Hybrid work doesn’t have to be “mushy”

Last week, an article in the New York Times, “The Worst of Both Worlds: Zooming From the Office,” suggested that repeated delays in office reopening and executives’ tendency to avoid resolving questions relating to hybrid work are creating a bumpy transition and mushy norms between in-office and home-based workers.

But after having implemented a hybrid workforce model in 2012 at Medtronic’s campus in Santa Rosa, CA, I know that it does not have to be bumpy or mushy. In fact, it can improve employee performance and retention and save the company millions of dollars.

To succeed in this strategy, leaders need to be committed to managing differently and to implementing new norms for team behaviors, communications, and decision-making. Leaders also need to invest in outstanding digital technology, redesign the office as a place for meetings, align their strategy with the company’s mission and culture, and maintain relationships.

In the New York Times article, reporter Emma Goldberg described a mushy group of video calls where remote workers had trouble hearing and participants talked over each other. Workers in the office and at-home are envious of the perks the other is enjoying, the article said, mentioning the flexibility of home-based workers and the social interactions with teammates and leaders enjoyed by the in-office workers. She also reported on harmful meeting norms such as home-based workers covering their cameras. Companies such as LinkedIn and Zillow were considering whether they should have everyone in a meeting virtual or in person at the office.

Perhaps it is time to hit the pause button and think through new norms for the new normal of hybrid work models-which research shows are here to stay. Many companies implemented hybrid before the COVIC-19 pandemic, and much can be learned from them. Medtronic’s Santa Rosa campus is one such example.

At Medtronic, long before COVID-19, our objective with hybrid work was to raise money for breakthrough R&D projects by reducing the cost of poorly utilized office real estate. Back then, we understood that about 50 percent of our office space sat idle most of the day, and we did not have enough conference rooms or team project rooms for the needs of our employees, which led to wasted time as employees searched for a meeting room. As the HR leader for Coronary and Peripheral business in Santa Rosa, I also wanted to offer some highly sought-after benefits: more work-life balance for employees and better employee recruiting and retention for the company.

We quickly realized that remote work isn’t for every employee. If you had to be at the workplace to work with equipment in a research lab or operations, you had to be there. We allowed employees to work from home if nearly all of their work was possible from their computers, with files easily accessible from cloud file storage, and most communications accommodated with text, email, phones, and video conferencing.

We did not force eligible employees to work from home. The vast majority of home-based workers choose to work from home, but some did not due to crowded apartments, poor internet, prefernce to be in the office, or noisy children or roommates. We did require home-based workers to come into the office at least one day a week to stay emotionally connected to our company purpose, strategies, and culture. On that day, which could be different by function, management organized staff meetings, one-on-ones, project team meetings, and celebrations. Their “heads-down” work was done from home, where employees were significantly more productive.

To not have a mushy transition, we had every department and team establish new operating norms. They determined which meetings would be in the office or with videoconferencing and set new norms for equal participation in meetings. These norms also covered using new collaboration technology (back in 2012), such as texting and chat rooms, quickly reaching each other in a work crisis, and new clarity on decision-making norms to assure robust participation, full understanding of the process, and calrity on who would make the decision.

We did not stipulate the Zillow Zoom rule reported in the New York Times article, which required that all employees attend a meeting virtually if only one member had to attend the meeting virtually. For most meetings, employees attended by video conference or in the office. We had invested in great video conferencing technology that enabled everyone to hear and see presentations. We taught the behavior of allowing employees to say by pressing the number 1 on their phone pad, “I can’t hear you,” or to say so verbally. We taught meeting leaders to check proactively (about every 15 minutes) if employees at home or in the office could see the presentation, hear the discussion, or if anyone had additional comments to make.

We redesigned our offices after taking a survey of employees and following their suggestions. In-office workers complained of too few conference rooms, so we doubled them. It saved these workers 25 minutes a day not searching for a conference room. Add that up, and you get significant savings during the year. We also provided “huddle rooms,” small conference rooms that enabled private phone calls and impromptu discussions that did not disturb the office bays. We no longer provided personal office space for remote workers as their office moved to the home. We did offer them touchdown spaces, as you see at airports, for when they came into the office. Remote workers were sent home with thier laptop, ergonic office chair, and a printer, plus a monthly stipend to cover the cost of internet fees.

We found that home-based workers began to work more hours and were experiencing burnout. Our solution was to have every manager establish with employees when they would be available and unavailable for work to ease their stress — and to remind employees to stop working during what became known as their “down-time.”

New hires started working in the office daily to learn our culture and how work gets done from a dedicated new hire coach, often more than one who had different specialties and techniques to share with the new hires. After two weeks to six months, they could transition to home-based work depending on the function and job duties.

Our home-based workers were concerned that they would be overlooked for promotions by not being in the office daily. We acknowledged their concern and tracked the promotion rates of at-home and in-office employee during our talent review sessions to ensure we were not ignoring home-based workers. Their promotions were on par with office-based workers. We reported these top-line results to all employees.

It worked. We closed two facilities, saved $2 million a year in real estate costs, and reinvested that money into our R&D projects. Home office workers and their managers reported a 22 percent increase in productivity. We saved 408 tons of carbon emissions annually from reduced commutes to the office. Employee morale increased, and we reduced turnover while increasing our ability to recruit employees.

Implementing hybrid work models does not have to be mushy or bumpy. But you do need to set clear goals and expectations and listen to the suggestions from your employees. This transition is easily managed when you rethink the function of your office and provide employees with the technology, time, and space to be productive for when and where they work.

To learn more, I suggest you download “Nine Steps to Implement a New Post-COVID-19 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 leaders, teams, and innovation cultures. He is the author of the highly acclaimed book, Hack Recruiting: the Best of Empirical Research, Method and Process, and Digitization. Subscribe to his weekly blogs at www.VictorHRConsultant.com. 

1 comment

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: