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Hybrid workers don’t hate the office—they hate the commute, according to surveys, because for many the commute takes more than an hour a day and costs many thousands of dollars a year. And peer-reviewed research shows clear links between longer commute times and poorer job satisfaction, increased stress, and poorer mental health.
Given these figures, when I consult with organizations to identify hybrid work arrangements for their employees, the main goal is to minimize staff commuting time. This means using data-driven methods to determine what ventures provide the best return on investment in office work to make them worth the commute. We then develop a communication strategy to convey the value of these direct jobs to hybrid workers, so as to gain their support for coming to the office for such important work. In turn, we pass on the commitment to minimize the time spent in traffic jams by combining as many activities that require direct presence as possible. Doing so helps improve the retention, engagement and morale of hybrid employees while reducing burnout.
What kind of work should hybrid workers do in the office?
The vast majority of hybrid workers’ time is spent on individual tasks such as focused work, asynchronous communication and collaboration, and videoconferencing meetings that are most productively done at home. There is absolutely no need for employees to come to the office for such activities. Still, the office remains a key value driver for high-impact, shorter-duration activities that benefit from face-to-face interactions.
Intensive collaboration sees teams meet face-to-face to solve problems, make decisions, adjust strategy, develop plans, and build consensus around implementing ideas they’ve explored remotely and asynchronously. Face-to-face interactions allow team members to observe each other’s body language, picking up on subtle cues such as facial expressions, gestures and postures that they might miss while communicating remotely. These nuances carry much more weight during intense collaboration.
In addition, personal interactions facilitate empathy, which helps team members build and maintain a sense of mutual trust and connection. Such ties can be strained during intense collaboration, so it’s worth having intense collaboration in the office.
Finally, the office creates a context that facilitates collaboration with meeting rooms with whiteboards, easel pads and other appropriate tools. This collaborative environment takes employees out of their usual state of mind and helps them live in a different mental context, enabling them to shift gears and be more collaborative and inventive.
Any conversation that carries emotional or conflict potential is best conducted in the office. It is much easier to read and relate to other people’s emotions and manage any conflicts face to face than by video conferencing.
This means that any conversations that have undertones of performance appraisal should take place in the office. Content can range from weekly 1-on-1 conversations between team members and team leaders assessing how the former fared last week and what they will be doing next week, to a quarterly or annual performance review. Likewise, it is best to handle all human resources issues in person.
Another category of difficult conversations that fit the office: conflicts that started remotely and could not be easily resolved in the office. My clients find that for the vast majority of disagreements, getting antagonists to sit down and discuss matters in person works wonders.
Cultivating team affiliation and organizational culture
Our brains are not designed to connect and build relationships with people located in small squares during video conferences, they are programmed to be tribal and connect with other tribesmen in face-to-face settings. Thus, personal presence provides an opportunity to build a sense of mutual trust and belonging to a group that is much deeper than videoconferencing.
And let’s face it: Zoom’s happy hours aren’t fun, at least for the vast majority of attendees. While it is possible to organize fun virtual events, it is much easier to do such activities in person.
As a result, whether at the level of small teams, mid-sized business units, or the organization as a whole, in-person activities provide an opportunity to create a sense of cohesion and belonging to a group. They may involve simply socializing, but some also involve intense collaboration in the form of strategic planning. For example, one of my clients, the University of Southern California’s Information Science Institute, held retreats at both the group and departmental levels to foster both a sense of belonging and a stronger strategic fit.
A survey by The Conference Board reveals the critical role of professional development in employee retention. While asynchronous or synchronous online education can suffice for most content, face-to-face interactions are best for in-depth training as they allow participants to collaborate more effectively with the trainer and peers.
Physically present trainers can “read the room” by noticing and adapting to the body language and emotions expressed by trainees. In turn, peer-to-peer learning helps create a learning community that builds trust and facilitates mutual understanding and retention of information by adult learners. The physical props and spaces available for personal study facilitate a deeper and more focused level of engagement with the materials.
Mentoring, leadership development and on-the-job training
Whether it’s integrating younger employees and providing them with on-the-job training, mentoring and coaching existing employees, or developing new leaders, the office provides a valuable venue for such informal professional development.
If team members are in the office, mentors and supervisors can observe the performance of their mentees and supervisees and provide immediate feedback and guidance. This is much more difficult in remote settings.
Similarly, mentees and supervisees can ask questions and get answers in real time, which is the essence of on-the-job training. It can certainly be done remotely, but it takes more organization and effort.
Mentoring and leadership development often requires subtlety and nuance, navigating emotions and ego. Such navigation is much easier in person than remotely. Moreover, mentees need to develop a sense of true trust in the mentor in order to be sensitive and reveal weaknesses. Being in person is best for cultivating such trust.
Spontaneity and poor connections
One of the key challenges in maintaining a company culture for remote or hybrid workers is reducing poor cross-functional links between employees. For example, research has shown that the number of calls made by new hires fell by 17% during the pandemic compared to pre-pandemic levels. Other research has shown that employees who worked remotely during pandemic restrictions built closer intra-team ties with their own team members, but their cross-team ties with other teams deteriorated. This loss of connections can negatively impact the long-term success of the business, as achieving organizational goals often requires cross-functional collaboration.
Such connections develop from spontaneous interactions in the cafeteria or during a chat after an interdisciplinary face-to-face meeting. These types of spontaneous meetings can also spur conversations leading to innovation. And while organizations can replicate them in remote locations to some extent, the office provides a natural environment for such spontaneous interactions and their benefits.
The best practice for hybrid work is to help employees reduce their commute by asking them to only come to important, face-to-face activities. These tasks include intense collaboration, tough conversations, cultivating affiliation, professional development, mentoring, and building weak connections.
For most employees, these activities should not take more than one day a week; junior staff undergoing on-the-job training and recently promoted leaders receiving leadership development may require two or three days in the short term, lasting several months. Indeed, a survey of 1,500 employees and 500 supervisors found that scheduling one day a week provides the optimal balance between interacting with colleagues and job satisfaction.
Leaders must also develop and implement a transparent communication policy to explain this approach to their employees, get their feedback, and make any adjustments to improve the policy. This will help to more easily engage employees in this new approach, which will reduce burnout while improving retention, engagement and morale.