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Hybrid work arrangements with people working at home and in the office may be common when it becomes feasible for employees to start returning to offices.

J.P. MOCZULSKI/The Globe and Mail

If vaccines and variants have been the buzzwords for the first part of this year, the second half will likely be dominated by the word hybrid. As a return to the office becomes feasible for many organizations there is a realization that working from home can be as productive and some employees now treasure aspects of their remote life. At the same time, of course, many employees relish a return to the comfort, companionship and vitality of the office.

Hybrid is a compromise. It allows balance and flexibility. It takes the person and the actual nature of the work into account. It also is in some ways an idealized state that we have been reaching for in small ways over the year – people working from home, for example, when they need isolation to delve deeply into some thorny issue or need to nurse a sick child. The pandemic may fade from memory but work-balance issues remain and for some a hybrid solution may be highly attractive.

It’s more complex than just ordering people back to the office. “Hybrid work represents the biggest shift to how we work in our generation,” Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella noted recently.

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Consultant Scott Eblin compares the next step for many organizations to an elimination diet. That’s when you remove certain foods or ingredients from your diet and then after a period of time add them back, one at a time, so you can monitor your body’s reaction. Instead of rushing to embrace the office experience completely, we may want to consider what we want back and what we want to keep from our diet.

He asked himself: What’s been eliminated or greatly reduced in my life that I really miss and want to add back? How much of that do I want to add back? What’s been eliminated or greatly reduced in my life that I don’t really miss and want to keep it that way? What have I started doing during the pandemic year that has been beneficial and that I want to keep doing? How much of that do I want to do? How and when should I continue to capture the value of meeting virtually without the added overhead of travel time and expense?

That’s an individual checklist, geared to a consultant’s work. But it can be adapted for managers to their workplace: What is worth returning to in the typical office situation and what is unhealthy? More to the point, it’s worth discussing with employees, if you intend to give them some say in the next stage of office life.

“Our capacity to operate at peak productivity and performance varies dramatically according to our personal preferences. So in designing hybrid work, consider the preferences of your employees – and enable others to understand and accommodate those preferences,” Lynda Gratton, a professor of management practice at London Business School, writes in Harvard Business Review.

A manager’s first instinct in considering the future office would be to focus on the nature of the task, and Prof. Gratton agrees. She says you need to understand the critical drivers of productivity – energy, focus, co-ordination, and co-operation – for each role, and how that relates to the hours of work and place in which that is done.

But some jobs – probably many – can be done well from work or from home. She cites strategic planning, where focus is critical; people need good periods of time freed from others, to immerse themselves in the issues. Imagine two strategic planners. One has an hour-long commute, a home with a good office, and the children are at school during the day. The other planner shares a downtown apartment with three friends and has trouble getting free from distractions. Instead of ordering both to return to the office or both to stay remote, a sensible approach is to discuss their personal situation and preferences.

To prevent the return to office from becoming an emotional roller coaster, Liz Fosslien, head of content at Humu, a human resource company, and organizational development consultant Mollie West Duffy urge leaders to make employees feel supported and safe before changes occur. That starts with being transparent. “Don’t wait to communicate what you’re thinking, even if there’s limited information to share,” they write in MIT-Sloan Management Review.

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Also, find out what staff members are thinking. Surfacing their preferences early on can help you in an effort to pull rather than push your teams back to the office. They suggest a survey with questions like these: How many days a week would you like to work in the office? What will make the return to the office easier for you?

Are there any extenuating circumstances you’re willing to share that might make a return to the office especially hard or scary for you? What types of work would you prefer to do from the office – for example, large staff meetings, new team meetings, or brainstorming sessions? What types of work would you prefer to do from home?

Leaving the office last March was a big, dramatic decision – everything changed for everyone in many workplaces. But the return won’t be the same in smart organizations. People know their job can be done from home. Compromises will have to be worked out, jealousies dealt with, commuting costs considered, sunk costs of buildings set aside for later. The return will be more nuanced and individualized. Hybrid.

Cannonballs

  • What if remote work didn’t involve working from home, asks Georgetown University professor and productivity author Cal Newport. Some people’s home is not conducive to work and like Peter Benchley – who wrote the bestseller Jaws in a rented space in the back of a furnace factory – a cognitive escape is needed, which Prof. Newport argues should be subsidized by the company.
  • To screen for unethical behaviour in job candidates, Carnegie Mellon professor Taya Cohen suggests the following questions, which indicate guilt proneness, a positive trait: “Please describe an experience in which you were faced with a difficult dilemma at your job, a situation where you found it hard to decide what to do. What factors did you consider? What did you do? What, if anything, did you learn from this experience?”
  • A leader without priorities is like a chipmunk on steroid, says executive coach Dan Rockwell, always dropping the nut in his paws to grab the imploring nut nearby.

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