The corporate world is slowly adjusting to a new hybrid model of working. With it have come a series of unforeseen challenges: Zoom fatigue. Slack etiquette. The great resignation. Office culture is in a never-ending state of flux. Many leaders are wondering what it looks like to run a hybrid workplace successfully: how can we care for our people? How can we stay meaningfully connected without being together? Who should be in charge of all of the changes?
Employers can no longer count on a cool office space to define company culture. Instead, new or previously neglected elements of culture are becoming pivotal to building and sustaining a thriving hybrid work model. While we quickly realized that being on Zoom for ten hours a day was unsustainable, understanding what isn’t working is the easy part. Now, as we prepare for future variants, it’s clear that our “return to office” plans are going to need to evolve yet again. Hybrid work is here to stay.
Twitter was one of the first to make headlines for instituting a policy that employees could work from home “forever.” Facebook issued a similar statement. But the decision to commit to hybrid work forever is complicated and making adjustments to our ways of working has fallen to managers and chief human resources officers (CHRO’s) to improvise and CEO’s to implement. Leaders were expected to ensure the physical and mental safety of their employees, determine the best methods of communication for a suddenly remote workforce, and create entirely new norms for maintaining day-to-day operations and building culture.
As a strategic advisor, I have spent countless hours working with CHRO’s and CEO’s as they create new solutions for shaping company culture in this new era. A few recurring lessons have come up: emphasizing employee-centered design, shifting our digital behavior and putting physical and mental wellbeing first.
As a general rule, this work begins with listening attentively to each team member. As Airbnb debated returning to the office, they polled employees to get their predictions on the future of work and input on their potential return to office policies. As a February 2022 Pew Research Center study showed, among those who are currently working from home all or most of the time, 78% say they’d like to continue to do so after the pandemic, up from 64% in 2020. What often gets lost in the rigamarole of executive decision-making is the remembrance that these decisions impact people’s lives. As we make big decisions, we need to ensure we are hearing from our people directly. This is why Airbnb’s newly announced policy has been lauded as one that puts its people, and therefore the future of its business, first.
How do we gather the thoughts of our employees so we can lead with employee-centered design? Thankfully, there are many tools that allow us to virtually connect and gather employee feedback. However, the point of implementing employee-centered design is more about how we use the tools at our disposal than the tools themselves. If people are feeling out of the know while remote, establishing an ongoing anonymous company Q+A or a friendly Slack channel can help. All in all, employee-centered design is about meeting people where they are at, not where we want them to be.
Over the course of the pandemic, technology quickly became our lifeline to connect. On the flipside, this reliance on screens brought new challenges. In darker moments, our devices felt like a leash, confining us to a workday that never ended. To alleviate those feelings, designing for moments of freedom can do wonders for wellbeing, productivity and creativity.
At an enterprise level, the greater dependency on technology also requires a thoughtful evaluation of policies and behaviors. Biases that existed in the past may be amplified in a more digital work environment. According to a Stanford study, women with young children want to work from home full-time almost 50% more than men. This gets complicated when you consider the fact that in-office employees are more likely to get promoted than WFH employees. Becoming more cognizant of our digital behaviors helps us eradicate biases and design systems that enable us all to flourish.
I’d argue that the most critical takeaway I’ve seen is that it is now the responsibility of an organization- not a luxury- to prioritize team members’ physical and mental wellbeing. There are the obvious ways, such as offering comprehensive health benefits and mandatory paid time off so people can care for themselves. But these are starting points, not destinations. In order to promote true wellbeing, you have to ensure you are creating the space for psychological safety.
There are many tactics one can use to combat toxic company culture. One is transparently sharing real life- warts and all. These last two years were incredibly traumatic. People lost family members, became full-time caretakers, and simply could not continue working the way they had before. Many felt an urge to keep the chaos of real life a secret. Taking meetings locked in closets while their kids played in the other room. But what does hiding the messy reality of our hybrid work lives really do?
Our decrepit ideas of professionalism — that people are never to overshare at work, that your boss should never know what is going on in your personal life, that you should hide your pregnancy for as long as you can — no longer serve us. Now more than ever, people want to authentically see each other, especially their leaders.
However, it is not enough to simply be transparent about life’s struggles. There must be policies in place to support. After years of collective grief, there is something powerful about improving bereavement leave and expanding “maternity” leave to parental and caregiving leave. Reddit is now offering miscarriage leave and Starbucks has expanded its fertility benefits to be more inclusive. These things can take time and money to implement, but the result is a more open, joyful and higher performing workplace for us all.
Today, we are inextricably connected to the places we work. Our healthcare, our mental wellbeing, our family planning decisions, and our daily joy are all directly tied to our employers. As I have seen firsthand, when employers truly care about their people and design accordingly- employees, customers, communities and companies can all flourish in a hybrid world.