Enabling a hybrid workforce for the long term

February 10, 2021
BY Peter High Founder and President of Metis Strategy
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Key dimensions leaders should consider as they evaluate the people, process, and technology changes needed to enable their teams to thrive in a new world of work.

This article is part of an ongoing series exploring the ways in which companies are can prepare for a post-pandemic world of work.

Tiffany Jenkins, Mac Connolly, and Yucca Reinecke co-authored this article

In the post-pandemic world of work, flexibility will be key. Our conversations with technology executives suggest that many companies expect to maintain a hybrid working model, in which some employees work remotely, others work primarily at the office, and many move back and forth between the two. More than 80% of executives polled during the January 2021 Metis Strategy Digital Symposium expect either a 50/50 split between remote work and the office or for most employees to work remotely beyond the end of the pandemic. And just this week, Salesforce.com said it would give employees three ways to work, even once it is safe to return to the office: flex, fully remote, and office-based.

In this article, we will explore four key dimensions leaders should consider as they evaluate the people, process, and technology changes needed to enable hybrid work for the long term, including:

  • Adapt employee policies, procedures, and operating models for a hybrid working environment
  • Rethink employee experience through a lens that balances productivity and well being 
  • Leverage technologies to enhance collaboration and productivity, regardless of work location 
  • Reimagine physical office spaces to support hybrid work   

Adapt your operating model for a hybrid world

A shift toward a long-term hybrid working model requires a major rethink of day-to-day operations. While many changes were made at the peak of the pandemic, including, in many cases, a massive shift to remote work, companies should now build upon the experiences and learnings to date while developing a sustainable operating model that supports these changes long into the future. That means rethinking existing ways of working, scheduling meetings, current employee practices, and the policies that govern daily operations.

An important first step is to assess which jobs will require a return to the office, which ones can be conducted fully remote, and which require a mix of both. In order to answer that question, companies may need to look at jobs from different points of view, including functional responsibilities, type of work performed, and the skills and preferences represented in certain jobs. For example, some companies are experimenting with having groups of employees return for a few days per week or bringing together certain teams on specific days when these teams are expected to engage in collaboration or discussions that benefit from co-location and in-person interactions. 

For jobs that will be largely remote, leaders should think about whether those workers will be required to be located within a certain proximity of the office or other work-related physical location, if compensation changes based on employee location are warranted, and other policies that will impact future decision-making.

A range of approaches to hybrid work, which we will explore further in a future article. Source: Metis Strategy

An operating model fit for a hybrid work environment should also anticipate the new, often more complex, ways in which colleagues will collaborate, over virtual collaboration and communication tools or even across time zones, and how that impacts productivity, employee experience, and company culture. Determining how and where teams will be expected to work together can further influence decisions around technology and real estate investments, as we will explore below.

Double down on employee experience

Companies are placing renewed focus on employee experience as teams adapt to major changes in their work habits. While a shift to largely remote work during the pandemic led to increased productivity at many companies, the new setups also showed remote work’s potentially adverse effects on well-being as employees balanced the demands of work and home. Indeed, many employees’ greatest challenges stem from the physical and emotionally blurred lines between the workplace and their personal or family lives. As one of our executive partners recently said, “we no longer work from home, but we live at work”. Left unaddressed, these challenges could lead to difficulties retaining talent long term.

To that end, it is increasingly critical to invest in an employee experience that balances productivity and employee well-being. Fortunately, most organizations have realized that well-being, productivity, employee satisfaction, and retention are more closely intertwined than they were pre-pandemic and should be addressed in unison. Doing so can lead to higher engagement, and ultimately better business outcomes. A Gallup Study found that engaged employees are 21% more productive, 22% more profitable and score 10% better on customer ratings than unengaged employees. Companies that consider all these factors are more likely to retain talent and, in some cases, may become a more attractive employer now and during the gradual return to the ‘next normal.’

A key driver of employee engagement efforts is providing employees with the tools and support they need to do their jobs successfully no matter where they work. These can range from technology such as laptops, collaboration tools and video-conferencing applications to perks that support health and wellness, from gym reimbursements to subsidized childcare and access to therapy and mental health support. 

Several organizations have also begun to experiment with virtual and digital tools that attempt to replicate the social interactions that typically occur in a physical workplace, such as virtual “water coolers.” While not intended to produce concrete outcomes, these social interactions have shown to lead to greater team cohesion, trust among team members, and generally higher levels of employee motivation. However, it is also important for leaders to help employees know when to log off or when it may be best to disconnect from more rounds of video conferences. Leaders should continuously solicit feedback and measure outcomes of these efforts on productivity and perception of well-being.

Putting people first by ensuring that they have the support they need, communicating early and often, and creating new opportunities for learning stands to boost both engagement and productivity no matter what comes next. As Verizon CIO Shankar Arumugavelu said in a recent interview about the company’s pandemic response: “We all have business resilience plans. At the end of the day, what stood out [at Verizon] is the human resilience. That really made the difference here.” As the company develops its post-pandemic plans, the company is taking the opportunity to rethink how things are done for the betterment of customers, employees, shareholders and society.

Several of the organizations we work with have addressed the new realities of virtual work by making it easier – and in some cases even explicitly welcome – to have family members join certain meetings, for example, or by otherwise supporting employees who are exposed to the logistical challenges of co-managing professional and personal lives.

Leverage new technologies where appropriate, regardless of work location

As noted above, enabling a successful hybrid workforce means ensuring employees have access to the technology and tools needed to carry out day-to-day operations. In our conversations with IT teams, we have found that reliable and secure video conferencing, instant messaging, whiteboarding and visualization tools that can be accessed in and out of the office have often been deemed essential.

Rather than attempting to fully replicate the workplace in the remote environment, companies should first assess the digital tools and capabilities that have best supported a remote-first workforce. Firms can then assess how those tools may enable collaboration in an in-office and hybrid working environment and think through the process changes that may be required to do so. Many IT teams we have spoken with have adopted new interactive whiteboarding tools, for example, and companies have invested in the training needed to ensure teams are well positioned to use them.

Of course, simply implementing the needed tools will not lead to greater collaboration. Leaders also must be intentional about driving adoption. Slack or similar communication tools will not improve effectiveness if only a few people use it. Conversely, with deliberate and widespread adoption, the use of real-time communication tools can address the fundamental need for accessibility. 

Rework the physical space to maximize collaboration

At a recent Metis Strategy Digital Symposium, Comcast CIO Rick Rioboli noted that the pandemic has created an opportunity to completely rethink the physical office. The company now is approaching its offices “not as what we go back to, but rather as what [our offices] can do for us.” Similar conversations are happening across industries as leaders consider how best to use physical office space once it is safe for employees to return.

Often, those conversations include thinking about how to weave digital capabilities that currently serve remote employees across the physical office environment and how to reconfigure existing space to maximize the potential for productive collaboration in a post-pandemic, hybrid world. A workplace intelligence report by global technology leader NTT Ltd. found that 31% of companies are implementing additional creative thinking spaces, while 30% will provide more meeting places and 27% will reduce individual desk space.

Turning the office into a digitally enabled, collaboration-first environment will be critical to enabling a hybrid workforce. As companies seek to create a safe, collaborative, and efficient space for their employees, we have observed a few common practices:

  • Building “smart” meeting rooms: These spaces allow in-office employees to easily collaborate with their remote counterparts. These “smart” rooms often include video-conferencing capabilities, smart whiteboards, mobile-friendly office management applications, and virtual collaboration hardware such as 360-degree cameras.
  • Providing a portable and secure environment: At many companies, network technology will need to evolve to support an environment where employees are constantly on the move between the home and office. As part of the strategic discussions about adopting a hybrid operating model, firms should also assess the impact on their company’s network infrastructure and what new tools are needed to support a mobile, connected and productive workforce. 
  • Incorporating workplace analytics: As changes to the operating model take hold, it will be increasingly important to measure the impact of those changes. In a recent podcast, Adam Stanley, CIO and Chief Digital Officer at Cushman & Wakefield, discussed a tool called Experience per Square Foot that collects data about employee experience in the office. Those same tools, he said, could extend to remote work environments, and help leaders make informed decisions about how to adapt their environments.  

In addition to layering digital tools onto the digital space, there are some design changes that can benefit hybrid employees as well. Among them:

  • Creating a “hot-desking-friendly” space: Foster an environment that is conducive to plugging and unplugging. Making second monitors widely accessible in those desk spaces (in a way that prioritizes health and safety) can enable employees to move to and from the office while maintaining equal levels of productivity.
  • Designing activity-based environments: Huddle rooms for one-on-one meetings, phone booths for calls, larger conference spaces and separate, movable desks are just a few of the changes being made to create more activity-based spaces while balancing the need for privacy.
  • Investing in co-working spaces: As companies rethink their real estate footprints in light of the pandemic, some are choosing to invest in smaller co-working spaces that are closer to employees. Done strategically, this setup can generate sizable cost reductions while fostering a strong sense of community and providing employees with the option to work in different settings. 

As companies begin to formulate and test hybrid operating models, continued investment and careful strategic planning are necessary to maintain effectiveness and resilience. While reports of increased productivity are reassuring, the next question to ask is how to make that productivity is sustainable over the long term. By adapting your operating model, investing in employee experience, empowering employees with needed tools and technologies, and rethinking the purpose of physical spaces, companies will set themselves up to tackle the changes brought on by a new world of work.

March 23, 2023

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