Over the past few months, I’ve spoken with many executives wrestling with what the return to the office should look like for their organizations. They’re looking for answers to a barrage of interrelated questions, like: What’s the real cost of hybrid working for our bottom line and our ability to deliver on our promises? How much flexibility do employees want and need? Who should make the decision about who does and doesn’t get to work remotely? Can we maintain our culture if people aren’t spending as much time together in the office? How can we effectively onboard new employees remotely?
These are complex challenges requiring leaders to meet varied criteria while considering multiple stakeholders in the context of a volatile, uncertain, and complex environment. Before you can figure out the particulars of hybrid work, though, you must start with an understanding of what makes conversations about hybridity so difficult.
By hybridity, I mean work configurations that include employees who are co-located in the same physical space as well as employees working remotely. My conversations with senior executives have made it clear that beyond the complexity of the decision itself, many leaders face an additional challenge when they discuss hybridity: What they think is a single discussion is in fact three different discussions in disguise, each with different objectives. It’s a bit like trying to declare a winner among three teams that are each playing a different sport. In this case, the three conversations are about productivity, staffing, and culture, and each has its own objectives, arguments, and proponents. We’ll take a look at the three conversations — and how to navigate them.
The three conversations
Productivity. We know that hybridity affects employees’ and teams’ abilities to collaborate effectively, but how and how much remains an active debate. Some argue that working side by side in an office allows for rapid transfer of information and collaborative work that can’t be matched by working from home, while others counter that employees are as — if not more — productive when given the freedom to control their own schedules and to be unconstrained by geographic and temporal boundaries. This conversation seeks to determine the optimalform and mix of work arrangements to allow your organization to deliver on its commitments.
Staffing. The great work-from-home experiment has clearly changed employees’ expectations of — and desires for — how they should be allowed to work. Claims that some percentage of employees will quit if not allowed to work from home suggest that organizations that don’t offer current and prospective employees significant flexibility will find themselves at a disadvantage when it comes to attracting and retaining them.
Just as we saw the proliferation of foosball tables, baristas, and other on-site amenities (gyms, dry cleaning, acupuncture, etc.) among tech companies competing to be the hippest place to work, many argue that flexibility is becoming a new battle ground in the war for talent. This conversation looks to ensure that your company’s approach to hybrid and remote work allows it to succeed in a talent market that’s increasingly virtual and therefore global and competitive.
Culture. When instilling and maintaining a company’s guiding values, beliefs, and norms, we’ve historically relied heavily on new and old employees experiencing that culture through firsthand exposure. This comes as no surprise given that much of our true culture (not just what we write down in value statements) is often tacitly understood or even subconscious. There are widely differing opinions on whether it’s possible to communicate cultural beliefs, norms, and assumptions via technology, as well as on how to best do so.
Making matters more complex, we now face a potential fracture between more senior employees who learned a culture through firsthand experience and new entrants who didn’t have that same onboarding experience. If you assume a normal turnover rate (say, 10% per year), then that means that 10% of every organization’s workforce has likely never been in the office, at least in pandemic regions. What are leaders going to do about that? Will this be a lost generation or lost year, or will this be the pivot? This conversation attempts to ensure that your hybrid and remote work model doesn’t irreparably damage or dissolve the culture that makes your organization what it is.
Why is this a problem?
Each of these three conversations about hybridity focuses on a different set of challenges and uses different criteria to assess success. The problem arises when we discuss hybridity without differentiating between the three. Making matters more difficult is the fact that each of these conversations aligns with a different leader mindset, often deeply held and quite engrained.
Take a minute and reflect and I’m quite sure you can think of a leader in your organization who embodies each of these perspectives. The productivity-focused leader contends that at the end of the day, all that matters is what you produce, typically arguing that success comes from optimizing workflows and processes. The people-focused leader argues that your advantage is who you have working for you, believing that with the right people, the organization can tackle any problem that arises. The culture-focused leader believes your organization succeeds because of how you work; while it’s hard to put your finger on, it’s the secret sauce that sets you apart from the competition.
Even without the questions of hybridity on the table, these tensions between performance, staffing, and culture are difficult to reconcile. The hybridity discussion, however, brings them front and center, as operational decisions about who works remotely, when, and how are directly linked to all three.
What do we do about it?
As with all complex decisions, it’s easy to lose your way as you try to reconcile the different elements. Keeping the arguments clear, comparable, and minimally affected by individual motivations is a challenge as individuals and even more so in a group setting. I’ve found that organizations benefit from viewing this as a collective problem-solving task and taking cues from research on negotiations and decision science, which for years has covered understanding how to best tackle such scenarios among multiple stakeholders with unshared and often hidden preferences and information. Here are three steps for leaders based on that research.
Step 1: Surface the differences and recognize the value in each position.
Decision makers must recognize not only the existence of each of the three discussions, but also the fact that each is an important piece of the hybridity equation. Here’s how to identify the objectives key stakeholders care about and how they relate:
- Collect data: Use a short survey to ask each stakeholder their top priorities and objectives when it comes to setting hybrid/WFH policy. Research on decision making clearly shows that gathering opinions independently and anonymously will provide the most accurate and comprehensive understanding of positions. Collate those individual responses into a superset list of everything on the table. When you do, pay attention to response rates. If you aren’t hearing from an important portion of your workforce (e.g., you’re only hearing from the zealots), your data isn’t valuable and might even be misleading.
- Visualize: Next, you need to help decision makers understand the “lay of the land,” and visualization is the key to doing so. Start by getting each stakeholder to rate the importance of each of the criteria in the superset list. This can be done by segmenting a board based on the priorities and having people place numbered sticky notes to show their preference. Alternatively, I use polling software to have decision makers rate the elements on their phones and let the software show the distribution of ratings for each. If doing this synchronously is not possible, it can be done via a second survey, but the effect and benefit is much stronger when the visualization is done collectively.
- Make sense of the data collectively, with a focus on tensions:Based on the data you’ve generated, discuss as a group what the data tells you about your collective priorities. For example, you may find that one stakeholder prioritizes employee choice as a means to attract talent, another stresses the need for innovation-driving random interactions, and a third campaigns for face time to maintain the company culture.
With this on the table, the challenge is how to negotiate the trade-offs among them — and remember that the best decision is rarely achieved by majority rules. Sometimes, resolution will naturally result from a discussion about the data. However, other times, the relationships are more complex and the decision-making process is subject to biases, so don’t hesitate to employ a more structured approach. There are many decision support tools available (my preferred tool is the Matrix of Change). What’s most important is that the approach resonates with the stakeholders, so use whatever is most familiar. Your objective here is to agree not on what the right hybridity solution is, but on what the data says you care about.
Step 2: Focus on integrative solutions.
Now that you have the critical foundation of understanding everyone’s positions, it’s time to shift to solution mode. The ideal, of course, would be to achieve a single solution that’s optimal across all criteria and stakeholders. Give that discussion a shot, and you may find a relatively straightforward path to a new policy. However, it may instead become clear that such a solution may not be possible, or is unlikely to be recognized in any reasonable amount of time.
In that case, think about the research that shows that you can effectively increase the pie when you make multiple equivalent simultaneous offers(MESO). In other words, think about how you can bundle potentially competing elements into a few alternatives that have the same overall value to the group. The good news is that in the preceding steps, you already figured out all the weights and preferences, and on top of that, the process of coming up with MESOs forces you to be more flexible and creative in your solutions. MESOs can get complex when there are too many issues involved, so think about how you can break it down into smaller pieces. Focusing people on that process and subsequently on comparing not their position against yours but a solution that’s 30/30/40 across yourself and two others against one that’s 30/40/30 or 35/30/35 is likely to be less contentious and more likely to lead to greater overall value.
Step 3: Revisit
While hybrid work is here to stay, if there’s one thing we know about today’s VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) world, it’s that our work environment is incredibly complex and continually changing. It’s therefore unrealistic to think that you’ll get it right the first time around or that if you do, it will remain the right approach indefinitely.
Drawing from the core principles underpinning agile and similar approaches, the best way to ensure fit in volatile environments is to use a process that includes a planned reevaluation and reassessment. Since you will have gone through this process once, you only need to look at areas where either priorities or options have changed. If none have, keep on going until your next planned reassessment. But if something has changed, set aside a few minutes to assess if it changes your conclusions and if so, revisit and revise them.
The length of time between reevaluations depends on the volatility of the environment affecting the three conversations: your market, labor pool, and culture. If these are changing rapidly, make sure you check more frequently that your policy remains aligned. At the end of the day, building in an “expiration date” into your approach to hybridity ensures that you won’t get a nasty surprise of a policy that has long since passed its viability.
In the end, this approach won’t dictate what your company’s approach to hybrid working should be — that needs to be as unique as your organization itself. However, taking a process-based approach does maximize the likelihood that you’ll find the best balance between the needs of your customers, your employees, and your organization.