Remote work was once considered a luxury to many, but in 2020, it became a necessity for a large portion of the workforce, as the scary and unknown COVID-19 virus sickened and even took the lives of so many people around the world.
Some workers were able to thrive in a remote setting, while others felt isolated and struggled to keep up a balance between their work and home lives.
Last year saw the availability of life-saving vaccines, so companies were able to start having the conversation about what to do next. Should they keep everyone remote? Should they go back to working in the office full time? Or should they do something in between? Enter hybrid work, which offers a mix of the two.
A Fall 2021 study conducted by Google revealed that over 75% of survey respondents expect hybrid work to become a standard practice within their organization within the next three years.
Thus, two years after the world abruptly shifted to widespread adoption of remote work, we are declaring 2022 “The Year of Hybrid Work,” as workers and companies attempt to regain some sense of normalcy, improve work/life balance, and reconnect with coworkers while still retaining some of the benefits of hybrid work.
Typically, hybrid work implies that employees spend some days of the week working from home and some days working in the office. For example, when Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai revealed the company’s hybrid work plan back in May 2021, it involved working in the office three days a week and working remotely the other two days.
The plan might look different for every company. Some companies took advantage of having their workforce remote by downsizing their office space to save money. For those companies, the hybrid working plan might involve “hot desking,” which is when a desk is shared by more than one person on different days.
“Hot desking is a term that’s been around even pre-pandemic days for different sales type workers or people who would be more like a road warrior or weren’t always based out of the same office,” said Aaron Nush, technology services architect at SoftwareONE. “Some of those types of processes or theories that we saw pre-pandemic are starting to come back a little bit, where somebody can reserve one out of X number of workspaces, and they can sit down and have a keyboard, monitor, mouse, a desk, phone, or whatever they need; they just kind of plug in their laptop and start going.”
Nush predicts that even when companies switch to a hybrid work model, there will still be a lot of demand from employees to stay remote where it’s feasible. So it’s important for companies to slowly make the transition back to the office, otherwise there might be more pushback from employees, Nush explained.
Employees who feel as though they’ve been able to do their job well remotely might question the company on what the benefit of going back or the rationale behind certain decisions around hybrid work.
However, Nush also added that a lot of the push for hybrid work is being driven by employees, not companies. Because of the current job market and the “Great Resignation,” employees have a lot of power right now.
“It’s an interesting time to see organizations be receptive of that and try to work towards that common goal of let’s navigate through this kind of uncharted area together and at the end of the day identify what’s going to make this all successful and get where we need to go,” said Nush.
The benefits of hybrid work
There are a lot of benefits to remote work — no commute, more flexibility in the day, fewer distractions and interruptions — but for many there are also a lot of downsides, like social isolation, lack of motivation, and difficulty maintaining a good balance between their work and personal lives.
According to Lara Owen, senior director of Global Workplace Experience at GitHub, the main benefit of hybrid work is that it offers employees the flexibility to work in the style that suits them best. People that thrive in an office setting could go into the office everyday, people who really do well working at home can continue doing that, or people could opt for a mix of the two. “I prefer the hybrid model of work because of this flexibility – it encourages and allows for employees to work in the way that works best for them, which can result in greater creativity and happier employees,” said Owen.
Another benefit of this flexibility is that recruiting efforts can be opened up because geographical constraints can be removed and companies can appeal to people with different working needs, such as working parents or caregivers.
“This opens up your talent pool to a wider, more diverse group,” Owen said.
Transitioning from full remote work to hybrid work
Even for workers who have spent their entire working career — perhaps even decades — in an office, after two years of working from home, the switch back could be difficult. Workers have gotten used to certain things while working remotely, and teams have started using different tools to communicate and organize their work.
In order to ensure a smooth transition back, Nush recommends taking advantage of those tools that had been used for remote communication, especially if not all members of a team will be in the office at the same time.
JJ Yu, product designer at digital transformation firm Rise8, believes that UX design — and more specifically human-centered design — is the key to successfully implementing a hybrid work model. One mistake she sees a lot of companies making is that they are looking to the Big Five companies and applying the same practices, but it’s important for employers to actually empathize with their employees.
“I think that in itself is quite the biggest hurdle to make out of that entire process is: are these employers willing to empathize with their employees?” Yu said.
She also pointed out that there isn’t a silver bullet to this. “There is no right answer,” said Yu. “I think there’s just a better or worse decision to be made.”
Yu believes the first step a company can take to solve the challenges of returning to the office is to actually take the time and listen to their employees and their needs.
Communication from leadership is key
According to a McKinsey study from April 2021, a lot of workers are feeling like their company’s plans for returning to the office aren’t being communicated well. 40% of respondents said they have not heard any communication regarding the company’s plans, 32% have received vague communications about a plan, and only 32% feel that a plan has been well-communicated to them.
Not knowing what the plans are is causing a lot of workers unnecessary concern and stress. 47% of respondents said they were feeling anxious as a result, and loss of productivity from poor mental health can be as high as $1 trillion per year, according to McKinsey, which highlights the need for clear return-to-work plans.
This also contributes to burnout, which results from long-term stress. While McKinsey feels these numbers might be an underestimate, 49% said they were at least somewhat burned out, with 10% of U.S. developers feeling burned out to a “very-high degree.”
“Burnout is especially pronounced for people feeling anxious due to a lack of organizational communication. These employees were almost three times more likely to report feeling burned out. The obvious recommendation for organizational leaders: share more with employees, even if you’re uncertain about the future, to help improve employee well-being now,” McKinsey wrote in the report.
Challenges of working in a hybrid setting
Even though Owen believes the main benefit of hybrid work is flexibility, that should not be misconstrued as it being easy.
“The success of hybrid teams hinges on a leader’s ability to make strategic investments and decisions to support dispersed teams, foster a positive company culture across geographies, and empower employees regardless of whether they are in the office or at home,” said Owen.
One challenge Owen has faced at GitHub is getting the right tone with their communication. Setting clear guidelines and expectations is important, but sometimes tone can get lost in written communication. Because of this, it’s important to find the right balance between asynchronous and synchronous engagement, she said.
Another challenge for companies is not losing sight of their employees’ experiences. Even when some workers are in the office, don’t forget about your dispersed workers. According to Owen, companies that don’t accommodate dispersed workers could lose out on their talent, and managers without training on managing dispersed teams are likely not maximizing productivity.
On the flip side, it’s important to support those who are in the office. This means investing in tools and technologies that can help on-site workers collaborate with their remote coworkers, such as well-lit, camera-ready “phone booths.”
Another challenge, according to Sagi Gidali, co-founder and CPO at cybersecurity company Perimeter 81, is that there can be a limited timeframe for communicating with coworkers across different time zones. For example, if everyone is working from 9-5 in their local time zones, that gives people from Los Angeles and New York City a five-hour window of synchronous communication every day instead of eight. This might not seem like a big deal, but if the West Coast employee runs into an issue at 3 PM, the East Coast employee would have already ended their day by that point.
“We try to have as much overlap in our schedules as reasonably possible and many team members also make an effort to stay online a bit later to do so,” said Gidali.
Asynchronous tooling is key to connecting employees – wherever they are
Companies that have already been working remotely already know the power of technology in facilitating collaboration.
As an example, at GitHub, they have an intranet site called The Hub, which pulls information from Slack, email, and GitHub, and acts as a central source for that information. GitHub itself also has a number of features that the company uses internally, such as GitHub Issues, which are a way to converse with contributors and manage projects. One benefit they’re found from using Issues is that it allows work to progress throughout the day without teams needing to constantly connect, Owen explained.
“These records serve as a resource for historical decision-making, knowledge preservation, and snapshots of progress. The ability to capture and share important discussions asynchronously leads to a culture where everyone can do their work in the way that works best for them — driving higher quality, increased productivity, and happier employees,” said Owen.
Turn the clock back on bad habits
According to Nush, there are some lessons to be learned from the initial push to remote work back in 2020, which was hastily done at many companies.
“When people quickly had to pivot overnight from working in an office to working from home, a lot of them didn’t have laptops,” said Nush. “They were working on a desktop or something that was still sitting at that office. So a lot of organizations were instructing their workers to use a home computer, sometimes go out to their local electronics store and buy one off the shelf and use that to connect to the environment. And they were really just trying to scrounge and do whatever they needed to do to get back to work.”
As you might imagine, a lot of bad habits came from this. According to Nush, now a lot of organizations are looking back and realizing that they should be working to undo some of those.
Workers must be vaccinated to return to the office at many companies
One of the main reasons that hybrid work is even an option is that vaccines for COVID-19 are now available. But even though they are available, not everyone has chosen to get one.
According to the New York Times’ interactive COVID-19 dashboard, only 61% of Americans were fully vaccinated as of Dec. 15, 2021. This varies by state; 70.5% of all New Yorkers are fully vaccinated, only 64.9% of Californians are fully vaccinated, and in Georgia, 50.1% of the total population is fully vaccinated.
Most of the big tech companies — Google, Meta (previously Facebook), Microsoft, Netflix, and Twitter — all require that employees be vaccinated before returning to the office.
Google recently made headlines when CNBC reported that it has obtained an internal Google memo that notified employees to upload their vaccine documentation by Dec. 3 and that those who didn’t comply with the vaccine guidelines would be placed on paid administrative leave for 30 days starting on Jan. 18. If they still haven’t complied at the end, they would be placed on unpaid personal leave for up to six months, and then terminated.
While many companies may be making internal decisions to require vaccines to keep their employees safe, the Biden administration has also been a driving force behind some requirements. In November, it announced new OSHA rules that would require companies with 100 or more employees to either be fully vaccinated or be tested weekly. Under this rule, employers also need to provide paid time for workers to get vaccinated and require unvaccinated employees to wear a face mask.
How will the omicron variant impact hybrid work plans?
For many companies, hybrid work has remained a fantasy throughout much of 2021. Back-to-office dates kept being announced, then pushed back, and pushed back again, and so on. And with the emergence of the omicron COVID-19 variant and stricter regulations, we might see those dates continue to be pushed back.
Google had been planning to return workers to the office in January 2022, but it pushed that date back in early December. Ford Motors also announced a delay in returning workers to the office as a result of the omicron variant.
According to Perimeter 81’s Gidali, hybrid work is an ideal model for handling these unexpected issues, such as COVID-19 variants, or even a bad flu season. When one of these issues arises, it’s easy for employees to switch back to working remotely since they are already set up for that.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, it was common for employees to feel like they had to still come into the office even when they were sick, but the events of the last couple of years and a flexible hybrid working model can help reduce or eliminate that pressure.
How low-code will help facilitate the return to the office and boost morale
Last year, we declared that 2021 would be the year of low-code solutions. Low-code helps increase innovation, reduce development costs, and improve productivity, all of which were a necessity in early 2020 when companies moved from the office to remote work.
Now low-code is helping with the move to hybrid working models too.
According to Deb Gildersleeve, CIO at low-code platform Quickbase, low-code can also help improve employee morale and thus avoid some turnover from The Great Resignation.
“Low-code and no-code allow the people who are able to think up what processes should be to then build it out for themselves, and that is really empowering,” said Gildersleeve. Rather than needing to wait on others to complete a workflow or process, workers can be empowered to complete their portion of the process, and others can do the same. “t’s not a matter of, oh, I can’t do my thing until they email me this. It puts the power of fixing that problem and improving their day, in their own hands.”
Employee experience is a huge part of whether employees decide to stay at a company or leave it. Anything a company can do to make sure the employee experience is positive will work towards better retention of talent.
“If you’re sitting there and you’ve got issues, and you’re just waiting on somebody else’s to-do list to get them solved, that’s frustrating,” Gildersleeve said. “And that might be a frustration that could build over time, and it might be the tipping point for you to take that phone call from the next company … There’s no perfect job, but when you have the ability to improve your day to day, I think that’s what really makes people want to stay with a company.”