The idea of offices began nearly three hundred years ago in the UK. One of the first purpose-built office blocks was built in 1729. Even before that, employers often lived above their shops, and sometimes their workers lived there as well (and thus creating a more literal meaning of no escape from the job). Any sort of office work from a fully remote location became rare and remained so, until about thirty-six months ago. In 2019, only eight percent of US employees worked fully remotely and less than a third worked in a hybrid arrangement. Obviously the pandemic completely changed our circumstances, resulting in sudden widespread work from home arrangements. As the pandemic eased, many employees were reluctant – or downright unwilling — to return to their fully onsite pre-pandemic realities, hence The Great Resignation. In the UK, eighty-four percent of employees who worked from home because of Covid-19 said they intended to continue to work from home at least part time in the future. The genie was out of the bottle, and employers had nearly no choice but to accommodate some work from home capabilities. But many employees simply transitioned from a fully remote role during the pandemic to their current hybrid work solution without any formal adjustments. For companies to truly excel with a hybrid remote workforce it will take more than just issuing corporate laptops and providing logins to a videoconference portal. It will require a reinvention of the workplace.
Your organisation is partly remote. Has your culture stayed full time on-site?
The workplace is more than just an address. A common workplace begat far more than a physical destination; it created a common identity. For hundreds of years, we have built our professional experience and expectations around the concept of going to an employer-provided workplace. With that came a way of working: problem solving, conflict resolution and productivity measurements all relied on in-person interactions. Mentoring, team bonding and cultural development were all built on the concept of people with a shared purpose being in the same physical space. Even global organisations with teams dispersed around the world were organised among multiple employer-based office spaces, largely branded to reflect the company’s culture and purpose. Even as we began to celebrate more individuality and diversity and inclusion, this was complemented by some corporate infrastructure that created a sense of team and shared identity that literally surrounded us. We celebrated together. We ate in the same canteen. We complained about the thermostat. We spent more of our waking hours with each other than our loved ones. And then, quite suddenly, we didn’t.
A true hybrid work solution starts at the office. It might sound counterintuitive, but the transition to a part remote work schedule starts at the office. Leaders can’t support a hybrid work solution by simply moving everyone to virtual meetings and online team solutions like Slack. Instead, they must reinvent the way they operate by starting with current (read: pre-pandemic) operations and infrastructure and processes, then thoughtfully transition to a way of working that supports teams who only come onsite part of the time. It makes perfect sense how we got here rather haphazardly: a pandemic forced many organisations to shut down suddenly and totally. And then we began coming back in fits and starts, because even as legal restrictions lifted, employees articulated a reluctance to return (and many didn’t come back at all as they found new opportunities). And so a sudden departure by all has become a variety of staggered returns by some. But if hybrid work is the future (and many surveys indicate that it is), the organisations who excel at it will be those who recognise the need to revisit their reactive solutions and form them into lasting models of excellence.
Just a few things to consider. What does that look like? What are some likely areas where companies will need to revisit their ways of doing business? First, think about who you are, what your purpose is and who your customer is. What kind of culture did you have before, and how did your workplace embody it? What about that is still sustainable, or not? How have the ways you deal with customers changed? Do they buy products or services from you online now more than in-person? Has the customer base itself changed (the demographic, geographic, or sector you see demand from might be wholly different now)? Do you have new competitors? What about your suppliers: have you changed who you purchase from or how you interact with them? These are questions that may not all be answerable right away. But they are the kinds of analyses you need to begin performing in order to identify where you need to introduce change.
Does a new work style require a new type of worker? Perhaps one of the most difficult and least obvious transitions for employers and employees alike is understanding what the different people needs will be. The core skillsets you need from your teams may not change because of where people operate. You likely still need sales staff and human resources personnel. You will continue to need legal and accounting support, and operations workers. But what about the soft skills that are more pertinent in a hybrid work environment? How do you train a partly remote staff? How do you identify self-starters and support those who are less familiar with workplace technology? What kind of communication skills will be most valuable? How do you include to promote diversity and inclusion in a work environment where everyone is less visible? Consider also your ways of assessing talent: can you identify next-gen leadership with fifty to seventy-five percent less in-person observation? How do you measure productivity when people are not in an office environment? Again, these are not easy questions and you won’t immediately determine the right solutions.
The new workplace is wherever the worker is: let your hybrid teams help guide you.
Involving your teams is key to developing a new way of working: they are part of the change, and must be part of the solution. From the beginning, the success of the workplace is largely defined by the perception of those who must work within it. According to the BBC, Charles Lamb – who began in the ‘modern’ office space in 1729 at aged seventeen until his retirement three decades later – lodged complaints familiar to most of us: ‘Thirty years have I served the Philistines, and my neck is not subdued to the yoke. You don’t know how wearisome it is to breathe the air of four pent walls without relief day after day.’ Workers are now released, perhaps forever, from those four pent walls, but companies must be mindful of what workers are being released to.
In terms of my background and expertise, I have spent my entire career working as a trusted advisor to senior leaders wanting to improve the effectiveness of themselves, their teams and their companies. Prior to starting my own consulting firm, I led the global executive assessment and development team for Cisco. Earlier in my career I held leadership roles with RHR International, PepsiCo, Ashridge Executive Education, Hult International Business School and the Central European University, Budapest, Hungary.