Optimizing Hybrid Work: Expert Strategies

Hybrid policies that blend remote and onsite time emerged as a dominant template during the pandemic. But optimizing hybrid work for different organizations requires careful orchestration. I interviewed three experts across sectors – Jason Desentz, Managing Partner, Human Capital Advisory, at FlowerHire.com, Dr. Cheryl-Ann Butts, Executive Director of Human Resources at K-12 School District in Southeast Massachusetts, and Patrick Flynn, former Head of Global Real Estate & Workplace Experience at Silicon Valley Bank – to glean insights on our flexible future. Despite different contexts, common themes and advice emerged to guide leaders.

Understanding Motivations to Embrace Hybrid

What drives organizations to adopt hybrid policies? The leaders I spoke with cited common motivations.

Desentz noted “an increase in employee engagement as their work-life balance is improved by allowing them to have some time at home with family and friends.” Another benefit is a “productivity increase for those that work from home as they tend to work more hours because they are not sitting in the car driving to and from work.”

“The biggest benefits of hybrid work are choice, flexibility, predictability for commuting,” said Flynn. Employees appreciate control over schedules and location. Productivity gains and talent expansion. Hybrid provides access to candidates unable or unwilling to work onsite full-time. Talent pools widen. Real estate cost optimization. With fewer employees onsite daily, companies see “potential reduction in office space expenses, and reallocate office space to more gathering/event spaces,” Flynn outlined.

Employee health, safety and wellbeing are important. Butts highlighted how hybrid protects staff and students from overexposure during flu season. Remote options limit transmission risks. 

Sustainability offers another benefit. Reduced commuting lowers organizations’ carbon footprints. Hybrid enables greener operations.

Addressing the Inevitable Trade-Offs

Hybrid doesn’t eliminate organizational challenges – it surfaces new ones. Leaders must thoughtfully address trade-offs.

There is no perfect solution suited to every workplace context. Regular experimentation and reevaluation is key. Performance data enables policies tailored to each organization and team over time.

Desentz notes the problem of a “potential lack of collaboration that leads to innovation.  A lot of great ideas have come out of an ‘at work’ conversation around the proverbial water cooler.” Additionally, there’s “working through the challenge of the ‘have and have nots.’ Not all jobs or departments can be hybrid.” As a result, “employees will complain that some employees can have a hybrid work environment, while others are forced to come in every day.”

Problems include collaboration and relationship-building. “Impaired/limited relationships, lack of mentoring, growth potential could be limited,” Flynn noted. Spontaneous interactions decline. With distributed teams, maintaining shared identity and relationships requires intention. Old ways of bonding don’t necessarily translate. Mentorship suffers without shoulder-to-shoulder guidance. Newer employees may feel disconnected from veterans. Knowledge sharing is impaired. Butts highlights perceptions of unfairness if some groups can work flexibly but others cannot. 

Centering human needs emerges as foundational to hybrid success. “Cater to what is best for their health and well-being,” Butts recommended. Supporting work-life balance and flexibility is proven to boost retention and satisfaction.

But leaders must also equip people to excel in new environments. “Teaching virtually requires a specific set of skills,” Butts said. Training, coaching and change management facilitates adaptation.

An empathetic mindset acknowledges a hybrid’s learning curve. With patience and support, employees can develop skills to collaborate digitally and thrive in distributed settings. Leadership tone matters immensely.

Investing in Critical Capabilities

New policies require capability investment, as Butts underscored. Resources for training and technology upgrades ensure high-quality experiences. Consulting helps build hybrid management knowledge. Lack of preparation undermines success.

Leaders must secure funding to set hybrid teams up for excellence. Providing digital tools, virtual leadership coaching and user support demonstrates commitment. Dedicated manager training also pays dividends.

“This is one topic nobody is speaking about, in March 2020 anyone who was a manager turned into someone managing a remote team – did companies train how to manage remotely? Likely not,” Flynn noted.

Ongoing learning opportunities help leaders and employees adapt to permanent hybrid. Companies must walk the talk through meaningful support.

Customizing Approaches

Every workplace faces unique needs. Elementary schools require different policies from higher education. Startups must approach hybrid differently from mature enterprises.

Desentz highlights the need to rely on “tools from external providers that help leaders implement, monitor, and continuously improve their hybrid work policies and procedures. Lean into your external experts as they tend to have real examples from other clients of what works well and what does not.”

Leaders should avoid rigid thinking. “Depending on the organization’s size, adaptability, and leadership, these challenges can be managed internally,” Flynn said. Solutions must align with culture.

Realizing hybrid work’s advantages requires skillful change management and communication. Leaders must set a vision for a productive flexible future that engages employees. Involve cross-functional teams in co-creating hybrid models. Conduct pilots to test approaches on a small scale first. Gather continuous feedback from users to guide enhancements. Share progress and success stories to spur adoption. Revisit policies regularly to optimize for evolving needs. With a collaborative process and empathy for the human experience, organizations implement high-performing hybrid work models.

Regular check-ins to reevaluate policies based on performance data enables optimal calibration. People analytics provides insights to continuously refine hybrid work. Prescribed mandates fail. Customization succeeds.

This message of customization and avoiding top-down, prescribed mandates reflects the best practices I have seen in the over two dozen client organizations I helped transition to hybrid work models. When they tried to adopt a more top-down approach, they faced serious resistance and attrition. Every time I came in, I strongly advocated a customized approach reflecting the specific needs of each team, pushing decision-making down to the team level. 

Recent research by BCG in the form of a survey of 1,500 global office workers helps affirm this approach. If the company decides where they work, 24% of employees were unhappy with their work location policy. That 24% goes down to 14% if the manager decides and 6% if the team decides. In other words, the closer to the team level the policy gets set, the more satisfied employees are with it. No wonder: the team knows best what they need – salespeople, IT staff, and accountants have different needs to be in the office, and it makes little sense to impose a top-down, standardized policy on all of them.

Addressing Cognitive Biases

The adoption and optimization of hybrid work models can be significantly impacted by cognitive biases. Two such biases, the status quo bias and anchoring bias, provide a pertinent lens through which the dynamics of transitioning to hybrid models can be understood.

Status quo bias is the preference for the current state of affairs. In the context of transitioning to hybrid work models, leaders may display a bias towards existing operational norms, failing to recognize the potential benefits of hybrid working arrangements. This was hinted at by Patrick Flynn who urged leaders to avoid rigid thinking when considering hybrid models. The inertia caused by this bias could hinder the effective transition to hybrid models, as leaders might be reluctant to alter established work arrangements, even when faced with compelling evidence of the benefits of hybrid working. The mention by Flynn reflects a recognition of this cognitive trap and the need to overcome it to fully leverage the advantages of hybrid work models.

On the other hand, anchoring bias, the tendency to rely too heavily on the first piece of information encountered when making decisions, can also have a significant impact. In the early stages of transitioning to a hybrid model, initial experiences or data could form an anchor that disproportionately influences subsequent policy adjustments. For instance, early success or challenges in hybrid work implementation could shape leaders’ perceptions and decisions in a way that may not accurately reflect the broader potential or issues inherent in hybrid working. Jason Desentz’s advice on starting with a test model and tracking productivity and engagement metrics over time, and the emphasis on ongoing reevaluation and customization, can be seen as strategies to mitigate the anchoring effect. By advocating a data-driven, iterative approach to refining hybrid work policies, the advice suggests a pathway to avoid being unduly anchored by early experiences or preconceived notions, and to instead allow a more nuanced understanding of hybrid work dynamics to evolve over time.

The biases discussed highlight the nuanced cognitive landscape leaders must navigate to effectively transition to and optimize hybrid work models. Recognizing and mitigating these biases can facilitate a more objective, data-driven, and adaptive approach to hybrid working, which aligns well with the themes of flexibility, customization, and continuous reevaluation that emerged from your discussion with industry experts.

Our Evolving Future

Workplace norms profoundly changed amid the pandemic. Employees now expect location flexibility where possible. “Hybrid and flexible is here to stay,” Flynn noted. Desentz agreed, saying “Hybrid is here to stay and it really is a generational value difference that companies need to balance” between the desires of different generations.

With empathy, investment and customization, every workplace can realize benefits from hybridization. But care, communication and reevaluation remain vital. By embracing possibilities and thoughtfully addressing trade-offs, leaders can build engaging and productive distributed teams.

Our future offers unprecedented flexibility. The key is matching policies to each organization’s unique needs and culture. With forethought, hybrid work unlocks potential.

Key Take-Away

Building future workplaces hinges on strategic hybrid models, customization, and continuous adaptation for employee engagement and success…>Click to tweet

Originally published in Disaster Avoidance Experts on December 11,2023

Image credit: Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels

Dr. Gleb Tsipursky was lauded as “Office Whisperer” and “Hybrid Expert” by The New York Times for helping leaders use hybrid work to improve retention and productivity while cutting costs. He serves as the CEO of the boutique future-of-work consultancy Disaster Avoidance Experts. Dr. Gleb wrote the first book on returning to the office and leading hybrid teams after the pandemic, his best-seller Returning to the Office and Leading Hybrid and Remote Teams: A Manual on Benchmarking to Best Practices for Competitive Advantage (Intentional Insights, 2021). He authored seven books in total, and is best know for his global bestseller, Never Go With Your Gut: How Pioneering Leaders Make the Best Decisions and Avoid Business Disasters (Career Press, 2019). His cutting-edge thought leadership was featured in over 650 articles and 550 interviews in Harvard Business Review, Forbes, Inc. Magazine, USA Today, CBS News, Fox News, Time, Business Insider, Fortune, and elsewhere. His writing was translated into Chinese, Korean, German, Russian, Polish, Spanish, French, and other languages. His expertise comes from over 20 years of consulting, coaching, and speaking and training for Fortune 500 companies from Aflac to Xerox. It also comes from over 15 years in academia as a behavioral scientist, with 8 years as a lecturer at UNC-Chapel Hill and 7 years as a professor at Ohio State. A proud Ukrainian American, Dr. Gleb lives in Columbus, Ohio. In his free time, he makes sure to spend abundant quality time with his wife to avoid his personal life turning into a disaster. Contact him at Gleb[at]DisasterAvoidanceExperts[dot]com, follow him on LinkedIn @dr-gleb-tsipursky, Twitter @gleb_tsipursky, Instagram @dr_gleb_tsipursky, Facebook @DrGlebTsipursky, Medium @dr_gleb_tsipursky, YouTube, and RSS, and get a free copy of the Assessment on Dangerous Judgment Errors in the Workplace by signing up for the free Wise Decision Maker Course at https://disasteravoidanceexperts.com/newsletter/.