Over the last few months, we’ve been bringing leaders in people and culture and human resources together across industries to explore experiences, opportunities and challenges around creating successful hybrid workplaces.
The experiences of the leaders we talked to varied widely. Some organizations felt like they’d found their groove, while others were struggling to mobilize their leadership team around a hybrid approach. Despite the differences, some clear themes emerged.
In this post, we’ll share highpoints from these conversations. This isn't an exhaustive analysis of the state of hybrid; rather, it’s a temperature check from a group of people leaders we know and trust.
Perception is everything
Leaders’ ideas about hybrid influence the policies and practices of the organization.
Some organizations are imposing aggressive return-to-office policies that aren’t supported by evidence. Leaders in these organizations are willfully ignoring data and insights that challenge their beliefs, even if their ideas around productivity and remote work don’t work for most employees and are actually damaging to the company.
These leaders don’t appreciate the variety and nuances of employee experiences that contribute to healthy, high-performing organizations. This is somewhat understandable given how much more difficult it has become for leaders to truly empathize with the rest of their organization, particularly the front line. The pandemic showed us that while we may all be in the same storm, we're travelling in different boats. There’s a growing gap between how senior leaders see the workplace and how employees have experienced it over the last few years.
About half of participants felt like their ability to influence hybrid policies has been thwarted by the ingrained beliefs of their CEOs. Return-to-work has become an emotional issue for many CEOs, who have leaned in and more or less ignored data, insights and their CHROs. Many leaders are craving access to evidence, tools or even conversation-starters they can use to help their CEOs rethink their stance on hybrid. However, the challenge here isn’t a lack of knowledge or understanding on the part of CEOs. Instead, CEOs need to embark on an adaptive learning journey that would help them see how their entrenched beliefs and assumption-based policies are getting in the way of the possibility for other approaches that could solve their business challenges.
Some organizations have found a comfortable, easy place where everyone – including senior leaders – are aligned around hybrid. They realize that it’s not about being in the office vs. at home. Instead, it’s about autonomy and flexibility, trust and respect. Employees take ownership for their engagement, wherever they work. And the organization ensures they have the tools they need to fully deliver on outcomes, multiple avenues to share feedback and opportunities for spontaneous yet valuable conversations with colleagues.
- How can you lead a movement in your organization to evolve the thinking around hybrid?
- How can you work with your leadership team to co-develop a more open and curious stance on shaping the future of work?
Evolving from equality to equity
When it comes to return-to-office, we’re in the midst of a move from equality-oriented policies to equitable ones.
- Equality strives for fairness by making conditions the same for everyone (for example, through blanket policies).
- Equity gives everyone access to the same resources and opportunities, keeping in mind that each person has unique circumstances.
For many organizations, equality seems easier to understand and achieve. Equity is more complex and a longer journey for both organizations and leaders. Organizations usually aim for equality first, but over time they start to notice the nuanced differences between the two approaches.
Many of our traditional work structures are based on outdated gender roles. Even the 40-hour, 9 to 5 work schedule doesn’t work for many parents and caregivers. For this and other reasons, the first round of return to office (RTO) strategies failed for most organizations.
Those working in the human resources space recognize that forcing people back into the office as though it were 2019 does not work for most employees. It reintroduces inequities, particularly for women, racialized people, and people with disabilities, that were evened out by a more flexible hybrid work environment.
Leaders can sometimes fall into the trap of believing they know what’s best for everyone, and they’re concerned that their culture will suffer or die if it’s not enforced with rules. But not only do blanket policies create a negative impact on the workplace culture and employee experience, but they also tend to be ignored. If organizations enact a rule that makes employees not want to be there, how are you ahead?
Our new hybrid environment offers many challenges but also opportunities to evolve from an equality-based approach to one that truly honours everyone and creates an equitable environment. However, if organizations aren’t investing in understanding what their employee experience is like for everyone – if they're not developing organizational empathy – they'll never evolve from equality to equity.
We’ve seen how high-trust organizations find success by creating environments where employees have autonomy. Instead of enacting a one-size-fits-all policy, they recognize that the right approach might look unique across different teams, groups and geographies, so they push decision-making closer to the people those decisions impact and support them in their choices. This unlocks equity because people establish what freedom looks like to them.
- Where are you seeing the challenges and opportunities to use hybrid design to build a more equitable workplace?
- What might it take to move our organizations to a state of equity faster with hybrid?
The hiring potential of hybrid
Hybrid has the potential to widen the talent pool and help organizations retain employees.
Organizations may struggle to find the best employees for certain roles if they don’t offer a flexible hybrid workplace. In-office policies that remove people’s autonomy have tangible consequences both on people’s cost of living and their wellbeing. The ability to work from home can open new opportunities for people with disabilities who have previously faced barriers to employment or career advancement. Hybrid work also creates new models of work-life integration, so parents and caregivers can do things like be home when their kids return from school.
In many major cities, the cost of living is now out of reach for many people, especially those in the early stages of their career. With remote work, they have the option to live outside of major centres and commute less often. Again, autonomy plays a key role. Everyone takes ownership in generating outcomes, whether that means being somewhere in person or not.
Some organizations leverage hybrid as part of their employee value proposition (EVP). An EVP is the promise your organization makes to employees in exchange for their expertise, skills and contributions. It’s a strategic tool that when implemented, highlights what makes an organization a great place to work. To attract and retain the best talent, organizations recognize that they need to authentically communicate their norms and values around hybrid.
Employees are more productive when they’re bought into the organizational culture and living its values. Organizations benefit when they focus on finding and keeping employees who are passionate about doing the work.
- How can you leverage your hybrid approach to develop a competitive advantage in the labour market?
Hybrid as solution, not a problem
Our discussions revealed that when organizations eliminate hybrid as the scapegoat for their challenges – whether it’s productivity, performance, sales or engagement – then they can start to generate solutions, and potentially leverage hybrid as part of those solutions.
They find more success when decisions around where to work are driven by the work itself, rather than blanket, top-down rules. In workplaces that value autonomy, an employee decides if they need to come into the office, whether for their own productivity for the outcome of the project.
In this way, hybrid opens the door for people to create customized experiences and “perks” for themselves. At the same time, it calls on everyone in the organization to take ownership over generating outcomes and performance.