Hybrid work model: 4 best practices for fairness

The future of business seems to be hybrid work – combining office and remote work. How can leaders ensure an equitable, positive experience for all?
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As vaccinations bring us closer than ever to a post-COVID world, many business leaders are contemplating the future of their offices – when, where, and how to fill the workspaces that have sat dormant for the last 13 months.

But according to Pew Research, more than half of workers whose jobs can be done from home want to continue working remotely after the pandemic ends. And employers seem to be embracing a  hybrid work model for the post-COVID world, with many planning for local employees to come into the office only a few days per week and allowing some individuals to stay entirely remote.

[ Want a primer on hybrid work? Read What is a hybrid work model? and 7 hybrid work best practices for leaders. ]

Hybrid work best practices: 4 tips for leaders

Still, hybrid work presents some unique challenges for employers: How do you run a meeting when half the team is clustered in a conference room while the others are on Zoom? How do you foster collaboration when some employees may never see each other in person and others are together multiple times per week? And how do you extend the less-obvious benefits of an in-person office — social connection, a shared context with coworkers, and office perks — to those who choose to work from home?

When half of your people are in the office and half are remote, you need to focus on creating an equitable space for all employee groups to occupy, no matter where they are. Here are four ways to create equitable experiences for all employees – whether in-person or remote:

1. Reimagine the physical space

When only part of the team is in the office at any given time, the function of the office needs to shift from being a place where employees do their work to a place for ideation and collaboration. 

The function of the office needs to shift from being a place where employees do their work to a place for ideation and collaboration.

In October, for example, Dropbox announced that their office space would be used for collaboration and community-building. This means that Dropbox employees spend most of their days working from home, traveling to the flagship offices or smaller, newer “Dropbox Studios” for team-based projects. Other companies are similarly retrofitting their current office space, replacing individual desks with meeting rooms, lounges, and limited rotating desk space.

[ What should a hybrid workplace model look like? Read also: Hybrid work model: Qualcomm IT, HR execs share 6 priorities for leaders. ]

Even with an office designed for collaboration, however, some remote workers may feel left out and removed from their in-person colleagues. To address this, some companies are implementing phone booth-like structures designed to create a more focused and inclusive space for video meetings.

2. Reimagine the virtual space

Zoom, Slack, and other digital workplace communication tools will continue to play a huge role when workplaces go hybrid. But in the transition, employers have an opportunity to improve how their employees use these tools.

Hybrid teams should continue to use a video tool for all meetings – even informal or impromptu ones – as a best practice. Zoom fatigue is real, though, so make sure your team members feel comfortable turning their cameras off when appropriate, or consider using an audio-focused tool like Discord, Slack’s forthcoming audio channels, or even good, old-fashioned phone lines.

Brainstorming and collaborating on ideas can be difficult in the age of remote work. While the hybrid model lets you pull employees into the office for big ideation pushes, consider also investing in virtual whiteboards or mind-mapping tools (along the lines of Miro, Stormboard, and Mural) to keep all participants on the same page.

[ Where is your team's digital transformation work stalling? Get the eBook: What's slowing down your Digital Transformation? 8 questions to ask. ]

3. Reimagine office perks

The overnight shift to remote work made in-office perks like catered lunches, organized group wellness activities, and beer Fridays suddenly obsolete. And while employees might look forward to dusting off the office beer fridge, returning to the office doesn’t mean you should necessarily immediately re-introduce these perks. Doing so may highlight the disparities and make remote team members feel left out.

Consider strategies that are not tied to physical places. For instance, instead of giving employees location-specific gift cards or gym memberships, offer items that can be used anywhere: A monthly wine delivery or a donation to a charity or non-profit of their choosing are just two examples. By offering your team members the same perks and gifts, everyone — in-person or remote — will feel equally valued.

4. Reimagine expectations

Clearly, 2020 was a transformative and difficult year, and the effects of the pandemic will be felt for years to come.

For example, huge numbers of people moved out of pricy metro areas like San Francisco and New York City, and these former city dwellers will continue to work remotely, even after employers have opened their doors.

To ensure equity in the hybrid working environment, location must be eliminated from performance evaluations and pay considerations. The past year has proven that many, if not most, office jobs can be done from home – and often, more productively. As long as the job is getting done, let employees make their own personal decisions regarding location and pay them what they were promised.

One of the least discussed effects of distributed work is on younger employees, many of whom struggle more than their more senior counterparts. Finding ways to enable mentoring can help address this. It’s certainly more difficult to mentor and develop junior employees when they can’t pop in for a quick question or grab a coffee with a more experienced colleague, but with a bit of effort and planning, it’s possible.

As we slowly emerge from the pandemic, the business world has an unprecedented opportunity to reimagine itself. We must be intentional and equitable with how we choose to rebuild.

[ Get exercises and approaches that make disparate teams stronger. Read the digital transformation ebook: Transformation Takes Practice. ]

Jordan Peace
Jordan Peace is CEO of Fringe, a lifestyle benefits company. Hailing from the world of financial planning, Jordan co-founded Fringe in 2018 after realizing that most people - especially Millennials - simply don’t understand their company’s corporate benefits.