Post-covid employee engagement
Fiona Passantino, late January 2022
The Many-headed “Hybrid” Hydra
We’ve gone back and forth for months now. How do we go back to work “when all this is over”? Do we mandate a full physical return? Do we go fully remote? Adopt a structured hybrid model? Or leave it up to the whims of the individual worker?
Covid has been a two-year long uncontrolled, involuntary mass experiment in new ways of flex working, causing massive shifts in our thinking, forcing us to redefine everything about the workplace, what we need to get the job done and forge a balance in our lives.
“Hybrid” means that, at any given time, some of us will be working from home and some will be in the office. but like anything new, this idea is a shapeshifting concept that will likely blossom into other iterations as the pandemic continues.
Model 1: Full flexibility
Well before Covid, large multinationals with global hubs already had an “always-on”, 24-hour work flow, rolling across time zones, with meetings at odd times of day for all. These organizations were remote workplaces already, so the idea of a hybrid workforce was less terrifying for leadership.
Chennai-based software giant Chargebee have a policy that as long as there’s a fast internet connection, a usable VPN and decent hot drinks, employees can work anywhere they want[i]. The team agree on specific hours to meet digitally, collaborate and socialize with a moderate work hour overlap mandate to facilitate communication.
Ford also offered employees maximum flexibility, giving up on any form of return demands, going digital first[ii].
This amount of freedom for workers to manage their time was adopted specifically to reduce stress and allow people to disconnect.
Model 2: Hubs and spokes
In this model, large companies partially deconstruct their central headquarters and invest in smaller satellite offices in neighborhoods closer to home. This saves the long commute to a single hub but still provides face-to-face interaction that so many people crave.
Codility, an engineering talent firm, was already allowing employees to work from various global hubs and from home, as needed, already hiring across borders with no expectation of ever seeing these individuals in person[iii].
After a year of the pandemic, the company gave all employees memberships to WeWork managed workspaces offering some 800-plus outposts around the world.
Model 3: Build it and They Will Come
People come into the physical office for all sorts of reasons. Some come to collaborate while others with small kids or needy pets come to focus. Which model works best for those individuals, but also balances the needs of the fully-remote group is largely a matter of trial and error and patient negotiation.
One answer is to invest heavily in design, comfort and tooling, and make the office the natural best place to do work once restrictions subside. Many companies are scaling back for fewer people and repurposing spaces with moveable furniture, breakout areas, day lockers, Zoom integration rooms, sleek cafes and jazzy lounges. Wiring in Miro-driven whiteboards, good cameras and blazing fast VPN.
Workers in these locations have no expectation of having a fixed desk or even a standard floor they go to each time and no mandate to return in person. Employees spend their day moving between meeting rooms, call booths, cafes, and shared areas, alighting in one or another depending on what type of work is needed and who they are working with.
Model 4: Remote-light
Remote-light is a more traditional, office-centric mindset. Strongly encourage employees to return but with the back door open to accept one or two days a week from home.
This might not be the sexiest model, but for an organization with a strong culture of collaboration and physical ritual, it can effectively re-connect and create a sense of belonging for the onboarders. Remote-light backers understand that people working in person enjoy greater access to information, increased executive face time and promotion opportunities that remote workers don’t have, and that this creates an imbalance down the road.
HubSpot recently adopted a “menu” system, where employees can choose from “more remote”, “flexible” and “more-office”[iv]. Interestingly, “fully remote” was not one of the choices. Teams have more predictability and managers and executives tend to select in-office options.
While this model is not as appealing to today’s flex-first talent pool, it may deliver results in the longer term if rebuilding a physical working environment is in line with the business vision and culture.
Other benefits of hybrid
Remember offices pre-pandemic? Fixed workstations, desks cluttered with personal photos and plants, papers and folders, drawers stuffed with snacks, erasers and paper clips. In the Post-Covid context, organizations depersonalize, declutter, and offer clean desks to the third of the total number of staff, whomever is showing up that day[v]. Expensive urban offices blasting air-conditioning in the summer months can be largely deconstructed and investments can be made in the workforce: in improving home offices, time off and employee well-being.
Greater freedom and space means increased productivity and higher levels of engagement as employees are able to weave their work-life together[vi].
It also reduces the need for mid-level management. With the need to see “bottoms on seats” removed and a focus on outcomes and results, there is less of a need for the middle-level layer of oversight and less danger of micromanagement.
No one’s really sure what will happen next. Some say fully remote model is here to stay; productivity numbers show that fully remote does get the job done with some perceived dips in our creativity. Others predict that the pendulum will swing back to physical, and that the need for face-to-face interaction will give live office culture a new boost.
Inspired by great writing by @rebhinds @krystinarneson
[i] Arneson, 2021. “Companies are trying to work out the best post-pandemic working model. What can we learn from these four companies?” BBC.com “Hello Hybrid”, accessed on December 16, 2021. https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20210915-how-companies-around-the-world-are-shifting-the-way-they-work
[ii] Hinds (2021), “The 5 Hybrid and Remote Work Models for Your Business – Getting clear on terminology is the first step to setting your employees up for success”. Inc. Magazine. accessed on January 18, 2022. https://www.inc.com/rebecca-hinds/the-5-hybrid-remote-works-models-for-your-business.html
[iii] Arneson, 2021. “Companies are trying to work out the best post-pandemic working model. What can we learn from these four companies?” BBC.com “Hello Hybrid”, accessed on December 16, 2021. https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20210915-how-companies-around-the-world-are-shifting-the-way-they-work
[iv] Davis (2021), “5 Models for the Post-Pandemic Workplace”, Harvard Business Review. accessed on January 18, 2022. https://hbr.org/2021/06/5-models-for-the-post-pandemic-workplace
[v] Davis (2021), “5 Models for the Post-Pandemic Workplace”, Harvard Business Review. accessed on January 18, 2022. https://hbr.org/2021/06/5-models-for-the-post-pandemic-workplace
[vi] Arneson, 2021. “Companies are trying to work out the best post-pandemic working model. What can we learn from these four companies?” BBC.com “Hello Hybrid”, accessed on December 16, 2021. https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20210915-how-companies-around-the-world-are-shifting-the-way-they-work
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What does it mean to be “engaged” in today’s workplace? How do we inspire, inform and connect a working community, build a culture of irreplaceability, trust and listening to keep people onboard and rowing together?
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