After two very long years, this March we saw the return to the office for many and a glimpse of the hybrid working model.

Some were counting down the days until they could reconnect with their colleagues face to face. Yet others have been reluctant to give up the flexibility they’ve become accustomed to whilst from working from home…

So far we’ve been finding this re-adjustment hard. And this shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. Because change is hard. We’re used to working one way and now we’re being asked to change again and return to an environment, where there are still lots of unknowns.

It’s not as simple as saying “we’re just going back to the way things were”. Because it’s not the same. We, and everything around us is different now. And no one wants to go back.

For one, people’s priorities have shifted. Most want the ability to work from both home and in the office going forward.

So one of the biggest challenges facing organisations right now is determining what their future working model looks like and how to make it succeed. Something I’m talking to a lot of businesses about and will be covering in my next webinar

A small number of organisations have said that all workers will return to the office Monday to Friday 9-5 or that they’re now fully remote. Yet the majority are moving towards a hybrid working environment.

Every option presents both pros and cons. And regardless of which is chosen, there are important things to consider if we want our teams to thrive!

Which working model is best?

Is it 40+ hours per week in the office? The work anywhere model but with set times? Or working anywhere anytime?

Well, it depends.

We’ve shown that working remotely can be both productive and engaging. We have fewer distractions*, less commute time, and if your organisation manages you according to outputs then they should know this too. But if you need further proof, studies have also shown this link(Forbes, 2020)(CultureAmp, 2021). 

However, working remotely has seen wellbeing decrease for some. Those who perhaps weren’t able to establish solid boundaries between their home and work life, those managing remote learning or those missing the connection and collaboration with their colleagues.

The effectiveness of the model may also vary depending on the type of role, the tasks and responsibilities of the job, and the industry.

But not offering flexibility may inhibit the ability to retain and attract talent.

The model chosen must ensure that wellbeing is supported and engagement is prioritised so performance remains or improves.  

I consider hybrid as best-practice – people have the flexibility to work from home yet gain the benefits from some time in the office too. Research also suggests that we reach peak engagement and burnout is lowest when we spend 40-60% of time working remotely (Gallup, 2020). So hybrid has my vote!

What are we loving about the office?

  • Our colleagues – as human beings we crave connecting with others. Our relationships bring us a lot of positivity, boost our wellbeing, can help us cope with struggles and stressors, support us to be engaged, and provide us with a sense of belonging. We’re enjoying the incidental conversations or ‘water-cooler’ chats and can collaborate and innovate better when we’re physically with our team mates.
  • A routine – some people have been lacking important daily habits. So they’re embracing the simple things like getting up at a certain time, exercising outside of work, dressing for the office, or grabbing a coffee on the way in. They’re enjoying having a defined start to their working day and returning home knowing that work is done.
  • The return of the third space – whilst working from home, many complained that their lines between work and home were blurred. They were constantly switching between the different roles in their life, not able to focus on one well, and weren’t able to properly switch off at the end of the day. The third space is the place we go between work and home, like our commutes, which allows us to regroup and regenerate so we can show up as our best selves when reconnecting with family, friends or colleagues. So with our commutes back, people have that space and time to transition effectively to their next task.

What has been a struggle?

  • Our colleagues – despite the joy that our relationships can bring (see above), it seems we’ve forgotten what it’s like to work surrounded by others… There’s been frustrations felt from people talking too loudly on the phone, eating your lunch or interrupting you regularly throughout the day. 
  • Lack of guidance – some workplaces have left figuring out the new working norms and expectations to their people. This has caused confusion as many don’t know where they’re supposed to be. When they do turn up to the office, some have found that none of their team are there and they’re left sitting by themselves, which is doing little for creating a sense of connection and belonging.
  • Removal of autonomy – we have a psychological need to feel that we have control and choice over aspects of our lives including our work. If people have been forced to come back to the office, their ability to do their job how they want has to some extent been taken away, so they might not be feeling so motivated or energised by this change.
  • Loss of productivity – people are complaining that they’re not as productive in the office given the amount of disruptions that occur throughout the day, the time spent away from their desks, and the long commutes that some may have.

So what actions need to be taken?

Setting up for a hybrid environment can be successful if planned and managed well. 

It’s a good idea initially to find out what your employees need to deliver their best work, taking into account what went well and what didn’t over the past two years. It would be very wrong to assume or tell without consultation because in some ways, you’re defining what the lives of your workers will look life going forward. When they’re included, people will feel less anxious about what’s to come and they’re more likely to be more engaged and satisfied (McKinsey, 2021). 

Organisations should also be thinking about:

  • Creating a value proposition – define the experience for all of your different employees. 
  • Developing a set of guidelines – workplaces need a central source of truth that provides clarity to workers on their days in the office, working hours (if set), expectations for remote and in-office work, communication and collaboration tools to use, and other norms and practices etc.
  • Communicating the plans – in the words of Brené Brown, “Clear is kind”. We need to tell our people what we expect of them in whatever working environment we have set-up. Be comfortable sharing but perhaps acknowledging that some answers might not be known yet. 
  • Providing adequate resources – workers need to be set-up to do their jobs well from home and in the office – like a proper desk for everyone in each environment. Don’t ask your teams to come back to the office if there’s no room for them or space to collaborate!  
  • Role modelling the desired behaviours – if remote work is supported then leaders need to signal that they can be productive away from the office too. 
  • Ensuring no proximity bias – there’s a fear that promotions and other benefits may go to people that can be seen so make sure people working remotely are treated fairly.  
  • Shifting mindsets to ‘remote first’  when workers are at home, they can miss out on conversations, be left out of the loop on matters and feel overlooked in hybrid-meetings. Ensure that important details are stored centrally somewhere and virtual platforms continue to be used. This may take some time and patience but will help teams feel more connected and less confused. 
  • Training leaders – new skills may need to be built to manage teams in a hybrid-environment including how to maintain culture and create a sense of belonging when workers are away from the office.
  • Tracking how it’s going – regularly check how your working environment is going for your people and the workplace overall.

Right now, organisations have a rare opportunity to design the way work looks going forward. 

People and performance will thrive when the environment created is one where trust, safety, connection and belonging prevail!