The pandemic forced organizations around the world to adapt to remote or hybrid business models practically overnight. While employees typically appreciated the flexibility and autonomy that remote work provided, they also reported missing the human interaction and community often found when employees are together in person.
Recent research found that physical work locations where employees can gather, from indoor offices to outdoor sites, will continue to play a critical role despite the emergence of fully remote options.
"Most organizations and people want some version of a hybrid work experience where there's flexibility to work remotely, but [they want to] also come into a shared space when that's needed," said Helen Kupp, co-founder of Slack's research consortium, Future Forum, and co-author of How the Future Works: Leading Flexible Teams to Do the Best Work of Their Lives (Ascent Audio, 2022). "This means that we need to redesign how we work together rather than leaving it to chance."
Physical work locations also play a key role in assuring that employees receive all the support they need, both physically and mentally, from their employers.
"Work must become an inviting and inclusive destination where each employee can reliably seek mental well-being support, peer recognition and a sense of belonging," said Flore Pradère, research director of global work dynamics at JLL, a commercial real estate and investment management firm headquartered in Chicago. "It must also become the anchor of an organization, one that enables optimal performance and shared achievements."
Gartner's Hybrid Work Employee Survey found that the traditional location-centric model erodes performance and well-being, while a human-centric model drives performance, a result that favors hybrid workplaces.
"A human-centric approach puts the people in the office at the heart of decision-making about the workplace strategy and wider HR initiatives," said Alexia Cambon, research director for Gartner's HR practice. "The key is to balance the needs of the individual, the team and the organization."
Gartner's research shows that HR can increase employee performance in a hybrid work environment by focusing on the following three core elements:
- Empathy-based leadership that understands employee performance in context.
- Intentional collaboration that is inclusive of both business and employee needs.
- Employee-driven flexibility that empowers employees to choose when, where and how they work.
"Empathy is the most important managerial characteristic in the hybrid workplace," Cambon said. "Empathy is both a skill and a mindset that begins with a willingness to listen to employees to understand what they want and need in order to be successful."
While 89 percent of HR leaders in the Gartner survey agreed that managers need to lead with empathy in the hybrid environment, they found that organizational investment to enable empathy-based management was falling short.
"Managing with empathy requires a shift away from 'performance by input' toward 'performance by outcomes,' " Cambon said.
Empathy-based management has worked well for Drift, a global technology company headquartered in Boston that has successfully transitioned from a traditional (pre-pandemic) office-based business model to a flexible hybrid model, according to Dena Upton, chief people officer. At Drift, the HR team relies on frequent employee surveys to find out what's happening in the organization and uses that data to support recommendations for changes to HR policies.
"We have to be able to align our people metrics with business outcomes to get buy-in from senior leadership," Upton said.
Survey data was instrumental in persuading the leadership team to change the company's performance management system to focus on output rather than hours worked. "We found that giving employees the freedom of choice to decide when, where and how they work has improved performance," Upton said.
However, many organizations have managers who lack the skills and experience required to manage effectively in a hybrid environment.
"A blended learning approach [integrating asynchronous and synchronous learning] can be a powerful way for managers to learn empathy and other difficult skills like adaptability and resilience," said Todd Moran, chief learning strategist for NovoEd, a collaborative learning platform headquartered in San Francisco. "Face-to-face interaction provides an additional opportunity to practice and reinforce those skills with mentoring and coaching."
Moran views collaborative learning as a professional development tool that can help with employee engagement and retention in a hybrid environment. When companies invest in the growth of their employees, it sends a message that they care about them, which reconnects them to the organization and creates a sense of shared purpose, he said.
In addition, when determining what works best for an organization, "start by listening to your people and meeting them where they are," Kupp said. Notably, two-thirds of the leaders in a recent Future Forum survey were planning their hybrid strategy without input from employees.
Intentional collaboration is the idea that HR should be thinking about innovation by design in the workplace rather than relying on serendipity or spontaneity. "When you are intentional about how, when and where you meet as a team, the time together becomes an important source of innovation and creativity," Cambon said.
Intentionality is especially important in a hybrid world, Kupp said. "We have the opportunity to be more intentional about when we should do digital work, when we should come back together and how we can make the best use of our time. There are cases where I think face-to-face is uniquely better," she said.
"Organizations have an opportunity to rethink what the office is for," said Jacky Cohen, chief people officer at Topia, an HR technology company in San Francisco. "The 'why' should be the guiding principle behind every HR policy. We have to ask, 'Why are we getting together? What is the intention around connection?' "
After Drift changed its performance management system to focus on outcomes rather than input, it also changed the way the company uses office space. While there are still desks for those who want or need them, the office is largely collaborative spaces with conversational areas. When employees get together for scheduled events and activities such as sales bootcamps, bonding activities and building out new products, they always include a digital component so that employees who can't come into the office aren't excluded, said Upton.
"The hybrid model is a win-win as long as there is an authentic culture of connection and humanity to support it," said Chris French, executive vice president of customer strategy at Workhuman, a global performance management platform. "The office has to provide something that people can't get remotely. They miss the point of being in the office if they are doing the same work they would be doing at home. When the culture is strong, people can get together to work on goals, collective challenges, collaboration and strategy."
In a hybrid work environment, the primary purpose of the office "is for culture and connection," said Jennifer Dennard, co-founder and COO of Range Labs, a workplace collaboration software company in Denver. "Resentment comes up when people are required to come into the office and then spend the entire day in Zoom meetings, which they could have done working from home. There's no sense coming into the office when no one's there."
When employees have the opportunity to interact with senior leaders face to face, this can be a powerful incentive for people to return to the office. But this assumes that leaders will be there to meet them.
"You can't create two sets of rules, one for the senior level and one for everyone else," Dennard said. "There has to be some balance."
At NovoEd, the CEO stresses the importance of senior leaders being emotionally and physically present for their people. "He puts the 'ask' on the table," Moran said. "But he doesn't tell us how to get it done."
Flexibility can be a powerful recruitment and retention issue, as evidenced by a recent Future Forum survey in which 70 percent of respondents said they were "willing to walk" if they didn't get the flexibility they want and need at work.
"Flexibility isn't just about location. It's about time and place. It's about flexibility of scheduling," Kupp said.
After Cisco's 2022 Global Hybrid Work survey found that hybrid work improved every area of employee performance, work/life balance, employee well-being and workplace culture, the company decentralized its scheduling process. As a result, team leaders and staff were empowered to make decisions together about when to come in to the office, said Francine Katsoudas, chief people, policy and purpose officer.
"This new flexible way of working will change the way that the offices will be used," she said. "The office will be the place to go for client meetings, team bonding events, brainstorming sessions and 'all-hands-on-deck' matters."
Kupp recommends creating team-level agreements that outline operating norms, core collaboration hours, and other rules and expectations while maintaining behavioral guidelines at the enterprise level.
"When teams decide what works best for them, it's more scalable than when there is one policy for the entire company," said Cohen, who added that at Topia, there is greater interest among engineers to get together face to face than there is for other teams, including HR, that are more distributed.
"You can't force people back into the office, but you can make the office more appealing by aspiring to be more flexible," Pradere said. "The role of HR is to work with managers and leaders to help them with this transition. People have to be willing to change and adapt."
Cambon added that "all experiments require course correction. What keeps me up at night is that we'll fail and that will be an excuse to revert back to the old way."
Arlene Hirsch is a career counselor and author based in Chicago.