Want to roll out hybrid working? Eager to learn the pros and pitfalls? Scared what this could mean for employee wellbeing, or your firm’s future? Don’t fret. This step-by-step guide contains everything you need to know.
Flexible working is here to stay.
More than a short-lived sticking plaster, a hybrid system – that blends in-office and remote work – is popular with employers and staff alike. More than a third (37%) of companies say they’ll adopt a hybrid approach for good (up from 18%, pre-pandemic), with three-quarters of employees in favour.
As we write this (August 2021), virtually all Covid restrictions are gone in much of the western world, yet many employees remain in their remote cocoons. Over in Australia and New Zealand, on the other hand, homeworking – where possible – remains mandatory, as regions continue to battle against the Delta variant.
Things could still shift a bit, but one thing’s obvious: demand for a wholesale snapback to the old normal just isn’t there.
Yet that’s not to say shredding decades of workplace rules is easy or straightforward. Making hybrid work – in a way that empowers staff, and supports their mental wellbeing, while also improving business performance – requires a whole lot of thought, planning and, well, work.
Daunted? Don’t be. The point of this guide is to arm you with all the right knowledge, so you can commit to hybrid working – or not – with confidence.
Step one. Before you do anything, ask: does hybrid work for us?
Remote work’s not for everyone. And we don’t just mean Uber drivers or professional athletes.
WFH is well-liked among employees, and stripping out office-based distraction from the working day can spark newfound levels of productivity at some organisations. But that doesn’t mean hybrid’s right for your business. Depending on the industry, FaceTime will never triumph over actual, IRL face time.
Take Unmind, for example. Even way back in March 2020, when WFH became the norm, we knew we’d never be a fully remote business.
For many startups, it’s vital to have people in the room, and we’re no different. It’s unlikely we’d be the organisation we are today without that early energy, culture, and spirit. Don’t get us wrong, tech’s great (we’re a digital platform, don’t forget), but it’s also not always the answer.
At the same time, we know homeworking boasts various benefits (our remote work policy, that allowed Unminders to WFH one day a week, pre-dates the pandemic). So, while 100% remote will never be goer, a hybrid approach can work for us.
Sarah Margetson, Unmind’s Senior Operations Lead, says: “Understanding your own culture and knowing who you are as a business is really important. We knew at the start of the pandemic that a fully remote culture would emerge, but what we’ve learned is that it works when that’s the case from day one, and built from the ground up. What we and lots of other companies are going through – fully in-person to fully remote – that doesn’t really work.”
Take the step
Think back: was WFH a thing at your firm before Covid? What might be lost, or gained, if colleagues spend half the week (or more) sharing ideas on Slack and Zoom, not in an in-person meeting room?
All in-office, 100% remote, or a mix of the two – the ‘perfect’ solution is the one that suits your particular business.
Step two. Engage with your employees
The single biggest misstep for any organisation, right now? Telling staff what comes next, without consultation.
In February, Goldman Sachs CEO, David Solomon, branded remote work “an aberration that we are going to correct as soon as possible.” Given his firm posted $7 billion profit in the first quarter of 2021, there’s a teeny chance Solomon was dressing up his own opinion as fact.
It’s a risky business. Dictating terms to your workforce rarely boosts morale. Without speaking to employees, you won’t know their ideal setup (for instance, you might find most would prefer a full-time return to HQ), let alone make good on it.
Like we said in the first words of this guide: flexible working’s here to stay. If you decide staff want to scrap remote working (but don’t actually ask), don’t be shocked if some leave for rival firms – where a little freedom comes baked in.
Sarah Margetson, Unmind’s Senior Operations Lead, says: “Listen to your team, engage with your team, be super transparent the whole time. Tell them what you’re working on, tell them when you’re doing it, ask them questions and, ultimately, make sure you’re delivering a really clear plan.”
Take the step
There’s no such thing as too much. Have meetings (one-to-one, departmental, company-wide), request feedback, and send out anonymous surveys – and keep doing it – until you have a clear and vibrant picture of what staff want from the future of work.
Step three. Make a clear, informed plan
No one said mapping out a whole new way of working would be easy. You’re redefining your workers’ lives in the here and now – how much time they’ll spend commuting, in their home, seeing their kids etc – and creating a system that, done right, could last decades.
Put another way: careful planning is key.
Luckily, by this stage you’ll be bursting with info (having amassed the stockpile of materials outlined in Step 2), and ready to take action.
At Unmind, our approach was a working group (featuring the CEO, Head of People, Chief Content Officer and Senior Operations Lead) that transformed our own wealth of employee data into a tangible hybrid plan.
After three-months of fortnightly meetings, the result was How We Work Now – a manifesto for Unmind’s future.
Sarah Margetson, Unmind’s Senior Operations Lead, says: “We knew our hybrid plan would be more based on principles, values and culture than specific detail. We finished it in March, with a view to rolling it out in September, but it was always a balancing act – taking a value-driven and wellbeing-led approach, but doing it six-months in advance, so people had time to get their heads around it.”
Take the step
This is bigger than one person. Assemble a team (ideally, one that crosses departments and seniority) to pore over what you’ve learned from staff. Then, together, embark on the complex task that is finding a hybrid middle-ground.
Remember, this isn’t an exercise in making every person happy (some opinions will directly oppose), rather finding a strategy that works for colleagues and the company itself.
Step four. Don't forget: WFH was not created equal
Remote work is a paradox. It can democratise the workplace while, at the same time, make it less fair.
Many people find homeworking a joy. Some because it frees them from the high-priced, high-stress grind that is commuting. Others as they unlock peak focus at home. And then some adore WFH because their remote workspace is bigger than other workers’ entire homes. There’s nothing wrong with that as such, but when many (chances are, junior) staff put their shifts in from a single bed, you have to seriously question whether the pandemic really was a ‘leveller’ for the world’s workforce.
Sarah Margetson, Unmind’s Senior Operations Lead, says: “So it’s impossible to talk about hybrid without thinking about workforce demographics. For us, it was super anecdotal – we had people working from tiny bedrooms in a flat, and others who were managing a job and three kids. A real cornerstone of our hybrid work policy was that we’d always provide Monday to Friday office space for anyone who needs it.”
Take the step
Before rolling out any hybrid strategy, the very best employers will be aware of anything that could stop employees reaching their potential – whether that’s in-person or at home. This might be a lumbar-friendly chair, the offer of a fixed desk at HQ, or a weekly lunch budget – to ensure the lack of free snacks, when WFH, doesn’t whack them in the wallet.
Step five. Aim for flexibility with accountability
You’ve spoken to every staffer. Read a thousand survey responses. Chaired meetings. Your strategy is taking shape. What’s left? In short: the T&Cs.
Do you want total freedom – with staff choosing how, when and where they work (even if that’s late nights and weekends only)? A strict calendar of company-wide in-office and at-home days? A set of agreed ‘core hours’ to enable meetings and shared work, with everything else freeform jazz? This is why a comprehensive hybrid strategy needs loads of detail – the possibilities are near infinite.
At Unmind, we settled on a set of guidelines that combined principles with practicality. Each team – say marketing or design – has one in-office day each week, with the rest up to the individual. This means Unminders can work in the office full-time, at home four-days a week, or anything in between. Core hours weren’t necessary, as we learned some workers need to free themselves for the school run, while others thrive at night.
Sarah Margetson, Unmind’s Senior Operations Lead, says: “We committed to total flexibility, outside of the one team day. It is quite radical – doing whatever you want – but it’s about owning that. True flexibility is autonomy with radical accountability.”
Take the step
The prep work you’ve already done will help shape the balance of fixed rules and freedom. And when workers aren’t needed in-office, encourage transparency. This means meticulous iCals, up-to-the-minute Slack statuses, and detailed autoreplies. To be clear, this is not to keep tabs (see Step six), but to make teamwork and virtual meetings a breeze.
Step six. Trust your staff
In case it’s not obvious, a company culture built on surveillance doesn’t breed trust. Or job satisfaction. There’s a hefty line between accountability and outright snooping.
Asking staff to maintain a detailed calendar? Sure – this signals availability for meetings, or when they’re deep in work and should be left alone. Spying on workers, via their webcam, so you can quiz them about every second spent away from the keyboard? Less ‘the future’, more Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Elsewhere, don’t threaten staff with pay cuts, if they choose to WFH. Given remote work is shown to increase productivity, and makes for a longer work day (with employees using their own electricity, not yours), just be happy they’re not demanding a pay bump
Sarah Margetson, Unmind’s Senior Operations Lead, says: “Some organisations might not want to hear it, but you have to trust your people. Hybrid work policies massively rely on everyone all buying into it together, and trusting one another. If that’s not your culture, you’re going to have real problems. If the only way you can make it happen is by monitoring or tracking people, that is not a very mentally healthy way to work.”
Take the step
This one’s simple: embrace faith. If any one worker takes your trust for granted – pushing the policy’s boundaries, not hitting targets, or going off-grid without explanation – that’s different. Until then, believe staff will get it right, then wait for them to pay you back in hard work. After all, the system was built with their needs in mind.
Step seven. Learn and adapt as you go
Don’t forget, this is year zero of the big, hybrid experiment.
You can guess at what comes next – that’s what all your prep was for – but plans on paper and in practice are pretty different.
The only thing impossible to change is the way things were – the 9 to 5, Mon to Fri, commuter trains, water coolers and strip lighting. The key to flexible work is flexibility (who knew). This means everything can stay on the table, should you want it to. If something isn’t working, or employees raise concern, you can tweak your own strategy as you go.
Sarah Margetson, Unmind’s Senior Operations Lead, says: “A hybrid work policy is not as black and white as the vast majority of stuff you do in operations. There’s a weird feeling of knowing you’re at the forefront of something – we are deciding how people will work, potentially for the next 10 or 20 years. It’s important to find a balance – of finding best practice, while also being aware that hybrid work has only really existed for 12 months. We’re all still figuring it out.”
Take the step
Never stop talking to staff. If step two fuelled your hybrid strategy, this one keeps the tank topped up. Send out quarterly (monthly, even) surveys, talk about how hybrid’s working out in team meetings, and one-to-ones. If you measure it, you can manage it. And if you manage it, you can ensure your hybrid policy is not just up to date, but tuned to the needs of your own people.
Ready to take a proactive approach to employee mental wellbeing?
Get in touch today to speak with one of our workplace mental health specialists.