The hybrid workplace: Benefits, challenges & strategies for companies
With more companies exploring hybrid workplace models, questions are emerging around how best to operationalize this workforce strategy — and what it means for the future of work. Here’s what you need to know to figure out if hybrid work is right for you.
Over the past year, COVID-19 forced businesses to adopt remote work — almost overnight, in some cases.
Now, as vaccination rates increase, many of those businesses are in the process of planning for how their employees will safely return to the office and how they’ll use workspaces that have been largely empty for the past 12 months. But what those workspaces look like and how businesses and people will use the office are in question.
According to research published earlier this year by PwC, less than one in five executives say they want to return to the office as it was pre-pandemic. In the same survey, 83% of employers say the shift to remote work because of COVID-19 has been successful for their company.
This is pushing many companies to explore a hybrid workplace model where employees are given the flexibility to work remotely or in the office.
But while the concept of hybrid work isn’t new, businesses are now confronting questions as they look to implement this workplace strategy. Key among them: How do you successfully operationalize hybrid work? Who should be in the office and when? And how will this impact office space needs — and office design — moving forward?
This article will address the following questions about hybrid workplace strategies:
The term hybrid workplace refers to a business model that facilitates both in-office and remote work for employees.
There are a number of ways companies can implement a hybrid workplace model. If a company has a remote work policy that allows employees to work from home as needed, that falls within the definition of a hybrid workplace.
More strictly defined, a hybrid workplace enables employees to use the office for work they cannot successfully do remotely. This primarily involves collaborative work with colleagues and in-person meetings — as well as some individually focused work, too.
This is pushing a number of companies to begin thinking more about how to support a hybrid arrangement — and what the implications of a hybrid work model will be on workplace policies, the employee experience, office design, office occupancy rates and their real estate portfolios.
Critically, a hybrid workplace model is not one size fits all. An effective model takes into account the unique needs of its workforce. For one organization, this could mean that particular teams are always in the office and the rest only come in for company-wide meetings. For another, it could mean that each employee makes their own decision around when and where they want to work.
Regardless of the strategy an organization pursues, every company that adopts a hybrid work model needs to think through how they can intentionally and effectively balance in-person and remote work — and retrofit their offices to support the work their employees are most likely to do there.
Some organizations are already doing this. Rather than dedicating entire floors to seas of desks, these companies are optimizing their workspaces for the collaborative team projects and other use cases that require in-person work. This can involve adopting hot desking (or free address) workplace strategies, investing in meeting rooms and smaller huddle rooms, creating open collaboration zones for larger team projects and turning to activity-based working.
The Key Takeaway
Hybrid work offers employees the flexibility to work remote or in the office. With more companies exploring this workplace strategy, questions are arising about how best to successfully operationalize hybrid work. But regardless of how a hybrid workplace functions, the goal is to optimize for productivity and flexibility.
What is driving the adoption of the hybrid workplace model?
The COVID-19 pandemic may be accelerating the appetite for hybrid work, but some organizations were already exploring this workplace strategy well before the pandemic.
Over the past several years, two key factors have contributed to organizational interest in hybrid work include:
Improvements in technologies and workplace tools: Technology today allows employees to not only work from home but to work from anywhere without sacrificing productivity and connectivity. Tools such as Zoom, WebEx, Slack and Microsoft Teams have made working remote far easier — and far more productive.
Where remote work in the 1990s or early 2000s was hindered by technological constraints (emails, phones and slow residential internet connections), remote work today can lead to higher individual productivity rates — driven in large part due to fast residential internet connections and a plethora of tools and technologies that make connecting and collaborating with colleagues outside the office seamless.
More importantly, employees are already using many of these tools and technologies in the office. From leveraging chat applications like Slack to message a colleague several desks over to digitally collaborating on a shared document with tools such as Google Docs and Microsoft Office 365, employees in the office often already have everything they need to work remotely.
Speaking to Recode, Rob Osoria, a web developer, says, “Everyone who has to crack a laptop potentially has the freedom of working remotely.”
Increased demand for flexible work arrangements: Throughout the past decade, the has been a growing demand for flexible work arrangements from employees — fueled in large part by technology advances and a desire for greater work-life balance.
The key reasons? Tools such as Slack, email and Zoom. As useful as these tools are, they also mean most people are “always online” and finding themselves responding to emails in the morning and answering Slack messages at night. And when anyone can work remotely, the office becomes just another place where work gets done — and more specific work at that.
“When I do work in the office, it’s mostly about working with others and getting face-to-face time,” says Justin Winslow, a user interface and web developer in Austin, TX, who frequently works remotely to avoid a traffic-fueled, two-hour commute.
Even before COVID-19, some companies were actively responding to this evolving employee demand by offering their workforces greater flexibility to work in and outside the office.
Of course, COVID-19 is now the primary driver for many organizations that are exploring hybrid work — especially because this past year has largely dispelled myths around how remote work can reduce productivity (news flash: remote work doesn’t damage productivity).
But after a year where many knowledge workers have been unable to work in the office, companies are also contending with a demand from their employees to have a workspace.
But most employees still want to have the flexibility to work remotely for at least part of the week.
Knowing this, many companies are actively exploring hybrid work as a way to both give their employees the flexibility to continue working remotely — and satisfy the demand for an office setting when they need it.
The Key Takeaway
Before COVID-19, only 20% of office workershad the flexibility to work remotely before the coronavirus pandemic. Now, employees say losing the flexibility to work remotely is one of their biggest concerns about going back to the office, falling just behind potential health concerns. As companies consider a return-to-work plan, many are exploring hybrid work as a viable strategy to meet employee demands.
What are the benefits of a hybrid work environment?
As companies seek to satisfy the competing employee demands for the flexibility to continue working remotely while having an office to work from when they need it, many are turning to hybrid work models and asking a seemingly simple question: What benefits will the transition to hybrid work yield?
After speaking with industry thought leaders at CBRE, we have identified four big benefits behind hybrid work:
A hybrid workplace offers increased flexibility for employees: A hybrid work model takes into consideration employees’ desire and ability to work remotely. When working from home, employees do not spend time commuting. They put this time back into their work or spend it on personal activities, enabling an improved work-life balance — and higher productivity rates, too. Moreover, time spent in the office becomes much more intentional with employees heading into the workplace for specific reasons such as in-person meetings, working sessions and more.
A hybrid workplace can improve organizational productivity: When executed well, hybrid work has the potential to increase productivity. Employees can determine where they are most productive and dictate their work settings based on what they need to do.
For instance, a day of individually focused work might be best suited to working from home — and a day dedicated to collaborative group work might be best conducted at the office. This means office space is available for valuable, productive in-person meetings and work time. All in all, optimized performance and efficiency become measures of a successful hybrid workplace model.
Critically, the same technology that enables dispersed teams to collaborate and communicate also enables mixed groups of in-person and remote employees to work effectively together.
A hybrid workplace can help reduce real estate costs: When a company adopts a hybrid work model, they have the opportunity to rethink their real estate portfolios and explore ways to either reduce their physical footprint or augment it with flexible workspace offerings.
Simply put, if it’s not necessary to have office and desk space for every employee at all times, businesses can reduce their real estate holdings and optimize the space they do have for the work their employees will be doing in that space.
A hybrid workplace can lead to a more geographically dispersed workforce: Savvy businesses are almost always exploring new ways to tap into ancillary talent markets by growing their footprint. But with hybrid work, the ability to hire a more geographically diverse workforce becomes far easier and much less reliant on building out satellite offices for employees.
Said more simply: If remote work is built into the company culture and processes, open roles can be filled with the best talent, rather than the best talent within proximity to the office.
What are the challenges of implementing a hybrid work model?
For every benefit of hybrid work, there are still real-world challenges that many organizations are confronting as they seek to successfully operationalize it. Truly restructuring an organization around a thoughtful combination of in-person and remote engagement is a complex problem to solve.
Some common challenges include the following:
A hybrid work model can be difficult to successfully operationalize: When it comes to operationalizing a hybrid work model, many companies are now seeking to answer big questions. Key among them: What will office occupancy look like after adopting hybrid work? And how can organizations ensure the right people are in the office at the right time? For that matter, what will employees need most in the office?
A hybrid workplace can hurt company culture: While a physical building does not make a company culture, it can become more challenging to uphold a successful corporate culture across dispersed employees, teams, and offices. This is particularly true for younger professionals who often need time in the office to build relationships, learn company policies and grow their careers.
Organizations that are exploring hybrid work are facing questions about how to best retain and grow company cultures when their workforces are more dispersed. Some are mandating that senior managers and above must be in the office at least part of the week. Others are turning to technologies to ensure that connectivity between employees isn’t hindered by where they choose to work on a given day.
A hybrid workplace can lead to a disconnected workforce: While technology enables virtual interaction, it cannot fully replace an in-person conversation. Tools such as Zoom and Slack are well suited to more transactional interactions — but they don’t fully replicate the workplace experiences of engaging in organic conversation before or after a meeting or asking a colleague several desks down for help with a problem.
There are also concerns about meeting equity — or the idea that having if some people are working remotely during meetings, they’ll feel like they have less of a seat at the table. As companies move towards hybrid work, this is an area where investments in technology such as large displays and video conferencing equipment and effective workplace policies will be critical.
Moreover, an increased reliance on technology also carries security concerns — especially when the IT team doesn’t have access to a given employee’s home Wi-Fi network. If technology breaks or isn’t consistently used correctly, companies risk having employees feeling disconnected from each other and from the larger organization, as well as potential security threats.
A hybrid workplace can lead to hard-to-predict employee and office space needs: As companies explore hybrid work, many are asking seemingly straightforward questions: What will their employees need to stay connected and successful? What will those employees need most in the office? And what impact will having a portion of your workforce working remotely at least part of the time have on your real estate needs?
The answers will vary by organization. But a good way to avoid any significant challenges means involving employees in the conversation — through surveys, polls and other engagement tools. Certain teams may be better suited to be in the office more than others. But if your company often changes team structures or company priorities, those changes can also impact how and where employees work best.
How can a company adopt a hybrid workplace? 6 actionable strategies
For every company exploring hybrid work right now, there’s a basic question: What’s the best way to successfully operationalize a hybrid work model?
To that end, here are six actionable strategies companies should consider when making the transition to hybrid work:
Involve your employees in the conversation: A transition to hybrid work is more likely to be successful if your employees are involved in the process. Survey your workforce to understand their desire and use cases for in-office work and what they need to be supported in a hybrid environment. Their perspective can inform your decision-making process. Once a hybrid model has been implemented, observe how employees use the office space, collect data on what tools they adopt, and continue to get their feedback on possible improvements.
Review your real estate footprint: An advantage of the hybrid workplace model is that companies can become less reliant on traditional leases for large office space. There are a number of workplace strategies businesses can consider to reduce their physical footprint, while continuing to provide workspace for employees.
The hub-and-spoke modelis becoming more popular. With this approach, businesses set up smaller presences in urban “hubs” and suburban “spokes,” allowing for more flexible commute times and smaller office space commitments. Similarly, companies can consider the idea of a “third workplace” by compensating employees for memberships to coworking spaces that they can use in addition to their home and central offices.
Introduce new workplace policies: Don’t leave the adoption of hybrid work to chance. Clearly communicated policies are critical to ensure employees understand how a hybrid model works for them. Spend time thinking through policies and recommendations on in-person attendance, work hours, meeting etiquette, office space use cases, etc. Consider whether a policy can be adopted across your entire organization or if it should be specific to particular teams. Train people managers on new rules and procedures, so that they can communicate correctly with team members.
Reconfigure your office space: Office space should be built with productivity and collaboration in mind, while also reducing wasted space. Despite its long-standing role as a workplace design concept over the past several decades, activity-based working — or the idea that a workspace should be designed to cater to different modes of work — is generating fresh conversation among industry leaders and workplace designers. Create a variety of meeting areas and huddle rooms to support large and small teams. Invest in multi-use furniture and movable partitions and whiteboards to be able to adjust your office space set up as needed.
Invest in the right technology and security infrastructure: Technology can facilitate virtual collaboration and connect remote employees with those in an office. However, improperly set up tools and technology cause frustration and even security issues. From collaboration and meeting room reservation tools to high-speed internet connection and AV systems, technology underpins the hybrid workplace.
Manage cultural change: As mentioned, office space transition can impact a company’s culture. Using input from employees, evaluate how to keep your workforce connected to each other and to your company values and mission. Determine when virtual meetings should or should not supplant in-person events or town halls. Keeping existing celebrations and traditions alive helps provide continuity through change.
Take this with you
COVID-19 caused many businesses to reconsider their reliance on traditional office space set up. For many, remote work fostered productivity and provided some flexibility for employees. That being said, after a year at home, some employees are excited about returning to an office space that allows for more work/life separation and in-person engagement.
A thoughtful hybrid workplace approach can provide the best of both the remote and in-person worlds for organizations and their employees. The needs of each organization are unique and can be challenging to navigate. The payoff of improved productivity, happier employees and reduced real estate costs means that more businesses will consider whether a hybrid model can work for them.