by Kristen Krull
97% of people would like to work remotely, at least sometimes, for the rest of their career. In 2022, when senior leadership at one company decided to shift from 100% remote back to a hybrid work environment, they knew that decision would divide their employees. But they were determined to use the transition to strengthen their employees’ connections and bridge those divides.
After two years of working virtually since the onset of the pandemic, this company's employees had adapted to their digital environment, collaborating in new ways on new platforms. Employees and managers alike felt they had learned lessons about wellbeing, work-life integration, and global collaboration that benefited the individuals and the team.
With a hybrid work environment on the horizon, employees expressed concerns. Managers worried about employees who didn’t want to go back into the office; how would they continue to attract, keep, and motivate people in this ‘new’ way of working? Or—commute times conflicted with global meetings; how would the company offset a dramatic reduction in available meeting hours?
The teams also struggled to translate what they learned during the pandemic regarding collaboration, employee engagement, work-life balance, productivity, and wellbeing into a hybrid work environment.
This is the pandemic pivot. We pivoted to remote; now we pivot back into something different. A new work experience brings a lot of newness, and that transition needs to be managed.
Leading-edge companies use the work study process to test, fail fast, adjust, and find solutions to big problems. This process can be used for any change and transition. Work studies are about testing new ways of working while giving managers and employees space to test, learn, and adjust. This transition phase can build trust and stickiness with a company and leadership.
Here’s what this company learned that they could carry forward in their pandemic pivot.
Employees want to succeed in their work. It is the unaddressed barriers that lead to disengagement. When an employee brings an issue forward or supports a change they’d like to see, appreciate their courage in speaking up. While it may not be possible to do what an employee asks for, consider their ideas, and acknowledge their bravery; feeling heard goes a long way with people. For this company, valuing boldness opened new doors to different ideas that could work for both the leadership team and their employees.
Employees had a lot to say about 100% office or hybrid work. Often, we hear companies request feedback, but nothing changes from it. Instead, this leadership team heard the feedback and took a bold step: they acted on the feedback by implementing a set of work studies to test different work strategies and tactics.
See what works. During these work studies, these managers impressed me. They were open-minded and not tied to a specific way of doing things. When it didn’t work, they did something different. For example, one global team of employees going hybrid had a problem. The team had formed when they were working 100% remotely. With people going into offices, how would they manage office commute hours that conflicted with their prime global meeting window?
This team tested a combination of synchronous meetings and asynchronous collaboration. Not every async option worked well. While the team saw promise, they realized they needed a better tool to collaborate asynchronously. Kicking aside the original methods, they showed agility and improved to figure out what worked best for their async collaboration.
Leaders realized their proximity bias while experiencing 100% remote work. As one manager told me, “I can no longer create an ad hoc work experience by leaning into their office.” Some managers thought this was a problem. Others welcomed the challenge and reflected on their own bias. Being conscious of their bias, they worked to break the mindset and create greater equality and inclusivity.
Maintain focus on your team members and provide equitable opportunities. Technology makes everyone within proximity–leverage that and the strengths of your diverse team. Be careful of defaulting to old behaviors and proximity bias as you move back into an office. One recommendation is to put a list of employees and their strengths in eyesight on your desk. This is one way to help foster ‘thinking out of the bias.’
Working remotely requires intentionality. While remote, one team had found that a five-minute check-in through a quick chat or a virtual pulse was beneficial, and they wanted to carry that forward. Teams also formed small but formal agreements about working together, which helped team members understand what to expect and how to work best. When it comes to a change, it can be tricky to know where to start. A process and template can help.
During the work study, employees remembered how they had struggled with running in and out of meetings without breaks before going remote. What had changed? The team struck upon an insightful realization: they seized agency to take care of themselves. Working 100% remotely highlighted well-being and balance as integral to great work. Employees wanted to keep this balance as they returned to hybrid work.
To validate that insight, we assessed three new well-being practices. It was a total success. During the testing period, the manager and employees visibly supported keeping up with the practices. They experienced an increase in the team’s and individuals’ well-being. As a bonus, through the process, I saw a rise in trust with leadership. I would encourage any company to embrace trying this out; it brings well-being into real-life action beyond words on a work-life balance intranet page.
Teams now have broader thinking about integrating office time and remote work. Being in the office does not guarantee excellent results. One team tested different flexible work options for the hybrid scenario. Goals and professional parameters were determined upfront, and managers and employees discussed what worked. This allowed teams to identify the best flexibility options, so they are their most productive, whether working from the office or at home.
Managers did not have a plan to deal with the move to 100% remote. It came with an unknown timeline and real-time learning was in play. The lesson from that: A little imperfect planning can help a team be more agile. Managers can carry this forward in an in-office environment. Consider different scenarios and generate imperfect plans to address them. Addressing the ‘what-ifs’ allows the team to generate ideas, which can make a significant difference when a challenge arises. If issues do come up, the team will resolve the situation with agility.
This company’s out-of-the-box thinking and leadership’s desire to assess and iterate helped to find options that will work for them. The work study process increased team communication and opened their minds to adopt new habits. The data collected helped leadership see the value in the process and what worked.
The Launch Consulting team designed and led the work studies, gathered feedback, and generated the next step recommendations. By engaging their employees through the process, this company built trust and learned new ways of working that support the hybrid model. Plus, the company has delightful stories of tested and validated ways to work.
It's time to make testing, assessing, and iterating for a better outcome an integral part of the back-to-work process. Whether you are incorporating a 100% return to the office or a hybrid environment, how are you navigating the pandemic pivot?
Kristen Krull is a Senior Organizational Effectiveness Consultant at Launch. Her passion is helping organizations and people navigate change, be at their best, and thrive. Book an Organizational Effectiveness assessment for your org on our Human Impact Studio page!