Executive teams deserve high praise for their excellent leadership implementing safe COVID-19 policies, complying with new laws, and the quick pivot to remote work in mid-March 2020. As one said to me, “It all went smoother than we thought. Now, we are trying to figure out what’s next.” What is next is the hybrid workforce. Now is the time to lead change in your organizations to optimize remote work, convert to a hybrid workforce with the new team norms to make it work, invest in digital technology, and create a new role for the office.
You are facing this post-pandemic reality. Half or more of your remote workers will want to continue to work from home post pandemic. Some will want to return to the office because their home environment is not suitable for work, or they miss the in-person socialization with co-workers, or they are better motivated at the office. Of course, some workers will need to continue to come to the office because the need to work in research and development labs, access data not available online, or interact with customers. All of this creates the reality of having employees on the same teams that are in-office workers and remote workers: the hybrid workforce.
Take heart. The answers to this post-pandemic reality already exist.
In 2021, motivated to cut needless facility costs, reduce long commutes for employees, and reinvest the savings into research and development, I and an enlightened team of executives at Medtronic in Santa Rosa, CA, implemented a flexible work environment for a hybrid workforce. A hybrid workforce is a workforce with remote and in-office employees working on the same teams. Our results, and current research, provide keen insights on what executive teams should do next. We learned the answers to many questions’ executives are asking today, such as the following:
- Investing in useful digital technologies. We learned the importance of improving the capabilities of our digital technology. I will never forget one high potential marketing employee interested in working remotely who told me during a sensing session that she, “didn’t want to work from home if it meant waiting ten minutes for a digital file to open.” We invested heavily in more digital file storage space, improved broadband, excellent video conferencing technology, chats, and cyber security.
- Keeping all workers aligned to the company’s culture, strategies and goals. We required remote workers to come into the office one or two days a week to maintain this alignment and to be face-to-face in town hall meetings, decision making meetings, staff meetings, and meetings with their managers. The head’s down work they did at home.
- Communicating with each other quickly. We required each team to work out new operating norms on how they would communicate with each other quickly, share information (including with those not in the hallway conversation). Each team worked out a code on when it was critical to respond to each other immediately, within an hour, or by the end of the day.
- Making informed and smart decisions. Part of the operating norms for each team included decision making. As a highly innovative workforce, we already knew the importance of making decisions based on analytics, shared and equal input, and by well known decision rights for empowered teams. Each team spent time defining how these decisions rights would work for their hybrid teams and which meetings would be video-conferenced or in person.
- Preventing employee burnout. Our experience was that employees working from home spend more time working. Some of the increased work was the saved commute time. Some was late into the night. It began to lead to burnout. The team operating norms required every manger to meet with each of their employees individually to work out their daily work schedules, when they would be working, what meetings were critical for their attendance, and when they would be off line having time for themselves and families. These norms significantly reduced burnout as employees felt they had more control over their work day.
- Incorporating remote work to improve innovation and new product development teams. At first our innovation and product development teams had to come to work every day. However, within a year, many of these teams allowed their employees to work an average of one day a week from home. They found these employees were more productive working from home to review analysis, write up reports, and to gain perspective. Our experience is now back up by empirical research. Research published in 2020 shows that innovation and product development are improved and accelerated when project team members use a combination of time together and time working remotely at home: Together to collaborate and brainstorm; and remotely to think, get perspective, analyze data, and write up reports. These finds have also been uncovered by other researchers such as Cushman and Wakefield.
- The new role of the office. We redesigned our offices to make them more productive and innovative for the employees who worked their every day and the remote workers who would come into the office one or two days a week. One of the biggest changes was that remote workers no longer had a dedicated office space. Instead, “touchdown” office space was available to them. Our offices were re-designed to become a place for holding key meetings, sharing information and insights, innovating, mentoring, training, and connecting to the corporation’s culture and mission.
Our results were fantastic. We were innovators at the time and our results were fantastic. The productivity of our remote workers soared by 22 percent and they reported improved work-life balance. Our in-office employees also reported better productivity, by as much as a half hour a day due to our office redesign which provided more desperately needed small and large conference rooms equipped with the latest video-conferencing technology. We also implemented office norms to significantly reduce the interruptions faced by office workers.
The Pew Research Center published survey results in December 2020 with a nationally representative sample of over 10,000 workers that revealed similar findings. Workers had the technology to do their jobs, were meeting deadlines, had adequate workspaces, completed their work without interruptions, and were motivated to do their jobs (see chart right). The Pew Research Report shows that slightly over half of remote workers want to continue to work from home after the pandemic.
Remote work has not worked out for everyone, according to both reports. Parents and a higher percentage of younger women have had more difficulties with remote work, due to the primary responsibility of caring for toddlers and helping older children with distance learning. Younger workers report less motivation to do work when working from home. People of color and lower-income workers have also had fewer opportunities for remote work and for those who have remote work opportunities report difficulties with the suitability of their home environment.
Contrary to what some pundits would have you believe, the Pew Research report shows that remote workers use video conferencing, instant messaging, and chatbot platforms to keep in touch with their managers and coworkers. They also note that these tools work for them. Two-thirds report that they are not fatigued by ZOOM conference calls.
Research backs up the successful hybrid experience of HR practitioners. Global Workforce Analytics published its latest report, The Business Case for Remote Work, 2021. They conclude that if 45 percent of the workforce worked remotely for half the workweek, US employers and employees and the environment would achieve the following benefits:
- Employers could collectively save over $500B a year—roughly equal to the GDP of Sweden, Belgium, or Poland—or almost $11k for each employee who works at home half the time.
- Employees could collectively save over $149B a year or $3k per person and save the equivalent of over 670M days a year (14 days per person) they otherwise would have wasted time in traffic.
- The environment would be spared the greenhouse gas equivalent of taking the entire New York workforce off the road for a year, and over 80K traffic accidents, injuries, or deaths would be prevented.
Redefining the office. In their recently published report, Cushman and Wakefield predict that the design of the office will change for many companies. When the pandemic abates, based on their modeling, with 50 percent of office workers working from home two to three days a week, the design of the office will change. Remote workers will do their heads down work at home, with fewer interruptions than in the office. They will go into the office to align, collaborate, give and receive recognition and awards, and to socialize.
Post-pandemic (as in our 2012 office redesign) the office will house some workers five days a week like before the pandemic, particularly those working in research and development labs, servicing customers, and those who prefer an office environment to their home environment. To accommodate the hybrid workforce, however, the office will also need to provide touchdown spaces for remote office workers when they are in the office, with vastly more on-demand small and large meeting rooms and videoconferencing rooms. The office will also need to allow assembly areas, casual meeting areas, and training rooms.
While 2020 was a challenging year for executive leaders, 2021 will continue at the same pace because the future world of work is here now. To learn more about how to build upon your success with remote work, lead a hybrid workforce and redesign your office, I invite you to download my complimentary report, 9 steps to Implement a New Post-COVID19 Office Environment.
Victor Assad is the CEO of Victor Assad Strategic Human Resources Consulting, managing partner of InnovationOne, and Sales Advisor to MeBeBot. He works with companies to transform HR and recruiting, implement remote work, and develop extraordinary innovation cultures, leaders, and teams.