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Hybrid Is a Spectrum – How to Choose the Right Model for Your Organization

Pros and cons of the different hybrid models.

By Gustavo Razzetti

August 23, 2022

Rather than the big return, leaders should address the big reset

After two years of the biggest workplace disruption ever experienced, companies are trying to figure out the Big Return. Unfortunately, many organizations are slipping back into old, familiar habits rather than building on what they learned during the pandemic. In doing so, they’re missing a golden opportunity to embrace the future.

For most, the Big Return is about having employees back at the office. From UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson to JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, most leaders want to have everyone back within their visual range. Even worse, according to Microsoft’s Work Trend Index 2022, 50% of companies want their employees back at the office five days a week. They want to go back to the old normal.

This expectation clashes, however, with what people want: flexibility. If not, ask best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell who recently faced backlash for claiming that working from home is not in anyone’s best interest.

According to the global Pulse survey by Future Forum – a study that surveyed more than 10,000 knowledge workers from the US, Australia, France, Germany, Japan, and the UK – nearly seven in ten respondents said hybrid is their preferred work environment. People want flexibility not just in where they work but also when – nearly all (95%) want schedule flexibility.

The message is loud and clear. Employees who are not satisfied with their current job schedule flexibility will look for something else.

The benefit of schedule flexibility results in better life balance, reduced stress, and more convenience for caregivers – women with children, in particular, are the ones who have the most affinity for schedule flexibility. An effective hybrid model should bring together the best of both worlds: the convenience of working from home and the social interactions of the office.

“It’s past time to move beyond the ‘remote versus office’ debate. The future of work isn’t either/or; it’s both,” said Brian Elliott of Future Forum. “A hybrid model can foster a more flexible and inclusive workplace, but only if leaders are intentional about establishing guardrails to ensure all employees have equal access to opportunity.”

Digging your heels in, going back to the office, and pretending the pandemic never happened is a mistake. Furthermore, trying to take in-office cultures and practices and copy-paste them into a half-remote/half-in-office experience can backfire. Rather than defaulting to an office-centric model, leverage the best of both worlds: in-person and remote.

It's time to reset your company culture – flexibility is the new normal.

The Different Hybrid Work Models: Pros and Cons

As a whole, hybrid is difficult to do right.

Many companies say, “We are going hybrid,” but it’s not always clear what that means. “Hybrid” is a spectrum, from companies that require people to show up three specific days a week to those that shut down all but one office location. Defining your model is critical to succeeding in a hybrid workplace. Even more critical is including teams in the conversation.

As I explain in my new book Remote, Not Distant, you need to be intentional about revisiting (almost) everything about your culture. It will require a lot of experimentation and adjustments to avoid creating a two-tier experience: one for remote, one for co-located employees.

Without intentionality and reframing one’s mindset, hybrid could quickly become the worst of both worlds.

As Betsy Bula, a GitLab all-remote evangelist, told me: “Companies are struggling. They use hybrid as something they can lean on—a temporary Band-Aid in the meantime, to try to meet and please the needs of all team members that are very different for their work.”

Companies need to understand that hybrid is not a single solution but a spectrum.

A hybrid arrangement includes people who work fully at the office, entirely from home, or both. At one end of the spectrum, hybrid is office-centric. Employees are still expected to spend a good amount of time physically in the office and the company doesn’t really change how it operates. On the other end of the spectrum, the company radically evolves its culture and practices to create an equal experience for all workers, whether remote or in-office.

When the pandemic hit, the change management team at collaboration software company GoTo acknowledged that it was critical to empathize with employees. A series of company-wide interviews found six working personas that covered the whole spectrum, from working as a new hire to working while caring for adults.

Douglas Flory, Change Management Lead at GoTo, told me, “The personas landed really well when we shared them with employees. We created emojis for each and people started using them in Slack, creating empathy and great conversations about the specific challenges each group was facing.”

This approach strengthened belonging and confirmed the importance of involving people in the journey. When GoTo went remote-first, the company used the personas to inform its decision and help employees adapt to the new model.

There are five basic types of hybrid and remote work models:

• Remote-friendly or office-first

• Fixed hybrid or buckets

• Partly remote or collaboration days

• Flexible hybrid or flexible schedule

• Remote-first or virtual-first

Each comes with its own pros and cons. Let’s go over exactly what each one is and the implications of subscribing to a particular model.

1. Remote-Friendly or “Office-First”

In an “office-first” model, there may be some flexibility around working remotely but employees are still expected to spend most of their work time in the office. There are rules for which employees can work remotely on which days (usually one or two). Remote requests need to be approved by managers and there is usually a structured approach that applies to everyone.

Remember Apple expecting everyone to work three days a week in the office? That’s a perfect example of remote-friendly.

Remote-friendly is an improved version of the pre-pandemic workplace. However, it’s a frustrating model that reflects the gap between what senior leaders want and what employees expect.

2. Fixed Hybrid or “Buckets”

The organization determines a set of categories in this scenario and employees work according to the one in which they fall. Leadership usually defines these buckets with little to no input from employees. For example, Citigroup categorized all jobs into three groups: resident, remote, or hybrid. In some roles, like branch-based or data centers, employees are expected to be fully in the office (“resident”).

The downside of this model is that it creates an unequal workplace. Some people have a lot of freedom and flexibility while others have none. Also, many assumptions behind the categories are based on how people used to work rather than exploring what the future could look like.

In contrast, HubSpot has also defined three buckets (@office, @flex, and @home) but allows employees to choose the one that works best for them. As Katie Burke, Chief People Officer at HubSpot, explained: “Our hope is that by having a menu of options, employees can truly work when and where it’s best for them.”

3. Partly Remote or “Collaboration Days”

In this setup, employees are expected to work on site the majority of the time but have the flexibility to work remotely a few days each week. Unlike the remote-friendly model, team members can choose the days they work remotely. As an example, Google decided that most employees would spend three “collaboration days” at the office and two days working from home.

The problem with this model is that it’s still office-centric. Although it provides more flexibility to teams, it’s based on the assumption that people need to be together to do great work. Most importantly, collaboration is structured around a schedule rather than a project or different modes of work.

4. Flexible Hybrid or Flexible Schedule

Employees can choose both their working hours and location in this model. It provides agency for teams to organize around work, integrating individual and collective preferences.

The biggest challenge of this model is that’s less predictable. For example, it makes it harder to assess needs such as office space. It can also promote proximity bias. However, designing for belonging and participation could reduce this bias. Moreover, teams can decide when and why to get together based on the different collaboration modes.

Twitter has adopted this model and allows employees to work from home or the office, partially or full-time.

5. Remote-First or Virtual-First

In this model, remote work is the default mode for all employees. The company may retain office space for special occasions, such as events or design sprints, but all employees are expected to work remotely most of the time – and the leaders are, too.

Although it offers schedule flexibility, it’s less flexible than a flexible hybrid model as working mostly from the office is not an option. This is a huge downside, especially for non-tech companies; forcing everyone to work entirely remotely can backfire. Some people prefer working from the office a majority of the time because they lack a proper home office space or simply because of their personalities.

Dropbox adopted the “Virtual-First” model while keeping offices in all their locations and hubs. Their offices, now known as “studios,” are collaborative and team-building spaces.

Finding the Hybrid Workplace Model that Works for You

Flexible hybrid and remote-first models are the most ideal options as they address employee needs: they want to design their work schedule around their personal lives, not the other way around. Most importantly, it provides the autonomy, trust, and accountability needed to thrive in the new work reality. Many companies have hired new leaders for key roles who wouldn’t have been available if they’d had to relocate.

Flexible Hybrid and Remote-First models provide a unique opportunity to rethink the workplace, improving the employee experience rather than going back to normal. Matt Mullenweg, CEO of Automattic said, “The primary mistake most companies make is to try to recreate the office online instead of taking advantage of what being fully digital allows you.”

Mullenweg considers this workplace transformation a moral imperative: “Any company that can enable their people to be fully effective in a distributed fashion can and should do it far beyond after this current crisis has passed. But that doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy, or that the chaotic and stressful first taste some workplaces are getting right now is one that inspires them to keep trying.”

In Distributed Work’s Five Levels of Autonomy, Mullenweg encourages companies to move to Level Four – when things truly go asynchronous. “You evaluate people’s work on what they produce, not how or when they produce it. Trust emerges as the glue that holds the entire operation together. You begin shifting to better—perhaps slower, but more deliberate—decision-making, and you empower everyone, not just the loudest or most extroverted, to weigh in on major conversations.”

The CEO hopes that companies could reach the ideal “nirvana” (Level Five): “When you consistently perform better than any in-person organization could… When people bring their best selves and highest levels of creativity to do the best work of their careers and just have fun.”

Hybrid is a spectrum in which you can continually evolve. Review the different models and select the one that works for you. Involve people along the journey. Define what hybrid really means to your organization.

As organizational psychologist Tasha Eurich told me in an interview: “Smart organizations openly talk about what it means to be a hybrid organization. They make it explicit, emphasizing the value of both remote and in-person collaboration.”

Provide agency: Allow people to make choices about how and when to work. Eurich recommends, “As long as they are doing their work well, we should give our teams the opportunity to have the best of both worlds.”

The following steps will help you develop the model best suited for your company:

  1. Be clear. What does hybrid mean to your company? Choose your hybrid model wisely.
  2. Decide how your approach will affect different areas. For example, manufacturing is fully in-person but legal and marketing are flexible hybrid.
  3. Clarify which arrangements will be made at the company level and how much flexibility teams and individuals will have.
  4. Encourage your team to review the different work modes to design their workday around collaboration, not just schedules.
  5. Review all your workflows. Will your existing ones work if you don’t have 100% of the people in the office all the time? Design clear norms and rules that cover specific areas such as communication, hiring, or documentation (more on that later).
  6. Revisit how decisions are made. A hybrid workplace requires distributing decision-making rights.
  7. Monitor progress. Adapt your model and iterate based on what you learn from your different teams.
  8. Make sure leaders model the right behavior.

Remote work makes it imperative to explicitly define how each element of work occurs, being more intentional in communication, documentation, and collaboration. GitLab Head of Remote Darren Murph told me: “Leaders are too much focused on structuring informal conversation at the expense of not paying attention to structuring operations.”

Making that shift is easier said than done. To thrive in a hybrid workplace, your team requires the trust and freedom to choose how they want to work. Rather than act as gatekeepers, leaders need to embrace the new reality of work: flexibility.

For more insights and tool on remote and hybrid workplace culture, get your copy of Remote, Not Distant at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Book Depository, IndieBound, Books-A-Million, and more (It's already an Amazon bestseller!).

Gustavo Razzetti is an International speaker  and consultant specializing in working culture design and the founder of Fearless Culture. He has advised thousands of leaders and teams across six continents to build a culture of belonging, innovation, and collaboration. He is the author of Remote, Not Distant: Design a Company Culture that Will Help You Thrive in a Hybrid Workplace. Subscribe to his weekly newsletter to follow his insights.

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