Getting Hybrid Right: How to Design a Hybrid Workplace For Your Business

Article summary:

  • Law firm Hall & Wilcox gives us a nuanced example of how to transition to a hybrid workplace.
  • The first step is to determine whether continued remote working is right for your employees.
  • Prioritising compassionate leadership and open discourse is important for the entire journey.
  • The right home/office split might be different for individual employees.
  • When remote work is standard practice, the office must become a reinvented space.
  • To facilitate a truly seamless hybrid experience careful software and tech choices need to be made.
  • Performance management will require more frequent and structured feedback.
  • Maintaining a consistent organisational culture with a dispersed workforce will require new or reimagined rituals.
  • Remember that getting hybrid right must be an iterative process, expect to be making continual improvements!

Whether we asked for it or not, much of the world is now well acquainted with working remotely. However, as we open back up employers are faced with deciding when, how, and to what degree to return to in-person work. Many have realised the benefits of remote work are worth hanging onto – at least to some extent – so implementation of a hybrid workplace, which allows employees to work at home or remotely, as well as at an office, will be a change seen across many organisations in the following few months.  

We can all understand why employees want to continue some remote work going forward; the entirety of a person’s life is not their work, and often the personal aspects do not conform to a traditional 9 am – 5 pm day.  Even pre-pandemic, office jobs were slowly moving to a more flexible work structure. This shift coincides with a workforce that is made up of more millennials and working parents for whom flexibility is important. 

The trend towards flexibility has only grown after our forced period of remote work. Surveys of office workers and businesses are consistently showing the desire for a hybrid work structure post-COVID. For example, McKinsey’s comprehensive survey of over 5000 full-time corporate and government employees found that over 50% of respondents want to work from home at least 3 days a week.

Many businesses are taking these indicators seriously, for example, the Victorian Government has implemented a flexible work policy to give public servants some choice about when, where, and how they work. 

Bringing Hybrid to Life

Much has been written about hybrid workplaces, however, these are often generalised perspectives. Without clear examples of the kinds of difficulties that occur during the process of implementing a hybrid workplace, it is hard to effectively navigate the process in your own business. 

JOST & Co have recently worked with Australian law firm Hall & Wilcox in co-designing their hybrid work plan. While the challenges that they faced are specific to them, we believe that a realistic review of the difficulties and solutions that they arrived at, will provide an illuminating case study for others embarking on this process.

Is Hybrid Right for your Workforce?

The first step in this process must be to identify whether a hybrid model makes sense for your workforce. What did you do to meet COVID restrictions? Were these enforced periods of remote work sustainable? Do your employees want to retain some level of remote work going forward?

Of course, remote work is not possible for every job type, however, technology has made many things possible which would have seemed too difficult not long ago. For example, Linda Grattan, who leads the Future of Work Consortium, has seen jobs such as worksite inspection, a seemingly face-face-only job, transition to a remote one with the use of cameras and state-of-the-art digital tools.

As a law firm, Hall & Wilcox’s workforce consists of many job roles that can be done remotely at least some of the time. In recognition of this, the firm was already moving towards a more flexible work structure pre-pandemic, but the transition was accelerated by the necessity of remote work in 2020.

Communication is Key

Implementing a hybrid workplace is a fundamental change for an organisation. It is clear that change is most successfully implemented when leaders show compassion and engage in open consultation with their employees; everyone wants to feel that they matter and that they have some measure of control.

This should be an important aspect at every step of the process: active collaboration and input from the workforce itself, and communication from leadership. Ever heard of the relationship advice: don’t assume, ask? That works well in a business setting too and leads to the second important point: if you can’t read someone’s mind, they can’t read yours. 

In their survey, McKinsey also found that employees are feeling highly anxious about the lack of communication regarding post-pandemic work practices. Shockingly, 34% of respondents to their recent LinkedIn survey said their employers had offered no information in regards to policies about returning to work or whether continued remote work could be expected. 

Trust and cooperation come when employees feel that their leaders are being transparent and collaborative when they implement change. Although there may often be an urge not to communicate before decisions are solidified, this can have the opposite effect to what is envisioned; far from appearing disorganised, employees feel included and validated by the effort to be transparent.  

In deciding on their hybrid model, Hall & Wilcox built upon a culture of transparency by making great efforts to include all of their peoples’ preferences in the design process using surveys and focus group sessions. It was a truly Human Centred Design exercise.  In doing this, they found that preferences for in-person or remote work varied across the organisation. For example, younger and new employees generally wanted to have more in-person hours to network and learn, while more established employees and those with children, preferred more at-home days.

Facilitating hybrid work: The Practicalities

Home/office split

Once the preferences of employees are understood, the practicalities must be decided on. The first and most pressing decision is what expectations to set in regards to time split between offices and remote work. Should you trust employees to decide this themselves? What if individual managers set their own, conflicting expectations? Are there employees who would prefer a coworking space as their remote option, rather than working from home?

From their internal surveys, Hall & Wilcox identified some variation in preferences for in-person work. However, they also clearly saw employees did not want the option of a coworking space; if they were travelling to an office they’d rather it was the centralised CBD premises. 

Another consideration in deciding whether and how to split remote/office time is the effect on culture. Hall & Wilcox are a large law firm – 800 people across six offices – so maintaining a unified culture is a strong priority. With these two considerations in mind, they decided to set a simple expectation that employees should spend about half their time in the office. While this expectation is a clear one, over time they have found that across the company, teams are naturally meeting it, without the need for strong oversight.

In this case, a clear expectation for time allocation was deemed necessary, however, every workplace is different, with different job tasks, so each implementation will be unique.

What is the office for?

In a hybrid workplace, the office will generally take on a new or reenvisioned role that is able to meet more specialised needs. From their internal review, Hall & Wilcox found that in-person work is typically most useful for collaboration, team-building and client liaising, a characterisation that is often generalisable to many businesses. 

Although they are still defining remote versus in-office activities, the initial transition back to the office focused mostly on socialising and teambuilding. Working at home for a year has inevitably left a mental toll on teams, so focusing on rebuilding connections is important as a first step. Active work-related collaboration should follow naturally from there.  

Given that collaboration will likely be the main reason to be at work, office design must facilitate this. Multi-purpose space is a good way to best use the office footprint, and Hall & Wilcox had been transitioning to this over the last five years. These spaces are used for activities such as meeting clients, group work on cases and team-building exercises.

With this vision in mind Hall & Wilcox, like many businesses, are seeking out the most appropriate tenancy when their leases expire. Although staff are coming back to the office, initial attendance after restrictions were lifted, was slow. Good office design and location, which together can provide a seamless transition from commuting to the office, are important for enticing employees back to in-person work. On the amenities checklist for Hall & Wilcox are shower and kitchen facilities, as well as nearby amenities such as childcare, gyms, supermarkets, public transport and parking.  

To get the most out of multi-use spaces within the office, tools such as a booking system will be an essential practicality. Hall & Wilcox had implemented Office Maps before the pandemic, however, it became a vital tool for contact tracing purposes which saw its use increase. Moving forward it will be further enhanced and retained as the booking system of choice.

Software/Tech

One of the most important facilitators of remote work is appropriate software that can efficiently connect and integrate team members who are working from completely different locations. Identifying which software is most useful, and streamlining to remove outdated and unused software should be a central step in the hybrid work plan. 

Prior to the pandemic, Hall & Wilcox used an internal intranet together with Microsoft Yammer. However, they found that during the pandemic remote workers favoured faster methods of communication such as Zoom messaging. Moving forward they will prioritise Yammer as it provides conversation storage, allowing searchability for future references.

One difficulty that was identified with remote work during the pandemic, was work allocation. Initially, leaders found that the incidental way they had delegated in the past, based on physically seeing who in the office had time available and who didn’t, no longer worked. Instead, many team members were under-loaded, while the more senior staff had too much work. To combat this, they implemented Evenor as a way to ‘advertise’ tasks that could be taken on by anyone available.

Remote work set-up

As well as ensuring that office spaces are adequate, so too must the remote workspace be optimally equipped. Along with their established move towards flexible work, Hall & Wilcox had heavily invested in state-of-the-art technology for many years. All staff were entitled to a laptop and headphones in the office, but they added fully subsidised purchases of dual monitors and a keyboard and mouse for home offices (including back paying those who purchased items at the start of the pandemic). They also prioritised software solutions that seamlessly integrated remote work with in-office work; nothing is worse than when remote login is a slog. 

Productivity and Performance Management

One common reason that management and leadership might be hesitant to maintain some remote work, is the difficulty of managing productivity and performance. 

A strategy to deal with this is increasing the frequency of feedback. There is an obvious link between engagement level and feedback frequency; intuitively this makes sense. When you aren’t face-to-face you don’t get the body language and intonation cues that tell you whether someone is happy with your work, and there’s no opportunity for the type of incidental feedback that can happen in the hall or at lunch. In a hybrid environment, it’s important to make an active effort to give feedback on tasks to ensure that team members feel connected and that their work is valued.

Hall & Wilcox have seen how implementing frequent feedback in a remote-work setting can be difficult. Although they did try to facilitate feedback using the digital tool Fast Feedback, they haven’t seen great uptake so far. This is a good example of how change, particularly on the scale of moving to a hybrid workplace, takes time to get right. No plan can be effectively implemented overnight and continual reevaluation and finessing must be expected.

Productivity and employee well-being are also facilitated by psychological safety, which is the feeling that you can bring up issues without being punished or dismissed. In a hybrid work structure, psychological safety becomes trickier, as employees will need to discuss more personal issues that may impact their ability to work remotely. Therefore, it is essential that company culture works to generate a psychologically safe environment. This is most successfully achieved when leaders model openness for their team members rather than expecting it from staff. Hall & Wilcox have been fostering this with a focus on a top-down approach to openness, using regular meetings to discuss failings, triumphs and everything in-between. 

Culture

Finally, in a hybrid workplace, maintaining company culture can be a challenge. While in-person work allows for incidental interaction in high use areas such as lunch spaces and hallways, online socialisation requires facilitation. 

Hall & Wilcox tried to replicate the sort of daily interaction that you would get in an office with online coffee breaks within teams, as well as regular trivia in the evenings. Moving these rituals to an online setting worked well because attendees had typically built a relationship prior to the pandemic. However, incorporating new team members or starting entirely new teams in a hybrid workplace is best done in person. Onboarding activities will typically remain an in-person activity.  

In addition to this, Hall & Wilcox ensured that they built on their strong culture by involving everyone throughout the process. Once firm-wide hybrid working principles were agreed upon, team ‘Playbook’ workshops were facilitated with every team across the firm.  Recognising that each team (and individual) has different needs, these workshops encouraged teams to bring the hybrid working principles to life in a highly collaborative workshop where they agreed on team rituals, ways to recognise, develop, work with clients and collaborate across teams.  

Take-aways

Hall & Wilcox have not finished their transition to a hybrid model; it will be an iterative process, requiring careful reevaluation and adjustments along the way. For example, through ongoing evaluations, they have seen that the focus on equity, transparency and consultation were highly effective for uptake across the organisation as well as maintaining employee engagement. Leadership must now turn their focus towards ensuring that team leaders get the support and extra training they need to perform in the far more dynamic workspace of a hybrid model. This will include improving the evaluation of job roles and tasks, based on their suitability to in-person or remote work, allowing optimisation for individual team members, as well as the iteration of workflow procedures and systems that facilitate these tasks.

When thinking about your own hybrid workplace, remember that like the experience of Hall & Wilcox, it will be an ongoing implementation and reworking process, but prioritising transparency, collaboration, and compassion will ensure a smooth transition.