Like so many people, I’ve started my return to the world of in-person work. In the past two months I’ve delivered four in-person keynotes, enjoyed my first multi-person boardroom meeting, and attended a large client event.
The audiences I’ve addressed could not be more different from one another: a convention center full of insurance brokers, an on-campus gathering of a postsecondary institution’s facilities team, and an off-site event for the management team of a nation-wide, white-shoe law firm.
Despite those differences, their concerns were remarkably similar—and they’re the same questions I get in my frequent virtual keynotes. Here are three big questions just about every organization is now trying to answer.
How do we encourage employees to spend time in the office?
With headline after headline about “the great resignation,” many executives and managers are afraid that requiring people to come back to the office will lead to a lot of departures–at a time when it’s challenging to recruit new hires
Employers probably need to accept some number of employee departures in order to chart a successful transition to hybrid–but you can keep those resignations to sustainable levels if you include your employees in the decision-making process. In all my keynotes, I stress the importance of shifting the conversation around flexibility: Right now, too many people think of flexibility as the ability to choose where you work or which days you come into the office, but real flexibility comes from having big stretches of uninterrupted time to work—or not work!
Employees can only enjoy the benefits of uninterrupted time at home once they are free from the daily grind of back-to-back video meetings. That is much easier to achieve if you have a coordinated schedule that brings your team into the office on the same days, and concentrates most of your meetings on those days. The best way to help employees make peace with spending time at the office is by taking a participatory approach to building a hybrid schedule, and making an explicit promise that committing to a consistent, shared schedule of office days will translate into more freedom (and few to no video calls) on days at home.
How do we transmit knowledge and culture in a hybrid organization?
A lot of the concern around office time comes down to a desire to renew culture and ensure knowledge sharing among employees. We’re used to building culture by spending time together in the office, and to sharing knowledge by popping our heads into a colleague’s office when we have a question. Among senior professionals and managers who learned the ropes by shadowing and listening to their older and wiser colleagues, it can be hard to picture mentoring the next generation of talent when you don’t see them every day.
But that’s a failure of imagination, and it’s our job to get past it. Time in the office is far from the only way to transmit organizational knowledge and norms: It’s just the most familiar one. There are now lots of digital tools (Slack, Google Docs, internal wikis) that we can use to share information, or to invite others to watch over our virtual shoulders as we work. Nor is the office the only place we can meet up with colleagues: Inviting colleagues to meet up with you at a coffee shop, or to work out of your house, is another way you can spend time together, building trust and sharing insight.
One way to extend your approach to knowledge-sharing and culture-building: Imagine what you’d do if it were literally impossible to meet up in person, ever again. The past two years gave a taste of what that would be like, but the eventual, inevitable return of the office allowed us to avoid thinking through a permanent remote scenario. I’m not recommending that as a path: I’m just suggesting a thought experiment may help you broaden your approach so that you’re not so dependent on office time as the exclusive or even primary path to culture and collaboration.
How do we balance employee flexibility with stakeholder expectations?
As organizations deal with the widespread desire for continued, flexible and remote work, many of them have another reality to contend with: clients, customers or other stakeholders who expect those same employees to be on-site and available. From customers who want real-time service to judges who command courtroom appearances, many constraints on employee flexibility are simply out of the hands of managers, too.
In the immediate term, the best response is to engage your employees in the planning process. Bring your list of constraints to team meetings on how you’re going to organize hybrid: Invite collaborative and creative solutions to these constraints, and resist the urge to point out the flaws of these suggestions—once you have plenty of ideas up on the board, you can invite your team to think through the potential vulnerabilities of their various proposals. It may take a few conversations, but your goal should be to arrive at a set of strategies that your team members truly feel like they own, because then they’ll be invested in making those strategies successful, or in brainstorming new solutions as problems arise.
Keep a running list of the external constraints that affect your team’s hybrid flexibility, because in the long run, you may want to push back on some of them. Take the example of internal customers who expect real-time responses anytime during business hours: Do we really need to offer 40-hour-a-week availability, or are we better off moving to a part-time help desk that’s compatible with a more flexible form of hybrid work? How about courtroom schedules: Could they become more predictable, so lawyers don’t need to be on 5-day-a-week standby?
So many of the constraints on hybrid flexibility are based on how things have always been done—but the disruption of a two-year pandemic is our chance to rethink some of our fundamental assumptions. This process of inventing a hybrid workplace is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create a better, more productive and more sustainable set of working arrangements. Let’s not waste that opportunity by settling for the path of least resistance.
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