring them back to the office in some capacity.
Zoom had an in-person culture before Covid-19’s arrival, but it will not be U-turning back to the old ways. Nor is everyone staying home in their loungewear permanently. Like hundreds of other companies, Zoom will be leaning on its own technology and other digital tools to go hybrid. Because even Zoom feels that ditching the office might leave too large of a hole in work as we know it.
The all-remote tribe will have its day, but this is not it. The hybrid or work-from-anywhere (including the office) model has come to reign supreme. Dozens of large companies in tech, finance, and media, as well as many smaller ones, have announced that employees will be able to come into the office to work on a flexible schedule. They’ll come to escape Zoom fatigue, to gossip, to occasionally brainstorm without the tech glitches. But they’ll also stay home to evade long commutes and to toil without office distractions. They’ll be there when the kids get home from school. For all the employees for whom the Before was exhausting, this is a dream come true.
Still, it won’t be realized without a few thorny issues, so Quartz contacted leading firms and collected ideas from experts to ask about their best tips for hybrid work. Here’s what we learned.
Just how popular is the promise of flexible hybrid work? In a survey of more than 9,000 people, Accenture found that 85% of respondents felt that they were more likely to stay with a company in a work-from-anywhere environment, echoing similar results from other surveys. People like flexibility and more workers are prepared to leave a job if they can’t get it.
“So I would say ‘move fast,’”—that is, put hybrid work policies into place right away, says Christie Smith, senior managing director of Accenture’s global talent practice. “We’ve got a labor market that’s highly competitive right now, especially in some industries, so the fact that organizations are planning for this, and providing those requirements, that’s providing stickiness for those companies.”
Hybrid workplace schedules will likely vary a lot between companies. Some will experiment with keeping teams together for their in-office days; others will have a more free-for-all approach, depending on what best suits their products. Ideally, employees and teams will work out their own details of how and where they work, according to Raj Choudhury, an associate professor at Harvard Business School who has studied work-from-anywhere companies extensively. Choudhury has warned against leaving the plan up to individuals alone, or their CEOs, which was the very mistake Apple seems to have made.
Writer Anne Helen Peterson cautions against complicated and convoluted schedules that would replicate the chaos parents endured with wacky school schedules last spring. What’s more, she adds, it would be a mistake possible to allow some workers unfettered access to the office, which would make those with caregiving responsibilities and other reasons for working from home into second-class employees. Given current racial and gender disparities in those kinds of responsibilities, we all know how that could play out.
Stanford economist Nicolas Bloom likewise has begun recommending that managers, not workers, set up their teams’ hybrid schedules, ensuring that departments that collaborate often overlap in person at least two days per week. “For example, if the manager picks WFH on Wednesday and Friday, everyone would come in on the other days,” he wrote for a recent piece in Harvard Business Review. “The only exceptions should be new hires, who should come in for an extra office day each week for their first year in order to bond with other new recruits.
In his conversations with CEOs, Harvard’s Choudhury says he has repeatedly fielded questions about “random collisions,” the research-backed theory that posits organizations need people to bump into others organically so they can swap ideas and thus be more innovative. In response, Choudhury explains the devil is in the details. “There’s 30 years of research which shows that these conversations have been mostly with people who are physically proximate to the worker,” he says, “so it really depends on where your cubicle is and who’s sitting just around you.”
In the 1970s, research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology “showed that if there’s a wall between the two workers, there’s a much lower chance of having that conversation,” he adds. “If there’s a ceiling between the two workers—they are on different floors—the chance even goes down further, and if you’re in different buildings, then forget about it.”
We now have the virtual tools to connect people with national borders, oceans, and mountain ranges between them. Since we can intentionally engineer meetings that would not otherwise happen, hybrid companies are even more favorably positioned to orchestrate fruitful collisions compared to those under one roof.
Zoom’s Oldham also suggests that hybrid companies can create opportunities for colleagues to meet, bond, and collaborate by bringing clusters of employees who live near the same city together at rented satellite spaces. “I might not have 10 of the same type of employee in a location. I might have an HR person. I might have sales. I might have marketing,” she says, “And that’s a good way to cross-pollinate the organization.”
Betty Larson, chief human resources officer at the medical device giant BD, says that company leaders and managers need to embrace the complexities that will come from redesigning their operations. Yes, companies will have to answer to internal stakeholders, not to mention ever-shifting laws about vaccination status or capacity limits that vary depending on city, state, and country regulations. It might be tempting to snap back to old office use policies or lay down inflexible rules because it seems simpler, but don’t do it, she says. “We’re not going to let the complexity get in our way, and we have to find a way to be fair and equitable, and allow for flexibility for individuals as their roles allowed.” To that end, the company has adopted a principles-based approach to flexibility, rather than one that’s black and white or overly prescriptive.
As companies make and revise their hybrid plans, Zoom’s Oldham shares a brilliant tip she picked up at an industry panel: Imagine what work looks like through the eyes of different employee personas, just as you would with a range of customer profiles. “Who is that person who’s staying at home and working remotely? Who is that person who is working [from the office] Monday and Wednesday? Who’s that person who’s coming in every day?” she asks.
Such a method would help a company “really get their arms around different policies,” she says, and consider seemingly inconsequential details. For example, she suggests, if you’re providing lunch in the office a few days per week, what are you doing for your hybrid employees?
Zoom has not picked a date for its official opening as a hybrid workplace. For now, “We’re in watch, listen, and learn mode,” Oldham says, and she advises other companies to do the same. “We do A/B testing for our own products, why not do A/B testing for this?”
Zoom is in fact surveying employees in Australia, where the economy’s reopening is further along than that of other countries, she explains. “We’re talking to employees. We’re going to do a lot of experimentation.”
Yelp’s Phoenix office, which offers employees less potential for public exposure to Covid-19 (it’s free of elevators and sees fewer employees commuting by public transit) is that company’s Australia. Meriam Warren, chief diversity officer, says the company will be piloting hybrid work policies there in August.
Part of being a good manager in a hybrid world will mean staying aware of your own proximity bias, a basic quirk of human psychology that leads people to favor those nearest to them and who they see most often.
Many experts who spoke to Quartz said that they are retraining their leaders to become aware of proximity bias so that employees will be given an equal opportunity to get ahead. Managers should be evaluating people based on objectives and results, says BD’s Larson, “not who happens to be in the office most often.”
In fact, the academics and executives who spoke to Quartz said that safeguards against proximity bias, and unconscious bias against people who don’t look like you, for that matter, will need to be embedded in company policies when workplaces go hybrid. “The biggest change that needs to happen is we need to measure productivity based on output metrics,” says Choudhury. “It should not be measured based on explicit input metrics, such as hours worked, or even implicit input metrics,” for which a manager could still give more weight to face time in the office. Most companies will need to revisit their performance evaluation, he adds. “As far as possible, for every job, every task should have objective performance-based metrics.”
“We’ve all been in office situations where you go into a meeting, you decide on a plan, and then a week later, you’re like ‘What did we say? What was the decision, again? And who’s responsible for what?’” says Kevin Fishner, chief of staff at HashiCorp, a mostly remote open-source software company.
The best way to minimize confusion and wasted time, he says, is to create a written record—notes, minutes, transcripts, what have you—of every meeting, a single source of truth, he calls it, “whether you’re in an office or completely remote” or working with a combination of both. As companies transition from pandemic mode to a new normal, written communication is going to be even more important to keep information flowing.
The habit is second nature for software developers, says Fishner, and HashiCorp, like other tech firms, has templates for “Request for Comments” and other forms. But now the sales team has been asked to adopt the custom. “Writing things down before making a decision is not normal for them, he explains. “There is a little bit of a learning curve, but it’s surmountable.”
Documenting everything also enables effective asynchronous communication across international time zones, says Sam Eaton, chief technology officer at Yelp, and “writing things down more” as a guideline “is not only useful for hybrid work, but actually leads to better team collaboration and higher productivity overall.”
Hopefully, leadership teams have gotten the memo by now: People have been extra productive at home, but they can’t keep it up.
In the beginning of the pandemic, says Harvard Business School professor Tsedal Neeley, “people had a profound concern that they couldn’t perform at the same level,” as they did in the office, so “they went into overdrive.” Now that employees have proven themselves, companies have to help employees scale back because it’s not sustainable, she says.
The move to hybrid shouldn’t become another test for employees, either. Working close to burnout ruins a person’s job satisfaction and damages their motivation, says Neeley, author of the well-timed new book Remote Work Revolution (Harper Business, 2021), adding, “It blocks people’s abilities to get nourished from the parts of their life outside work.”
Whatever you do as a leader, do not turn to productivity-tracking software to monitor employees when they’re not in the office, Neeley cautions. When she hears about a company that’s using cameras to take surveillance photos of employees at regular intervals, installing always-on webcams, or recording keystrokes, she sees it as a demonstration that those executives “haven’t transitioned into being strong leaders” for our times.
Productivity tracking is “humiliating” for workers, she adds, underlining that the word came up again and again in her decades of research on remote work practices. People also told her they were biding their time under such employers, looking for the opportunity to leave. “The moment the economy allows it,” she says, “they’re gone.”
If your hybrid plan allows employees to choose an almost entirely remote lifestyle, be clear about expectations for occasional, last-minute office gatherings. BD employees were told that they should be within 24-hours’ traveling distance of the office, according to Larson. That notice allowed people to plan accordingly, should they be considering a move.
US companies can require that employees be vaccinated before they return to the office. They can also separate vaccinated and unvaccinated employees, but that could be dicey for a few reasons, says Accenture’s Christie Smith.
Not only are there legal questions to consider, “I think it’s concerning from a culture standpoint and from a productivity standpoint,” she tells Quartz. “What does that mean for those individuals who have not been vaccinated? Will they be able to return to the office one or two days a week?”
There are logistical questions, too: Will they work in a separate area? Or do they become permanently remote workers?
“When you have a mix of vaccinated not vaccinated employees,” Smith adds, leaders must ask “how do you divide those workers physically so that it not only enables productivity but collaboration?”
All kinds of business leaders are asking themselves whether they ought to go all-remote or hybrid, says Fishner at HashiCorp. Making work-from-anywhere part of your strategy is a natural fit for companies like his, with developers all over the world, and for businesses that make team communication software or sell products entirely online, he adds, “but just because those companies are doing it, not every company has to do it.”
“If you have an office culture or product that really makes sense in person, then don’t feel bad about being an in-person company,” says Fishner. “There are lots of really good benefits to that too.”
Last fall, surveys by the commercial real estate company CBRE showed that 39% of companies were planning to trim their real estate holdings, but that figure has dropped to 9% this summer. Although it seems that people want flexibility, they have also expressed a sense of isolation while working remotely. There’s still too much uncertainty to say whether people will find that two or three days in the office, or less for many, will satisfy their need for connection and structure.
Asking employees what they want seems like an obvious way to arrive at a great policy, but surprisingly few companies are undertaking it. The Limeade Institute, the research arm of the Limeade employee experience software company, found in a survey of 4,500 workers in five countries that 56% of them had not been asked about the transition to whatever comes next.
That said, says Lindsay Lagreid, a senior advisor at the institute, do not make the morale-killing mistake of asking employees about changes that the company is not willing to make. She has worked with leadership teams who wanted to check in with employees about a four-day workweek, meeting-free days, or the number of days they’re willing to commute to the office. “Before we ask about that, before we give people this beautiful menu of options, have you made sure that the leadership team is committed to acting on those?”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated with the correct spelling of Betty Larson’s name. It is Larson, not Larsen.