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Op-Ed: How to make a hybrid workplace work

By Lauren Dixon, BridgeTower Media Newswires 

How will a vaccine for coronavirus impact our workplaces? While we might think of a vaccine as the Holy Grail and a panacea, it likely will not jumpstart a return to work life as we knew it. If you’ve already returned to the office, chances are, many of your colleagues have not. And many will continue to work remotely long into the future — even forever.

According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, about 35 percent of American workers switched to telecommuting when the pandemic hit the US. Since then, a recent Salesforce survey shows that many of them have decided they do not want to return to the workplace 100 percent of the time, ever:

Baby boomers: 39 percent want to work full-time from home, 26 percent split between home and work, 35 percent at workplace full-time

Gen X: 36 percent want to work full-time from home, 31 percent split between home and work, 34 percent at workplace full-time

Millennials: 37 percent want to work full-time from home, 33 percent split between home and work, 29 percent at workplace full-time

Gen Z: 31 percent want to work full-time from home, 43 percent split between home and work, 26 percent at workplace full-time

To put it another way, only about a third of all employees want to return to the workplace full-time after the pandemic. Gen Z workers are the least interested, with 74 percent preferring to work from home or a combination of home and work. It’s even more dramatic in the United Kingdom: A survey by People & Transformational HR found that just 1 percent of respondents want to return to the office full-time. More than half want to be 80 percent virtual and 20 percent office-based, or about one day a week on-site.

Given those results and the physical and financial concerns around maintaining office space, it looks like the new normal will be a hybrid workplace. And our current situation is not entirely temporary, so we should not put our workplace culture on hold. Rather, we should reassess it for work life post-pandemic.

A recent Forbes article cites a Ketchum study that says the pandemic has caused 63 percent of Americans to dramatically re-evaluate their professional priorities, with a shift to personal well-being, flexibility and company values. Likewise, I think businesses need to re-evaluate how to continue to be great places to work regardless of where our team members are.

Start by thinking about what you and your people have been missing while working from home. What made your environment special? Probably everything from impromptu chats by the coffeemaker to high-energy meetings where you literally cover the walls with your brainstorms.

How do we maintain that unique culture going forward when some, but not all, of our team members come back to the office, and some, but not all, of what we’re missing returns? Let’s look at both the risks and the opportunities.

What we miss and risk

Impromptu conversations with people with whom we don’t normally work. The phrases “unplanned interactions” and “weak ties” come up often in articles about fostering a culture of innovation. These are the random discussions and corresponding relationships that develop when you bump into people from different departments and teams in hallways, parking lots and kitchens.

Frequently, these spontaneous chats and peripheral connections lead to smart ideas. Through sharing new information and diverse perspectives, they can enhance innovation, quality and overall performance. Right now, we’re doing a great job of communicating with our teams while working remotely, but we’re missing out on the creative sparks that can fly when we connect with a wider range of colleagues, not just the ones we work with on a daily basis.

Welcoming and getting to know new team members. Typically, new hires at Dixon Schwabl get a tour of the workplace with individual introductions to each person along the way. They usually have a full schedule of one-on-ones to get to know other employees and their roles. And they often shadow or work closely with a “mentor” in the beginning. This gives the new team member the opportunity to fully experience the workplace culture, and to express the three-dimensional aspects of their personality. In a hybrid environment, the folks at home don’t enjoy such rich human interactions.

Building bonds

While obvious, it is still worth mentioning. Without the shared experiences of being in the same location all day, walking around and seeing each other at random times, we lose out on deepening long-term connections. And the social neuroscience shows that a sense of belonging and shared purpose is what motivates us to work hard and frees our innovative thinking.

What we welcome and recommend

Cultivate and communicate your values. According to Forbes, 79 percent of American workers say an employer’s values are more important to them now than pre-COVID, and 74 percent say company diversity and inclusion values are more important now than they were before the pandemic.

So use your values as your compass to keep your culture thriving and heading in the right direction post-pandemic. Put them in writing if they aren’t already documented and distribute them widely.

Keep the document living, breathing and circulating, and provide opportunities for everyone to contribute, evaluate and enhance. Because to keep evolving to adapt to a hybrid workplace, we need to continually monitor our culture and values.

Redefine your space. If half of your team is working remotely at any given time, the office is not an alternative to working from home, but a “value-add” or enhancement to working remotely. So configure your space to increase “unplanned interactions” and “weak ties” to replace what we lose when we’re not always all together in the same location.

Though we’re still all working remotely at Dixon Schwabl, we’re maintaining some normalcy by allowing teams to hold small, socially distanced meetings outside on our patio. They schedule their “patio meetings” the same way we reserve our conference rooms and it has been a much-needed way to connect in real life. We’ve also maintained our core values, including our favorite expression of “fun” with socially distanced “ice cream Thursdays” in our parking lot this summer.

Narrow and define your engagement channels. To encourage everyone to participate in discussions, keep your communications channels clear, comfortable and casual. Share simple guidelines so people know which tools to use for which types of communications. For example, client-facing messages might always be via email, Dropbox or Zoom. Internal discussions via Microsoft Teams. Urgent messages via chat. I like to ask our team members to stay logged into our chat application — not to suggest they have to be accessible at all times — but so they can indicate their availability and see their messages when they become available, keeping the lines of communication open.

Repeat back to me: Communicate clearly and clarify communications. We all know how easy it is to misread emails, chats and texts. And without the benefit of hallway conversations, body language and in-person opportunities to ask people to explain, it’s important that we take the time to clarify our communications. In a hybrid work situation, repetition is OK even if it’s redundant. Keep clarifying until each person can repeat your message back to you. Otherwise, you could create an understanding gap between the people on-site and the people who are working virtually.

Keep everyone in the loop. Schedule a recurring weekly (in-person and videoconference) all-team meeting from now until eternity. Use these gatherings to share both personal and business updates, project statuses, props and kudos. I recommend asking folks to turn their cameras on most of the time so people can enjoy seeing each other and reading their reactions. If these meetings feel a little one-sided, encourage participants to use the videoconference app features like thumbs up or down to help people interact. And once the pandemic is behind us, consider holding one or more face-to-face gatherings or retreats each year to bring everyone together.

Prevent overworking and “Zoom fatigue.” If some of your people work remotely and some are on-site, there’s a natural tendency for the people at home to feel extra pressure to just “show up” digitally no matter what. I’ve heard reports of remote workers feeling they need to “prove” they’re engaged and busy by responding to communications immediately and keeping their cameras on throughout every videoconference.  Whether attending meetings that aren’t particularly productive or relevant, or keeping their green availability light on at all times in Teams or Slack, this can lead to burnout and inefficiency.

So consider asynchronous video meetings and the option to turn cameras off once in a while. Help people establish boundaries when they are working from home. Encourage them to take time off rather than save it all until when they feel safe to travel again. And keep an eye out for signs of burnout or mental health issues.

Assign work teams with intention. To help grow new relationships without the benefit of impromptu interactions, be thoughtful when assigning projects. Try to bring people together who don’t often get to partner up, whether from different regions, teams or departments.

Get to know new team members. At Dixon Schwabl, we’ve had a longstanding ritual of inviting new employees to respond to get-to-know-you questions that we share at our weekly meetings and distribute in our meeting notes. Turns out, it’s a great way to onboard new team members in a hybrid environment. Our questions typically include fun stuff like: Where are you from? What are your hobbies and interests? Do you play any sports? Which are your favorites? What would you like us to know about you?

Experiment and ask for input. Early on, we got creative about finding ways to be together, even while apart. You may have done similar things like virtual happy hours and lunch break wellness activities. And then some of our creatives took it a step further and launched a website called The Good Stuff. It’s a growing collection of team-member submitted videos that reveal all kinds of wonderful, little-known skills, hobbies and aspects of our personal lives, from barbecuing to thrift shopping, hiking to singing. You might consider asking your team members for ideas and feedback to help continue to strengthen your culture in a hybrid environment.

Work is not a place, but an outcome. A recent ZDNet special feature article suggests: “Let’s rebrand WFH to ‘Working from Here.’ Because the future workplace will be hybrid model of home, office or here. Perhaps the biggest lesson of 2020 for businesses is that for some, work is not a place. Work is an outcome.”

And for the best possible outcomes, we need to experiment, test, survey and refine our best practices so our hybrid workplaces can be great places to work for all.

Lauren Dixon is CEO of Dixon Schwabl Inc., a marketing communications firm, which has been honored as a Best Place to Work.