Now that the pandemic is easing, most employers are bringing employees back to the office. Many offices have become hybrid workplaces that blend remote and in-office work. For these organizations, I have seen three general teleworking strategies that will be discussed below.
However, what is often missing when determining the optimal teleworking strategy is the answer to this question: What will best enhance the employee experience? A positive employee experience is key to building culture, connectivity, and relationships. And all of this is critical to a healthy bottom line for any organization.
I propose that leadership must wrestle with how they can best achieve a hybrid arrangement that promotes the most positive employee experience possible. I’ll explain more of what I mean by this, but first let’s take a look at the three most common hybrid work strategies.
Everyone Works Together on Specific Days
For this strategy, organizations require all employees to be in the office on specific days of the week. A popular approach is for everyone to report to the office on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. This saves employees from having to commute on Mondays and Fridays, which promotes work-life balance around the weekends. In addition, Mondays and Fridays are the most frequently requested days off, so bringing everyone together Tuesday through Thursday maximizes the days of the week when most employees are available.
Another popular approach is to have everyone come in to the office Monday through Thursday, with Friday scheduled as a work-at-home day. Other organizations provide employees with a mid-week commute break, requiring employees to come into the office every day except Wednesday, or perhaps allowing both Wednesdays and Fridays to be telework days.
These approaches certainly provide flexibility and opportunities for frequent in-person collaboration. But as a space planner, I see the downside: the office must be sized to accommodate all employees at one time, even though the space is only fully occupied a few days per week. The rest of the time, the space sits vacant.
In my view, this strategy is not truly “hybrid” because there is no blend of in-office and remote workers on any given day. Everyone is either in the office, or everyone is working remotely.
A key benefit of the hybrid model is the ability to save money on real estate costs by implementing shared workspace solutions. In the hybrid model, employees can reserve spaces on an as-needed basis when they are scheduled to be in the office. Because not everyone is in the office at the same time, less space is needed. The “everyone in the office together” approach does not take advantage of this opportunity to save on real estate costs.
A Days and B Days
Another popular strategy is to create A days and B days. Essentially, half of the employees come in on A days (Monday, Wednesday, and Friday), and the other half come in on B days (Tuesday and Thursday). These days are generally rotated on a two-week cycle.
There are many other ways to achieve this strategy, such as requiring employees to be in the office 50% of the time, with some flexibility as to when those in-office days are scheduled. Another approach is for half of the employees to come into the office on Monday through noon Wednesday, and the other half from noon Wednesday through Friday.
I see these strategies employed most frequently in organizations that need to maintain a physical presence for in-person customer service.
The benefit of this approach is that employees can split their time between working from home and working in the office. Because approximately 50% of the employees are working from home on a given day, workstations and offices can be shared. This provides the opportunity to reduce the space footprint, thus saving on real estate costs.
One drawback of this strategy is that it lacks spontaneity. For example, what if there is a need for some A day employees to meet with B day employees in person? Additional workstations can be included in the office layout to accommodate these situations, but it requires planning ahead to accommodate employee schedules and to reserve the needed spaces.
Employees Come to the Office When Needed
Under this strategy, employees can choose when to come into the office. This is a very employee-centric approach that gives personnel a lot of autonomy. Of course, some employees will seldom come into the office, while others will be there daily.
The benefit of this strategy is that employees get to determine where they can work best for a given task. They can come into the office to work on team projects when the work demands, or work remotely when they need to concentrate.
This approach takes advantage of the flexibility that the hybrid office allows, and can result in a reduced space footprint as the entire workforce does not need to be accommodated in the office on the same day, apart from special meetings and gatherings.
However, from a space planning perspective, the challenge with this approach is that it is difficult to determine the amount of space needed. To address this uncertainty, a variety of workstation types and collaboration facilities are often provided to fit the needs of all work styles. The number and type of spaces to provide is guided by planning assumptions regarding the percentage of the workforce likely to be in the office on any given day, and the activities they are likely to perform in the office.
Another concern with this approach is that it can lead to isolation for those employees who choose to work almost exclusively from home. There is great benefit to in-person interaction. It can be difficult to keep that sense of connectedness when some employees appear to be lone rangers.
Nurturing the Employee Experience
To be frank, the three telework strategies described above allow management to take an easy path – i.e., just set the days that people will be in the office (strategy 1 and 2), or allow employees to make the decision themselves (strategy 3). In my view, these strategies are too simplistic. They do not focus on how to maximize the employees’ time in the office.
Some may argue that employees shouldn’t have to come into the office at all. While I’m a huge advocate of remote work, I do believe there is a time and place for in-person interaction and collaboration. There is something about being part of an organization that creates an identity for each employee. We are social beings and need that identity and sense of belonging to thrive. And some of this is best achieved via in-person interaction.
So why do we come into the office? We come to the office to be mentored (especially for new employees), brainstorm ideas, engage in teamwork, promote learning, and, most importantly, build connections and working relationships. Our time in the office should be focused on activities that support these goals. Managers need to plan for this interactivity to maximize the employee experience, and it is not easy.
I think hybrid management can be compared to being the conductor of a symphony. Pardon my analogy, but in a symphony, some instruments are actively playing (employees in the office engaging one another), while others are “at rest” (employees not in the office but actively engaged remotely). Just as a conductor directs the performance of a symphony, managers need to direct the performance of employees in the workplace.
Here are some steps you can take to nurture the employee experience in your office.
Develop a list of reasons your employees need to be in the office. The reasons will vary by organization and teams within organizations. Make sure there is one list for every team.
Create an organizational profile of why employees should be in the office. List the goals and the activities that support those goals. This can help the organization determine the amount and type of space needed in the office.
Ask managers and team leaders to create an in-office schedule based on these goals and activities. You may have a reception counter that must be staffed, employees in the office who must be available to meet with clientele, training that must be delivered, etc. Managers should create a weekly and monthly schedule of these activities for their teams.
Here are some additional tips to help you navigate this transition to an employee-focused hybrid schedule.
Start small. Focus on one or two activities for employees to accomplish while in the office one or two days a week. What you are doing is building a new culture and way of working, and this cannot be rushed.
There is no blueprint for the hybrid office, and most of the organizations I work with are struggling to bring people back into the office. Arbitrary deadlines and mandatory attendance in the office are being received with pushback. By starting small, you can grow a culture that wants to connect in person.
Look for strategic opportunities to bring employees together in the office. For example, invite your team to the office to brainstorm on a project or work practice. Facilitate the brainstorming session in ways that will encourage engagement from everyone. Test different team activities and ask for feedback, perhaps by conducting employee pulse surveys. Monitor employee output and productivity to see if there is a difference as employees return to work.
Observe the interactions of your team. Are they engaged? Does everyone contribute? Do you view the results as positive for your team and the organization? The answers to these questions can help guide future team activities.
Be realistic about how much can be scheduled into one day in the office. Do not pack each day full of meetings. Allow some down time so that employees can connect with each other and with others in the organization. The goal is to transform the office into the most positive employee experience possible.
Give yourself time to adjust to your new scheduling and planning role. Your job as a manager in a hybrid office will feel different than your job as a manager in a traditional office or in a fully remote office. The employee-centered approach requires more hands-on coordination and planning of individual employees’ schedules and needs. It will take some time to adjust to this new way of managing people, space, and activities in your office.
Benefits of the Employee Experience
Instead of a neat one-size-fits-all approach, my recommendation is messy, and it demands a lot from management. However, this approach will help employees take advantage of the time they have together.
By focusing on the reasons people need to be in the office and generating employee activities that support these reasons, organizations can maximize the value of having an office. I hope managers will lead the way in promoting time in the workplace as a positive employee experience rather than an outdated mandate or arbitrary rule. Managers who step up to the challenge will benefit the entire organization and promote the well-being of its employees.