At an all-hands meeting in April 2021, Andy Katz-Mayfield, the co-CEO of Harry's Inc., looked at the gallery of faces on Zoom and realized he'd never met half of his approximately 600 employees in person. Over the course of the pandemic, Harry's had changed in myriad ways. One of the most salient—and a challenge shared across thousands of companies of all sizes, and in all industries—was the emergence of hybrid work as a cornerstone of the company's future, with implications for every part of their business, from culture to operations.
As a consumer packaged goods platform, Harry's Inc. brands include Harry's, Flamingo, Cat Person and Lumé. Katz-Mayfield, along with his co-founder and co-CEO Jeff Raider and Chief People Officer Katie Childers, saw the disruption posed by the pandemic as an opportunity to design a full-scale transformation to a new, permanent hybrid work model that would not only address the current moment, but also lay the groundwork for the company's future. The rollout of a formalized hybrid work model would also serve as a re-onboarding for their entire employee base.
In the years before COVID, Harry's and transformation consultancy SYPartners worked together on a strategy related to culture and company vision. As a partner at SYPartners, I worked closely with Katz-Mayfield, Raider and Childers on this before the pandemic. When the challenge of architecting a new hybrid model arose, we revisited our past work to explore adapting it to a new set of realities. We sought to create a path that was both strategic and practical. In this article, our goal is to share the frameworks and approaches we used, and to provide a case study with insights and takeaways other organizations may find useful as they navigate the universal challenge of fostering a high-performing culture in a hybrid work environment.
Having worked remotely for more than a year, we recognized the inevitability of hybrid work but also knew that in-person connection would remain important for Harry's culture. So we brought a product mindset to our approach, aiming to make return-to-office something people would want—a "pull" rather than a "push."
Like most leadership teams at this time, it was hard to wrap our heads around all of the variables at play. "It felt like a tangled decision tree we couldn't quite find our way through," said Childers. "And so many things were also out of our control. We couldn't predict how pandemic protocols would evolve. We couldn't guarantee zero COVID cases in the office even with the best precautions. And we couldn't make people embrace hybrid or in-person work."
As a result, we started to think about the hybrid model as a metaphorical playpen rather than a decree. The guardrails we established would provide clarity and comfort to employees while also giving teams and individuals latitude to experiment and make decisions on their own.
In September 2021, Harry's officially launched the new hybrid work model across their global organization of three offices and 600 employees. A year later, we have a better understanding of the actions and approaches that turned out to be most integral to successful transition and adoption. In particular, three rose to the top:
- Identifying design principles to guide the strategy and design of a new working model,
- Focusing on moments that matter most, and
- Establishing transparent and continuous two-way communication.
Data-Informed Design Principles
As a first step, we sought input from employees in all locations, all departments and at every seniority level to understand what was most important to them. We ran companywide surveys and facilitated 11 focus groups with 99 team members, approximately 15 percent of Harry's employee base. From the survey and focus group data, we learned:
- Most people wanted to come back to the office, though not everyone.
- People wanted a gradual shift back into the office rather than a hard switch.
- Tension was arising between flexibility and mandates. Not providing flexibility made employees feel they were not trusted by leadership. At the same time, people craved a degree of certainty and clear expectations to coordinate effective collaboration.
- While it would be impossible to satisfy everyone with our approach, people seemed most concerned about work/life balance, productivity, cross-functional work and connection.
- It was hard for employees to know definitively what they would want and need in the future, given all the disruption caused by the pandemic.
After reviewing the feedback, there was a consensus among the Harry's executive team that employees wanted the company to enact a hybrid model.
"But that didn't mean it was a straightforward decision," Childers recalled. "It was tricky to navigate potential tensions in what we were hearing or feeling from the team. For example, a desire for both connection and flexibility can be inherently in tension, because coordinating days reduces flexibility. We leaned into transparency and understood that not everyone was going to be happy with where we landed."
Our team then gathered a diverse set of leaders from across the company to imagine what hybrid work could enable for their teams and business—at its best, what friction could it alleviate and what could it enable? Coupled with data from previous surveys, this brainstorm helped us determine that we needed to prioritize safety, clarity, fairness, connection and productivity. We refined these priorities into our design principles, framed as these questions to help guide our decision-making:
- Does it put safety first? First and foremost, we prioritized safety and employee comfort around risk. This led us to hire an epidemiologist, increase safety protocols (e.g., air filtration, PCR testing offered 3x per week), and run fireside chats to share the latest COVID-related data and information.
- Is it fair and inclusive? We designed our process to be collaborative with a broad segment of Harry's employees so we could listen deeply and create equitable experiences across personal identities, roles, geographies and needs. We ran extensive surveys and then shared back insights and how they were used in decision-making. We also held numerous testing sessions to help us iterate the tools we created.
- Does it foster connection? We embraced the value of building relationships and community—and sought to do so in a way that activated company values and fostered moments of delight. We revamped day-to-day work processes and tools, adapting those that could potentially feel exclusionary to remote workers, such as onboarding, and made sure to create hybrid moments of connection in addition to those that happen in person.
- Does it create clarity? There was a lot to process for employees, so it was important to create transparency around decision-making, including making information easy to use. We wrestled with how much to mandate at the company level and how much to leave open to teams. Ultimately, we decided some companywide guardrails were needed to create clarity and fairness (e.g., setting standard working hours, a loose expectation of being in the office two to three days per week), but tried to keep mandates to a minimum.
- Does it support productivity? While we set some companywide parameters, we largely entrusted teams to determine how to best enable effective individual and collaborative work among themselves.
Through 1:1s and a weekly briefing at the leadership team meeting, the people team worked with Harry's executives to align the design principles with Harry's current culture, as well as their ambitions for the future.
Clarifying design principles is a foundational step, one that is especially important in urgent, consequential situations. Design principles reduce the risk of getting off track in the midst of competing concerns, and they provide clarity for prioritization—especially for executive teams. They help guide decision-making and provide a bulwark against internal misalignment. By identifying what's most critical for the greatest impact, design principles focus efforts and keep everyone on the same page.
Moments that Matter Most
Identifying the right moments to focus on first can facilitate a smoother, faster and more successful transition.
Using the insight from surveys and focus groups, we identified the concerns and pain points that had the greatest impact on individuals (burnout from blurred boundaries, commute time, loss of flexibility with a rigid nine-to-five schedule, etc.), teams (lack of clarity into who would be in the office when, meeting overload, etc.), and the organization (lack of shared communication norms, uncertainty about how and when to gather in the office, etc.).
We then zeroed in on the moments that were most important for inclusion, a key cultural pillar that was most at risk of being eroded in a hybrid work environment. Three moments came up again and again:
Moment 1: Setting Sustainable Schedules
Working together in an office offers helpful cues as to whether someone is available—cues that don't exist in a hybrid environment. Our team decided to use our calendars as a proxy and introduced three new "types" of time as a method for communicating when and how people are working:
- "In the Office" lets people know that they can find you in person
- "Heads Down Time" signals deep, focused work time
- "Golden Time" protects personal commitments that fall during the workday.
We encouraged people to book these types of time on their calendars, and had senior leaders model the practice to drive adoption.
In particular, "Golden Time" was a huge success. It gave everyone—regardless of position or level—permission to hold commitments on their calendar without having to explain why, which resulted in greater equity. A child's soccer game is just as important as a therapy appointment. If someone's Golden Time created a challenge for their team, managers worked with the employee to identify a solution.
"Flexibility is the #1 thing people want," said Childers. "We saw that in every survey or discussion—but it means different things to each person so it's really hard to address it at a corporate level. The unlock for us was giving individuals agency and the ability to figure it out on their own, and then make decisions as a team. Golden Time was a powerful signal and people were floored that we cared."
Moment 2: Clarifying Norms and Expectations with a 'Re-Kick-Off' Workshop
For teams, we introduced a new ritual: the re-kick-off. The 90-minute workshop, facilitated by leaders, centered around a team conversation about collaboration norms—including communication, ways of working and meeting times. These discussions created an opportunity to support individual flexibility, underpinned by clarity around expectations.
Team leaders were trained on how to run these sessions, and they were given a detailed facilitator guide and slides designed to capture their "Team Agreements." We cascaded these re-kick-off meetings through the organization over four weeks, with the leadership team doing theirs first, then running it with their direct reports, and so on. Because of this approach, managers got to experience the re-kick-off as an individual employee before being asked to lead their teams through it.
As Childers noted, "It was amazing how little of that sharing had gone on about remote versus hybrid and which days. From a flexibility perspective, we didn't want to have to mandate ways that teams should work. We wanted to enable them to create what worked best for their team. Teams that invested here—and leaders that took a clearer approach to how their team should function—operated a lot more effectively."
Moment 3: Running Inclusive Hybrid Meetings
Both good and bad meeting design is amplified in a hybrid setting. Because live collaboration is a huge part of how Harry's teams work, we focused on ways to uphold equity for all participants in hybrid scenarios.
Through rounds of prototyping and employee feedback, we landed on a set of four companywide meeting norms, which were rolled out in an hour-long training session every Harry's employee attended. The session introduced the norms, explained the rationale behind them and gave employees the opportunity to practice them.
"This was a safe space to try these new behaviors, and also set the expectation of experimentation," Childers said. "More than rules, these were a baseline for us to iterate from as we learned more over time."
Harry's four norms for all hybrid meetings:
- One person, one screen. Each meeting attendee should have their own camera and connection.
- Digital-first experiences. Prioritize digital materials and interactions so everyone can contribute, whether they're in person or remote.
- Moderator mindset. Use Zoom features such as chat and reactions to help make space for people to contribute.
- End the meeting when the video ends. Pause on any further work discussion post-meeting and pick back up through your team's chosen hybrid channel.
For each of the three key moments we identified, we designed practical tools for employees to use every day. We then packaged the new resources in a "How to Hybrid'' manual, geared toward easing the hybrid transition for employees. Inspired by Harry's expertise as a product company, we invested in creating "products" employees actually wanted to use, with illustrations and digital interactions. (Editor's note: Harry's, Inc. has posted its "How to Hybrid" document on LinkedIn.)
Clear, Transparent Communication
Times of uncertainty often create fear, confusion and misinformation. So we focused on being transparent with employees about what was known and unknown. We shared our design principles, details from survey data and information about our hybrid approach in multiple channels and formats.
Such modes of communication included an in-depth report on clear themes from the surveys and discussion groups; preparing managers and the people team with answers to anticipated employee questions; dedicated time together as a company (led by the co-CEOs and CPO) to discuss the new models; and a support system for employees to ask questions of their manager, or people team partner or anonymously.
When we did encounter pushback, Harry's leaders explained the rationale and shared supporting data. For example, questions emerged around the guidance to make Wednesdays and Thursdays in-office days. However, the data showed that after the office reopened, people came in an average of one to two days a week, predominantly on those days.
Rather than try to enforce compliance, we aimed to enlist employees as co-owners of the business and its culture by communicating our rationale clearly, transparently and consistently, while taking into account employees' feedback.
"Our entire approach to defining our working model was driven by feedback—real data on people's actual, lived behaviors using the office and regular surveys and focus groups for more qualitative nuance," Katz-Mayfield said. "We really listened, and then used what we heard to create guardrails and flexibility, as opposed to mandates and rules."
It can seem easier in the short term to set rules people have to follow, rather than giving them tools to create their own norms. But in the long run, companies will see greater adoption and innovation if employees feel trusted and empowered to lead their teams how they know best, within clear, shared guardrails.
The Bottom Line
Harry's hybrid working program resulted in greater autonomy, democratized governance and prioritized inclusive ways of working. We also successfully created the "pull" we had hoped for, with more than 60 percent of the company returning to the office for more than one to two days a week in the fall of 2021.
Now, a year after the official rollout, the impact of this new working model can be seen across the company. In a 2022 employee survey, more than 80 percent of respondents agreed with the statement, "The new hybrid first model feels fair and flexible enough to support my work" (with 14 percent neutral). In the same survey, 84 percent of respondents agreed with the statement "I feel connected to my team" (11 percent neutral). Harry's also saw an increase in the ratings for "I feel connected to Harry's overall" from their pre-rollout benchmark and November 2021 survey.
A company's approach to hybrid speaks volumes about its strategy and creates a meaningful signal for employees and prospective talent about what matters to the organization and how much employees are valued and trusted.
Return-to-office and hybrid work can be an opportunity for companies to rally their people behind an ethos of experimentation, and to crystallize a methodology they can call on again and again as they continue to face new challenges.
"We're operating in a totally different world today than we were before COVID," Katz-Mayfield said. "To meet that reality, we not only invested in defining a working model and norms that fit our culture, but we decided to zoom out and refresh our company vision and values overall. It was a good moment to step back and align on not only where we are now, but where we want to go in the future."
Carina Cortese is a Partner at SYPartners. She has led large-scale transformations alongside leaders at IBM, UnitedHealthcare and AARP, among many others.