The corporate world is slowly adjusting to the new hybrid work model. With that came a series of unforeseen problems: Zoom fatigue. Weak etiquette. Great retirement. Office culture is in constant flux. Many executives wonder what successful hybrid workplace management looks like: how can we take care of our people? How can we remain meaningfully connected without being together? Who should be responsible for all changes?
Employers can no longer count on cool office space to define corporate culture. Instead, new or previously forgotten cultural elements become key to creating and maintaining a thriving hybrid work model. While we quickly learned that working ten hours a day on Zoom was unbearable, understanding what wasn’t working was the easy part. Now, as we prepare for future options, it is becoming clear that our “back to the office” plans will need to change once again. Hybrid work is not going anywhere.
Twitter was one of the first to hit the headlines for introducing a policy that employees can work from home “in perpetuity”. Facebook issued a similar statement. But the decision to permanently transition to hybrid work is difficult, and making adjustments to our ways of working has fallen to managers and human resources directors (CHROs), who have to improvise and CEOs have to implement. Managers were expected to ensure the physical and psychological safety of their employees, determine the best communication methods for employees suddenly removed, and create entirely new norms for maintaining day-to-day operations and building a culture.
As a strategic consultant, I have spent countless hours working with HR directors and CEOs as they create new solutions to shape corporate culture in this new era. Several recurring lessons have been learned: an emphasis on employee-centric design, changing our digital behavior, and prioritizing physical and mental well-being.
As a rule, this work begins with careful listening to each member of the team. As Airbnb discussed returning to the office, they surveyed employees to find out their projections for the future of work and opinions on their potential return to the office policy. Among those currently working from home all or most of the time, 78% say they would like to continue doing so after the pandemic, compared with 64% in 2020, according to a February 2022 Pew Research Center study. . lost in the rigmarole of managerial decisions, it is the memory that these decisions affect people’s lives. When making important decisions, we must be sure that we hear the opinion of our people directly. That’s why Airbnb’s recently announced policy has been praised as a policy that puts people, and therefore the future of its business, first.
How do we gather the thoughts of our employees so that we can lead employee-centric design? Fortunately, there are many tools that allow us to communicate virtually and collect employee feedback. However, the point of implementing employee-centered design is more about as we use the tools at our disposal, not the tools themselves. If people feel out of touch while being remote, setting up a permanent anonymous Q+A company or a friendly Slack channel can help. In general, employee-centric design is all about meeting people where they are, not where we want them to be.
During the pandemic, technology has quickly become our lifeline for communication. On the other hand, this dependence on screens brought new problems. In darker moments, our devices seemed like a leash, chaining us to a workday that never ended. To alleviate those feelings, designing for moments of freedom can do wonders for well-being, productivity, and creativity.
At the enterprise level, greater reliance on technology also requires a thoughtful assessment of policies and behaviors. Prejudices that have existed in the past may intensify in a more digital work environment. According to a Stanford study, women with young children are almost 50% more likely to want to work from home full-time than men. This gets more complicated when you consider the fact that office workers are more likely to get promoted than WFH employees. If we become more aware of our digital behavior, it will help us eradicate prejudice and develop systems that allow us all to thrive.
I would say that the most important takeaway I have seen is that it is now the responsibility of the organization, and not a luxury, to prioritize the physical and mental well being of team members. There are obvious ways, like comprehensive medical benefits and mandatory paid leave, so people can take care of themselves. But these are starting points, not destinations. To promote true wellbeing, you must make sure you create space for psychological safety.
There are many tactics that can be used to combat toxic corporate culture. One candidly shares real life problems and everything else. The last two years have been incredibly traumatic. People lost family members, became full-fledged caregivers and simply could not continue to work the way they used to. Many felt the need to keep the chaos of real life a secret. They held meetings locked in a closet while their children played in another room. But what does hiding the messy reality of our hybrid work life actually do?
Our old ideas of professionalism—that people should never show off at work, that your boss should never know what’s going on in your personal life, that you should hide your pregnancy as long as possible—are no longer serving us. Now more than ever, people want to really see each other, especially their leaders.
However, it is not enough to simply speak openly about life’s difficulties. There should be a support policy. After years of collective grief, there is something powerful about improving bereavement leave and extending maternity leave to parental leave. Reddit is now offering miscarriage leave, and Starbucks has expanded its fertility benefits to be more inclusive. These things may take time and money to implement, but the result is a more open, joyful, and highly productive workplace.
Today we are inextricably linked with the places where we work. Our health care, our mental well-being, our family planning decisions, and our day-to-day joy are all directly linked to our employers. As I have seen firsthand, when employers truly care about their people and design them accordingly, employees, customers, communities, and companies can thrive in a hybrid world.