Work is... — How to turn hybrid work to just work.

July 7, 2022
9 min read
Photo by Yousef Espanioly on Unsplash
“Good ideas alter the power balances in relationships. That’s why good ideas are resisted.”
— Hugh Macleod

Hybrid work is the new casual Friday.

There’s a story that epitomizes the angst that came with casual Fridays. In the mid-90s, just as casual Fridays were taking off, so was Silicon Valley. It was the dawn of the Internet, and Wall Street wanted to get in on the action.

One promising venture, based in the valley, was looking for backing. They had interest from New York. The east coast-based investment firm wanted to bet big on tech; this was their first overture.

Everyone wanted to make a good first impression.

So the Wall Street types shed their Brooks Brothers suits and dressed in the classic ensemble of the valley: button-down blue denim shirts and khakis. The tech firm also wanted to make a good impression. This was their chance at a significant investment and their first step to an IPO: they shed their khakis.

Imagine the scene: Wall Streeters, used to fine wools in rumpled khakis; meeting engineers in high-end haberdashery.

When casual Fridays hit corporate America, legions panicked.

Some Millennials and Gen Z’ers might think this true story is a little far-fetched. Boomers and Gen X’ers will chuckle at the distant memory.

Hybrid work will go the way of casual Friday.

Eventually, we will call Hybrid work “work,” just as we call Friday “Friday.”

The same CEOs that struggled with open-toed shoes are struggling with office loss. They dish out thinly veiled warnings, dressed as advice about the career ladder. Others chatter about remote workers being first on the chopping block in the coming work-from-office revolution.

They rail, like Lord Sugar, “this is a bloody joke. The lazy gits make me sick. Call me old-fashioned, but all this work-from-home BS is a total joke. ”

Not everyone looks back at the office with nostalgia.

Alphabet’s (née Google) CEO Sundar Pichai is busy figuring out how to turn hybrid work into work. “We are testing a hypothesis that a flexible work model will lead to greater productivity, collaboration, and well-being.”

Verizon is testing what it calls “Work Forward.” CEO Hans Vestberg sees hybrid work where everyone has “the best of the virtual world, [but can]... come into the office, meet colleagues, and work with them.”

Brian Chesky, CEO of Airbnb, asks, “If the office didn’t exist, would we invent it? [and] What would it be invented for?”

More enlightened organizations, led by more enlightened CEOs, see this as an opportunity. They know that figuring out hybrid work is the next battlefield in the war for talent.

That takes investment in six areas: leadership, technology, learning, onboarding, space, and culture.

First, invest in leadership.

What hasn’t changed? Leaders still have to lead people and manage work.

But work and people are now distributed. Work isn’t happening in a building; it’s happening across a network. Leaders don’t sit in corner offices; they are a cornerstone of their teams.

Without the bounds of an office, leaders must engage people, find ways to keep them productive, and align them against business goals.

There is some bad news in this.

“I was surprised how many high-potential leaders couldn’t figure this out.” That was from a conversation with a Chief People Officer at the height of the pandemic. The shell shock of a sudden switch to remote work left some leaders floundering. “But I was also surprised at how many people — ones I did not expect, stepped up — which means we got our leadership model wrong.”

That same transition is happening as we move to hybrid work.

Leading distributed teams is hard, which explains why over 80% of Chief Learning Officers view leadership as the most critical subject of 2022, outpacing hot topics like diversity, digital transformation, and change management.¹

Without skilled leadership, hybrid work won’t work.

Get a better tech stack.

We’re still saying, “you’re on mute” too much. 

This exemplifies three problems. First, the tech is still not foolproof. Second, it’s evolving rapidly. According to economist Nick Bloom, “the flow of new patents supporting work from home doubled within the first 18 months of the pandemic.” A portent of things to come. Third, we all have to get with the program — we are all our own tech support.

Technology won’t solve hybrid work, but it will make it better. 

A tech stack built for distributed work falls into a gap where the Chief Information Officer, HR’s head of Employee Experience, and the Chief Learning Officer have to come together. Their new mission is to create a working environment that securely enables distributed, asynchronous work, minimizes any learning curve, and maximizes productivity.

We will know the technology works once we don’t know it’s there.

Embrace lifelong learning.

When the work changes, we have to be ready. 

Digital Transformation. AI. Machine Learning. All code for the inevitable automation of work. During our lifetimes, our routine work will go away. Instead, we will learn new skills, prime among them: the ability to learn.

Learning is the best driver of great workplace culture.

Joe Dusing, Paylocity’s L&D head, understands why learning must be part of hybrid work: “It’s the difference between an employee staying or leaving your company. In today’s labor market, people want to know that development programs exist in an organization and if they don’t, that’s a red flag for them. New employees expect paths forward to both grow skills and further their careers.”²

Don’t wait for learning to come to you.

Leaders have to foster a culture of curiosity. Rewards come with fostering growth. It’s time to work with your HR and L&D partners to explore how to bring continuous learning opportunities to your team.

Create a learning environment where people can learn and grow.

Sort out onboarding.

There is no door to walk through on the first day.

We live in a strange world where a new hire will have no idea how tall their colleagues are for months. That adds to the usual onboarding headaches: getting an email address, passwords, access to the network, and finding a place to sit. Then, figuring out who’s who in the organization and where you can get a good lunch. For most of those — except lunch — there’s an answer.

After recruiting, there’s a logistical and human side to onboarding.

Chris Herd and Trey Bastian are the founders of Firstbase, a venture backed by Andreesen Horowitz. They tackle the logistical aspect of worker provisioning, providing a software service that helps companies track and manage the hardware that remote workers use. And it’s a hardware service that can pre-install software on hardware, ship it to employees, and provide remote IT support.

The first step of onboarding is complete: you have a laptop and a chair, and you’re comfortably plugged in. You even have some excellent company swag.

Now, the human side.

As all recruiters know, this is the handoff gap. It’s the gray area of onboarding that plagues or perfumes the process. Leaders step up, welcome new employees, and show them the ropes. 

Beth Veen, COO at Visible, sees onboarding as part of recruiting: “It begins the moment your business engages with a potential new team member. Those first impressions set the tone for who you are and what you stand for as an employer.”

“Pre-boarding is often overlooked and undervalued. Those days leading up to a new gig are full of promise and excitement, and your new company — not just your new boss — should be taking steps to fold you into the workplace culture and show you you're valued before day one.”

Once you’re in the door, it’s time to learn the ropes.

This is a return to what Rob Garlick,  Managing Director, Citi Global Insights, calls “Apprenticeship.” It’s one of the most demanding challenges of working in a distributed workforce. “The biggest challenge from hybrid [work] is apprenticeship, particularly for new employees. It’s something we need to lean into, not out.”

The great resignation means you have more new employees onboarding to your company than ever before. But unfortunately, when most organizations dig into their attrition numbers, their turnover rates are highest in low tenure employees.

Invest in onboarding to get it right.

Rethink the concept of space.

Office occupancy is converging on about 60% of pre-pandemic levels.³

Smart CFOs everywhere have harvested cost savings back to the business by reducing travel and real estate expenses. The clawback can be re-invested in other areas.

Dave Cairns, Senior Vice President, Office Leasing at CBRE Canada, believes that Real Estate (the function) needs to rethink Real Estate.

He notes that “Flex office is on fire right now.  The best square foot is the one a company DOES NOT lease!” This is what Cairns calls an “office in your pocket” — flexible leasing might be the way to go. 

Savvy businesspeople are rethinking the office's role.

Paul Stanton, Head of Strategy for Equiem, advocates the building of clubhouses (I don’t love that word, but I love the idea). 

According to Paul, “Clubhouses will be private employee amenities — private cafes to meet with coworkers; private libraries and quiet spaces to knock out presentations; private tapas bars to entertain clients — in buildings that provide companies the services and infrastructure to create them. Executives won’t have to think very hard about their attendance policy because employees will want to come.”

Some CEOs are embracing this move.

The days of office renovations from cubicles and carpets to open space and concrete are over. Hybrid work will require more than installing sleep pods and foosball tables.

The future office will be where teams want to get together when they need to get together.

Of course, culture.

Old-school CEOs find it difficult to disconnect “culture” from “office.”

The office is central, they claim, to culture. CEO Cathy Merrill wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post saying as much. Employees pushed back and walked off the job. Al Kelly, CEO of Visa, has gone on record saying, “face time is an essential prerequisite for fostering a strong company culture, advancing diversity efforts, and helping talent develop.”⁴

Not so fast.

“The data runs counter to the idea that always being in the office is the best way to foster culture,” says Brian Elliott, SVP at Slack and author of How the Future Works. “One way to think about culture is "sense of belonging" —  do people feel like they are part of a team? Our research shows that on issues like "sense of belonging," people working full time in the office have the lowest average scores. Giving people the flexibility to come together on the rhythms that work for their team is a far better way to create a sense of belonging than top-down mandates.”

Culture informs how we work. Leaders shape culture: a culture that can embrace psychological safety, learning and curiosity, agility, and digital transformation.

Intentional rituals can help reinforce “how we do things around here.” 

Rituals are like a drill an athlete uses to create muscle memory. Over time, these rituals create the collective habits and unwritten rules that underpin a culture. And, those rituals don’t need a place. 

Those rituals start at the team level.

They might be rituals that carry over, like daily stand-ups or win-loss interviews. They might be new — and needed — like the ritual of ending meetings early. They might be adapted for a hybrid world, like the ritual signaling of saying “good morning” via Slack channel rather than when you walk into the office.

Be careful what you build rituals around.

Everything signals, and it can unintentionally backfire on you. For example, trying to build a hybrid culture and overly celebrating the “office” part of the work, sending a signal that “you’re only working if you're in the office.”

Soon, just as Friday is just Friday, “hybrid work” will be work.

Gavin McMahon is a founder and Chief Content Officer for fassforward consulting group. He leads Learning Design and Product development across fassforward’s range of services. This crosses diverse topics, including Leadership, Culture, Decision-making, Information design, Storytelling, and Customer Experience. He is also a contributor to Forbes Business Council.

Eugene Yoon is a graphic designer and illustrator at fassforward. She is a crafter of Visual Logic. Eugene is multifaceted and works on various types of projects, including but not limited to product design, UX and web design, data visualization, print design, advertising, and presentation design.

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