How to implement a 'hybrid work' culture for your team
Wondering how to implement a hybrid office culture? Luckily I've researched it for my new book, and spoken to leaders who are already excelling at it, so I've pulled together a process for how to implement a hybrid office.
How to Implement a Hybrid Work Culture
I’ve heard a lot of people promoting ‘hybrid work’ as ‘the answer’ recently, with research by companies like Hubble finding it to be a vote winner amongst employees and CEO’s alike. People are drawn to the idea of being able to choose to work flexibly between the office, their home, or a coworking space near their home.
Simultaneously, some people I really respect like Gitlab CEO Sid Sijbrandij (who has led a fully remote company for years) argue that hybrid is the worst of both worlds. And Sid makes a valid point:
“While the office-based model has historically proven to be successful for many companies, it will provide significant challenges for companies committed to also supporting a remote workforce. If an office is the “glue,” and processes and systems don’t adapt for a remote workforce, remote team members will not feel included and will face constant communication barriers. This will make it harder for them to perform at the same level as their in-office peers. “
Here’s what I’ve learned about the pitfalls (and solutions) of hybrid work, from talking to the CEO’s of hybrid companies who have made it work - and a basic process to follow that will help you understand and implement a hybrid work culture.
Hybrid Work Pitfall 1: You now have up to 7 different types of employees
On day one of implementing a hybrid work culture, you now have four to seven different types of employees (depending on if they offer them the ‘Work Near Home’ option), where before you had one:
Employees who want to work in the HQ office + Work From Home
Employees who want to work in the HQ office + Work Near Home
Employees who want to Work From Home + Work Near Home
Employees who want to only work in the HQ office
Employees who want to always Work Near Home
Employees who want to always Work From Home
Employees who want to WFH, WNH and work in the HQ office (yes they exist)
So you now have seven different types of employees and you have given them the office solution that they told you they wanted and would make them happy.
Will they be happy now? Of course not. If you haven’t realized that you now have a bunch of different employee ‘segments’ you need to engage with (equally), this is your first mistake.
Hybrid Work Pitfall Two: Employees Start to Act Differently
If you fall into pitfall one, you will probably fall into pitfall two.
A second-order consequence of having seven different employee types is that they all start thinking and behaving differently from each other. They all start to compare themselves to the other.
Here’s a fair breakdown of what people usually see 90 days in, when they have let things develop organically:
The 100% work in the HQ office employees:
Form their own culture, socialize together and start rewarding and favoring one another as a natural consequence of this. They also start to get annoyed at remote employees who don’t respond immediately to their messages because in the office, they get answers straight away.
Even worse, if the management team is in the HQ office, these people get ‘seen’ to work more and get rewarded accordingly.
The 100% Work From Home employees:
This emotional journey of 100% work from home employees in a hybrid company can be summed up with four letters:
Remote only workers in hybrid companies that I have spoken to often feel they are missing out on important discussions, banter with coworkers, workplace friendships and career progression. They feel like second class citizens. Often, they are right.
The 100% Work Near Home Employees
If you offer your employees the option to work from a coworking space near their home for some or all of the week, they may take it.
Their experience will largely be similar to the 100% WFH people, except for in the circumstances where they choose, accidentally or on purpose, a coworking space with other employees from your team in it.
In this way, you can accidentally create a ‘secondary’ office and subculture where your two or three employees who live in South London (for example) form their own clique - with all the same issues as the HQ office, but with even less oversight.
Combinations of the above options:
So long as ‘100% work in the HQ office’ employees exist, these effects will happen in some combination (e.g. a 4 day a week in the office employee will feel some FOMO but less than a 5 day a week one).
How to avoid these pitfalls - integrate remote + office (in favour of remote)
There are lots of bad things that can happen (see above) if you don’t see ‘the hybrid office’ as more than just the end of fixed desks in the office, and some additional office passes.
The biggest risk that hybrid work companies run is that their remote employees end up being treated like second class citizens. Their company culture splits along tribal lines between those who are ‘in office’ a lot and those who are never in office. Especially if the senior leadership team works from the HQ.
So if you’ve been thinking about the ‘hybrid office’ as a savior from having to be a ‘remote’ company, here is the reality check.
A hybrid company has to operate like a remote company first and foremost.
Otherwise, the remote employees will always be second class citizens, and the regular office workers will inevitably form a splinter culture that subconsciously promotes their interests above others.
Or, as I’ve seen happen, the people who want to work remotely will end up with two choices. They 1.) return to the office, not because they want to be there, but because they need to be there in order to succeed in your company, or 2.) join a fully remote company.
This means you need to make the glue, the systems, processes and culture of your company remote-first.
A remote-first company, with corresponding processes, won’t….
- Promote people based on how often they are seen in the office or allow personal friendships formed in-office to influence how promotions and job roles are allocated
- Penalise people for whom asynchronous communication is the preferred method
- Base it’s company culture on in-person events that do not make WFH or WNH employees feel part of the company or enable them to make friends in the company
- Worry about hours worked, rather about outcomes achieved
And so in conclusion, to transition successfully to a hybrid company, you must be a remote-first company, ideally from day 1 of the hybrid transition, certainly not later than 6 months in.
That means everything in your company - your meetings, your catch ups, your hiring processes, your firing processes, your team social events, your communications channels, everything must work as well for a remote employee as it does for an in-office employee. I’ve previously written on the 9 core ‘rules’ of remote working you need to implement in order to run a successful remote team - they apply equally to hybrid and I’ll be writing a follow up post soon to explain them.
If you’re ready to take the leap -
For my London readers, it’s worth mentioning that during my research for this article I found that Second Home, Huckletree, Work.Life and Runway East are all offering hybrid office services of one form or another, and companies like WorkClubHQ selling coworking space passes so companies can pay for employees to work from office space near their own homes.
“But Brett,” you may ask, “what about requiring everybody to work in the office X days a week no matter whether or not they want to - then do I need to implement a remote-first model?”
There is some potential benefit to this, but broadly (1) it will not mitigate against cliques forming so long as you let people work in the office for more than one day per week and (2) even if you were to do that, if you are not remote-first, your employees will overvalue the day in the office more than their remote work time, because all of the ‘advantages’ of an office-first culture (proximity, availability, more likelihood of being recognised by management etc) will still apply, so your workforce will gradually migrate back to the office for the wrong reasons. Unless your chances of being recognised by the boss on the day you are working remotely are as high as they are on the day you are in the office, the office will win and your hybrid model will fail.Ultimately, your people will still be remote working for part of the time and you need to ensure your processes and systems are set up for that remote work time.