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Brooks: Can a hybrid work model succeed–or will it flop?

Ben Brookshttps://pilot.coach/
Ben Brooks is the founder and CEO of the career development platform PILOT. Share your reactions to this column on LinkedIn or @benbrooksny. He writes the monthly Coach's Corner column for HRE.

As we head toward the one-and-a-half-year mark of working in a pandemic, many organizations are now quickly adapting to prepare for a Q3 return to the office. In the darkest and most challenging days of the pandemic, so many of us pined for a return to normalcy like the clean simplicity of commuting to and working from the office with our colleagues. What we, as HR leaders, need to prepare our people for, however, is not a return to normalcy, but rather a major change and evolution to the employee experience: “hybrid work.”

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While the use of a pure remote work model has certainly been challenging, I predict that the hybrid work model will, in fact, serve to present significantly more complexity and friction. Naturally, this prediction may come as a surprise, as a large population of employers currently intend to transition to a hybrid model, and employees now place high value on the flexibility and other benefits that such a model provides. After all, isn’t the first rule of HR that people hate change, even if it is good for them? As Saint Teresa of Avila said: “More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones.”

Previously for many professionals, work as a construct was quite rigid, requiring them to adhere to a predetermined schedule and physically commute to the workplace. In essence, the rest of our lives had to all fit around the constraints of our jobs. But the pandemic has shifted employee expectations of work more rapidly and more profoundly than anything else in our lifetimes has been able to–even technology. Now, employees are viewing work and their jobs as being more flexible, allowing them to be far more creative in how they work, and in finding success both at and beyond work.

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With diverse workforces, employee preferences for an ideal future state experience–including the degree to which they’ll want to be at an office–can vary widely. Some earlier-career staff may favor the learning and networking they can get in-person, as well as the friendships they can foster. For working parents in the suburbs, though, the schlep to business districts and office parks may seem like more of a bug than a feature. Many senior executives miss the perks and power of their offices, and the feeling of both connection and control they could get from having physical presence with their teams. Plus, there are also plenty of professionals out there who simply like having a clear separation between work and home, and much prefer that to be a physical boundary.  As you can see, what a good work schedule/model looks like can vary widely for employees in the same organization, even in the same role, and is deeply rooted in their own personal needs and desires.

Read more insights from Ben Brooks here.

So, beyond employee or executive preferences, who at your organization is answering the question “What work schedule and structures create the best outcomes for us?” This is a huge opportunity for HR to lead from the front and actively shape the future of work–right now. Most of the things HR is accountable for, such as recruiting, talent management, learning & development, performance management, culture, engagement and DEI, will all be massively impacted by the strategic design choices for how and where work gets done. Just think of how much may need to change if hybrid work is truly here to stay. The widely held and assumed pivot to hybrid work structures has within it the potential to really pinch–or even blow up–many of HR’s tried-and-true programs and practices.

If we default to employee preference as the primary design criteria for the employee experience, we then run the risk of unintentionally creating chaotic, or even toxic, work environments. Just think back to 2019 and the power dynamics that were at play when a group of people were in a conference room with a subset of other employees “dialing into the meeting.” Unless an organization has bleeding-edge conferencing technology, stellar meeting facilitation standards and a culture of inclusive collaboration, then most of the time virtual employees are going to have less visibility, less influence, less connection and less satisfaction than those who are co-located and doing the same work. It is certainly not a new idea that those who are closest to the people making decisions tend to have the most power. But, if we’re seeking to make our workplaces flatter, more inclusive and collaborative, have we yet considered the second- and third-level order consequences of what happens when some employees are in-person and others aren’t? Are we creating two classes of employees, or two employee experiences that employees would toggle between like a pinball between two paddles?

Don’t get me wrong, I am a huge proponent of making work more flexible. In fact, I founded a remote-first career development start-up, PILOT, well before remote or hybrid work were ever en vogue! But, from what I’m seeing in the market, hybrid work is largely being rolled out as a free-for-all, which may very well result in daily confusion and needless rework as to how and where the work is going to get done.

We need to pull up and explore what the ideal conditions for work are, given our organization’s strategy, goals, competitive landscape, employee needs and current strengths. Within the same industry, this might mean that one competitor crafts an ideal work week that is very distinct from others. This is an opportunity to be deliberate, intentional and creative.

See also: 5 ways to help your workforce succeed

In the process of figuring this out, we must also take care to manage the expectations of management and employees alike, who are all craving certainty and clear direction following a period of so much uncertainty. We can’t assume that dramatically shifting work to a new, largely untested model at this scale is going to be flawless in our hastily designed first attempt. The most effective organizations are taking an experimental and phased approach, setting expectations that employees should expect continued refinement and adaptation to what a new “week at work” looks like. This will require some give and take with their lives outside of work, too.

Like it or not, HR will be the ones holding the bag with the pain points and unanticipated consequences of a majority hybrid work model. So, let’s be sure to get out in front of this and shape the future of smart hybrid work!