A lot has already been written about planning for hybrid working – there’s widespread enthusiasm for it at the moment. Anything that takes us further away from the office and closer to more flexibility and autonomy certainly gets me all pumped up. I am such a big fan of working in distributed, global teams that I even wrote an article to help you get started on that.
No one is an expert on hybrid work yet, so there’s no golden recipe to make it a seamless experience from the outset.
What I specifically want to talk about, however, is how you and your team (because you’re going to need your team for this) can give yourselves the best chance at succeeding with hybrid working.
At this point you might ask, ‘what do you mean with ‘best chance’ at succeeding? Are you saying there’s a chance it won’t work?’
Actually, yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying. Why? Well, hybrid is by far the hardest model to pull off.
Why is hybrid so hard to pull off?
There are a bunch of reasons, but in essence, the main challenge is that you’re trying to design two different operating models and structures, to fit two different employee experiences, both at once. That means a two-tiered workforce with different priorities and expectations.
If it’s so hard, why are some many companies jumping on the hybrid wagon? Let’s face it, hybrid working sounds great on paper. Many companies believe that it provides the best of both worlds. It’s widely assumed that in a hybrid environment people get to avoid the cons of a fully remote setup (such as loneliness, interruptions or less than ideal home set up) or a fully co-located model (such as an annoying commute, lack of flexibility or office politics).
Also, there’s the argument that many businesses are incorporating hybrid working after surveying their team and discovering that a large number of them expressed a desire to return to the office (at least partially) because they don’t like working from home. (Note: although I understand the logic behind this, I wonder how many of these surveys offered the option to stay remote, but providing a stipend to spend in a co-working space?)
What’s the problem?
The second you start scratching the surface of this ‘ideal’ structure, issues pop up that we might need to stop and plan for – otherwise, it has the potential of backfiring.
No one is an expert on hybrid working. Remote working? Sure, some organisations even have heads of remote now – a role pioneered by Darren Murph at Gitlab. With every massive cultural change at organisational level, you need to have someone running the show. It needs to be treated as a full on project, with a clear owner. Having someone focused exclusively on making this work is a great way to achieve this. Just Google ‘head of remote’ and you’ll find loads of articles about it (over 6.5 million to be exact).
At the moment, however, nobody is a ‘head of hybrid working’. I did the same Google search on this (on 9 of July 2021), and all I got was loads of different results that had nothing to do with hybrid working. It seems that no one is really an expert on this – at least not yet. So if you ever find yourself being approached by a flashy consultant telling you that they’ll give you the magic recipe to turn your company into a hybrid heaven (in return for a hefty fee), walk away!
Hell, I’m not even sure there’s a hybrid heaven to begin with – but what we can do is plan. This will be broken down into three phases:
- Phase 1: plan
- Phase 2: communicate
- Phase 3: iterate
Phase 1: plan
Your team wants to see that you’re doing everything you can to make this work.
Many people have already told me that their companies (predominately office-based, pre-pandemic) will follow Apple and Google’s example. They’ll expect their teams to come back to the office for a few days a week come September. For many, this will be treated as a pilot to see how hybrid works for them.
Unfortunately, no details of how they plan to make it work have actually been shared. Now, if I were an employee in one of those companies (and because I want to keep my flexibility), the first thing I’d want to see is a plan. There’s a heck of a lot of that can go wrong and I would want to see them really trying to make it work.
What can you do to plan for this?
You need to understand the problem you’re trying to solve, where you are now, where you want to be, and the gap between the two. Also, incorporating your team’s feedback and pain points will also help to guide you.
There’s a lot to take into consideration, and it can be quite overwhelming – after all, you will be changing your operating model almost entirely. That will cover many of your current systems, processes, policies and frameworks.
A note on methodologies
This plan will be method-agnostic, meaning that I’ll set out general issues to take into consideration but no specific methodology followed.
Phase 1.0: bring your project squad together
As I mentioned earlier, you’re going to need your team to pull this off. This will be a cross-functional project, meaning you’re probably going to need input from other teams (e.g. legal, IT, facilities, operations). You’re also going to need buy in from your leadership team to act as project sponsors.
Make sure you build a driver, approver, contributor, informed (DACI) framework to understand who is the driver in each initiative, who will be accountable for it, who needs to be consulted before changes happen and who will need to be informed. Here are some templates you can use for this.
Phases 1.1 and 1.2: assessment and gap analysis (policies and processes)
Most likely, some (or a lot!) of your current policies and processes will need to be adjusted to cater for a hybrid team.
For example. how will you make sure that your performance and career management policy (think promotions), will guarantee transparency and fairness for those employees who come to the office on a periodic basis versus those who choose to come in for the majority of the week? When your managers spend more face-to-face time with some of their team but not others, bias can kick in.
Doing an assessment of what these currently look like versus what they need to be – followed by a gap analysis and action plan – is a good place to start.
This will cover pillars like:
- Infrastructure (office versus home office)
- Communication and collaboration (documentation, meeting norms, communication tools, collaboration norms, information flow, approval norms and flow)
- Team cohesion (team socials, events, ‘water-cooler’ moments)
- People processes impacted (recruitment, onboarding, performance and career management, compensation and benefits, progression and levelling)
- Feedback loop and iteration (employee feedback on your new model, method and cadence)
Example of a policy assessment and gap analysis
Phase 1.3: technology (team intranet)
Assess what you currently use as your company’s knowledge base or employee handbook. This should be contextual, it should provide a single source of truth, and information should be easy to access.
As much as we all love Google Drive and SharePoint, they’re simply not enough. They don’t provide any context and finding information is almost impossible unless you know what to look for. Think of building an intranet or internal knowledge hub. Tools such as Notion, Confluence, Happeo can help with this. (Check this out for inspiration on what this can look like).
Phase 1.4: training
Everyone will need to be trained on these new ways of working. Here are some of the topics each group in your business will need to be supported in:
- Leadership: how to communicate and stay visible in a hybrid environment.
- Managers: how to manage a hybrid team. This will need to cover things such as effective one-to-ones and feedback, team cohesiveness, team comms, consistency and fairness, progression and growth within the context of a hybrid team.
- Employees: health and safety (home office setup), managing burnout, comms, team visibility, and cohesiveness.
I suggest you leave this to the end so that you can update everyone on all the new policies, processes and technology set out.
Phase 2: communicate
Communication is the single most important piece of the puzzle. There will be too many unknowns and probably a lot of ambiguity, so keeping your team in the loop and bringing them on the journey with you will definitely pay dividends.
Clear communication is crucial for any change management initiative – even for more straightforward cultural changes. For your move to hybrid working, it will be even more vital.
Tips for managing communication during organisational change
There’s a lot of great literature out there to help you with this. You can find articles, books and guides on communication and change management in my bookshelf (filter by project and change management).
In a nutshell, here are a few pointers:
- Have your leadership team communicate the change. When change comes from the top, it helps to create more buy-in. A member of your leadership team (ideally the CEO/founder) should take the role of the project sponsor and champion change from the very top.
- Communicate as often and as transparently as possible. All hands and ‘town halls’ are a great place to update the team on strategy and plans.
- Set expectations and show humility. Be open with your team that you don’t have all the answers to hybrid working and that you will all learn together as you go along. It will earn you empathy, understanding and support.
- If you already have an action plan in place (see phase 1), share it. If not, lay out what you are doing to work towards one.
When starting with this project, over-communication will save you a lot of cultural troubles ahead.
Phase 3: iterate
Moving to hybrid should be treated as a project and, most importantly, as an experiment. You need to make sure you’re constantly collecting feedback on the model from your team. As you move your business to hybrid issues are almost guaranteed to pop up. Iterations are going to be needed.
For this to work, you need to give your team a clear route to provide feedback and explain how you’re going to act on it. If you don’t, some might feel too intimidated to give you unprompted feedback – and they might end up leaving if they’re frustrated by your model. Give room for your team to give feedback on your model. Test, iterate, repeat.
An ongoing project
No one is an expert on hybrid work yet, so there’s no golden recipe to make it a seamless experience from the outset. With careful thought and consideration, however, you will be in a better position to run this internally.
Finally, remember that this won’t be a close-ended project. You will need to keep iterating and collecting feedback from your team to keep improving and making your model better each time.
Interested in this topic? Read Three tips from an HR leader on the transition to hybrid working.