Around the world, employers — from small and medium-size enterprises to global corporations — are exploring models for bringing some or all of their people back to central office locations. Many are using the word “hybrid” to describe their plans.

But this short word embraces a wide range of possible working structures, making it difficult for existing and potential employees to understand — and for those in leadership roles to manage activities and resources effectively.

Remote-jobs advertising site Flexjobs scopes out some of the options for employers to consider, starting with the “fully remote as primary model” option — which regards the office as just one more optional space to occupy.

Still, Flexjobs suggests that many will instead go for the “work-from-home and in-office blend,” which includes many permutations. This version can be complex to manage, in terms of both human and real-estate resource efficiency, as the report makes clear:

“Schedules among these team members may flex and change, with some people adopting a fully remote schedule, some working fully in-office and others switching back and forth between the two options on different days of the week or month.”

“This model requires dynamic leadership to help create a strong hybrid culture, ensure effective communication while people are doing different things from different places and help create connections between on-site and off-site employees.”

The report further proposes a “leadership on-site, employees remote” model.

Remote-work expert Pilar Orti, managing director of London-based consultancy Virtual Not Distant, suggests that this hierarchy may be flipped around, with remote work being offered as a privilege or perk to those who have earned the trust to perform unsupervised.

“There are many assumptions, but no one clear definition of hybrid working,” Orti said.

“All that ‘hybrid’ definitely means is that there is an office available that will be used by some people at least some of the time. But right now we’re still in a pandemic, and the situation is still evolving.”

“Some people really want to go back to using the office now, but in six months they might feel differently,” she added. “Others might be scared of commuting or being around others right now, but when things get better, that might change.”

Work itself should be flexible and location-independent

Some organizations seem to see hybrid-work planning as a real-estate occupancy challenge in accommodating people in socially distanced ways, which may not always serve the needs of the people doing the work.

For Orti, the important part is to make the work itself flexible and location-independent, then decide how to use the different options available.

“Take the example of Dropbox, who have defined themselves as a virtual-first company,” she said. “They have studios available for people to collaborate in, but they’re just going to treat it as one more space they can choose.”

Orti also points out that while hybrid work has been around for a long time, the phrase has changed in usage. For example, it has been used to describe specific ways of interacting, rather than as a broad term to define a whole team.

“We just talked about some or all [employees] being remote,” she noted. “That embraced a range of contexts, such as working from home or having different teams in different countries. Then they might have a process like a hybrid meeting, or a hybrid event.”

“If your team has five people in the office and five working from home, it’s still a remote team,” she said.

It’s not where but how we work

What Orti would really like managers to talk about instead of location is how people work together, and how to adopt flexible and remote-ready strategies that do not depend on location.

“In an emerging situation, teams are going to have to experiment and make changes in small steps. This means you have to get away from the assumption that everyone agrees on everything. And take things slowly — try out new ways of working and see what it serves,” she said.

The Flexjobs article also pointed out that a flexible approach offers significant competitive advantage for recruitment and retention.

Flexibility is priority number one

This is further evidenced by research from a June Future Forum poll, which surveyed 10,000 knowledge workers to assess their priorities and found that the flexibility these workers craved was about more than where the work was done.

After managing their own schedules through the pandemic lockdowns, 93 percent of workers wanted flexibility in when they worked as well — and the inclusive and equitable workplace culture that genuine trust and asynchronous collaboration can offer. In addition, they wanted to see employers invest in technology to support that flexibility rather than in making offices safe and socially distanced.

“Only 20 percent of employees surveyed say they see the office as a place for focused, solo work. Instead, more than 80 percent of knowledge workers say they want access to an office for in-person collaboration and team building,” the Future Forum report said.

“Companies that are making the required investments in new digital infrastructure are seeing dramatic results in increased productivity (1.6x), sense of belonging (over 2x) and feeling good about stress and anxiety (over 5x) among employees,” it added.

For traditional hierarchical organizations in particular, this very broad view of hybrid flexibility may take some getting used to. Still, the uncertain economic and health environment means that leaders will need to get comfortable with change and iterative experimentation, as circumstances and needs evolve.

“The most effective hybrid approach is going to be about flexibility, including the flexibility for people to change their minds,” Orti concluded.

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