Neither here nor there: the future of flexible working is hybrid 

According to Mercer’s latest survey, most US employers say that 75 percent or more of their workforce is working remotely. As COVID-19 continues to be a major concern and vaccine rollout is slow, widespread remote work will continue well into 2021. But with vaccine distribution in motion, there is an end to pandemic accommodations in sight, and employers should start planning now for their “next” normal – one that embeds successes of the forced remote working experimentation with the value of in person collaboration.

Through our discussions with clients and after early announcements by forward-thinking organizations, it is becoming increasingly clear that the future of work is not a fully remote model, but hybrid. For most employees, there will be no going back to the daily commute and traditional 8-5 workday, but rather fluidity between remote and in-person work environments. That raises the question of how exactly employers can make this hybrid work model work and combine and optimize the needs of the business with the changing expectations of employees.  

There are four key steps organizations must take to evolve to a hybrid model:
  1. For maximum productivity, shape strategy based on the work being performed.
    Start designing a flexible work strategy by examining the actual work performed. Some organizations have made wholesale announcements that all employees can work remotely for a set period of time (e.g., 2 days per week). While the simplicity of such policies is well intentioned, the reality is that location impacts job productivity differently. For example, product engineering roles can be performed remotely, but productivity is enhanced when teams come together to review blueprints and prototypes. For other roles, such as finance, remote work may have a limited impact on productivity, but cross-functional relationships, intra-office networking, and collaboration can erode over time. Remote work may have even less impact on customer service roles, which are highly autonomous and metric-driven. Conduct an objective job-based assessment to evaluate the level of flexibility that roles and the organization can support with minimal to no impact on productivity. Each organization may find themselves with multiple flexible models that vary across functions based on roles and responsibilities; the key is to do this thoughtfully and analytically.
  2. To optimize the employee experience, balance employee preferences and business needs.

    Next, organizations should refine their strategy by establishing guidelines for a flexible working culture—the behaviors, actions, and norms employees are expected to follow. Whether set times and days for remote vs. in-person working are prescribed or flexible based on employee choice or manager/team determination, putting some guardrails around the options provides clarity and enables a consistent and equitable employee experience across the organization.  

    Involve employees in those decisions whenever possible, as employees may be in the best position to determine where they are most productive. A study by Stanford University found that productivity gains nearly doubled when employees had a choice to where they worked (as compared to productivity gains from remote working). Employee surveys or digital focus groups are a great way to gauge employee preferences around longer-term remote working plans as organizations design new flexible models. Equally important, establish boundaries to manage organizational risks and balance the role of choice. For example, fully flexible or “work from anywhere” policies may sound appealing but can bring risk and complexity related to employment and tax law, cybersecurity, and employee health and safety.

  3. Redesign the office to maximize connection and collaboration.

    Reopening the office and hoping for “business as usual” post-pandemic is unlikely to succeed. Given that most employees have been working remotely for nearly a year, new working patterns and behaviors are thoroughly entrenched. Embrace the change by redesigning the workplace to maximize its benefits and elevate the in-person experience. If employees return to the office only to find themselves on video or conference calls all day, the office environment may feel inconvenient and unnecessary. The result could be frustration and reduced productivity, especially for those with lengthy or expensive commutes.

    Take the opportunity for a fresh start, reimagining the role of the physical office. Consider ways to drive purposeful interaction to support those needs. Thoughtful, flexible design can promote collaboration while focusing less on dedicated individual workspaces. Involve employees in this transformation through design thinking sessions to create a space that energizes and inspires. At the same time, capitalize on opportunities to reduce real estate footprint and deliver cost savings to the organization.

  4. Reimagine people programs in a flexible world.

    The people programs at most organizations—such as performance management, onboarding and talent acquisition—were not designed to support a large flexible workforce. Organizations have survived 2020 with these suboptimal programs, but as flexible working continues at scale the cracks in these programs will emerge and create real issues with productivity, attraction, or retention. Manager enablement is rising to the top of the list of priorities in many organizations. Organizations must support managers in establishing new team norms for flexibility and training them on building new reflexes for leading in a hybrid world. Upskilling opportunities include empowering and equipping them to lead effectively; helping employees establish balance and manage their well-being; building trust; and conveying empathy and inclusivity.

    New hybrid working models will undoubtedly lead to the continued advancement of HR technology to support the transformation of people programs. Many employers quickly pivoted to virtual benefit fairs during 2020 to communicate during open enrollment. Other technology options exist to optimize processes like onboarding or talent acquisition in the virtual environment. For example, Donut and Wonder offer employees new ways to meet and connect through virtual coffee breaks or group lunches in a parallel to the classic “watercooler” experience—especially important for new hires who don’t have long-standing relationships within the organization. Organizations must assess the ability of people programs to sustain flexible working at scale, prioritize critical initiatives, and leverage technology to redesign programs to support a flexible workforce.

The time to begin is now.

With a COVID-19 vaccine in distribution, employees will be anxiously waiting to hear from their employers about working arrangements for 2021 and what to expect for returning to the office. Savvy organizations will accelerate the creation of a flexible model to support strategic objectives, develop new policies, and build a compelling communication campaign to excite employees about what lies ahead. 

It’s clear that doing nothing is not an option. A recent Mercer/AECOM survey found that 56 percent of employees said they would consider switching employers if increased flexibility were not offered post-pandemic—and that figure is even greater for Millennials and Gen Xers. Expectations have shifted, and employers must be thoughtful in how they adapt, in order to realize the value of flexible working in a new, hybrid world.

About the author(s)
Lauren Mason

Principal, Career

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