Getting Hybrid Return-to-Office Models Right

Getting Hybrid Return-to-Office Models Right


Getting Hybrid Return-to-Office Models Right

by Utsav Ratti
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Getting Hybrid Return-to-Office Models Right

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As organizations publish their plans for a return to the workplace, the failure of early policy implementations is already making itself felt in the trenches. Don’t take my word for it: review these well-researched articles by the Washington Post, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, and then read on.

Whilst decisions about Return-to-Office models were motivated by legitimate management concerns regarding the long-term impact on factors such as culture, performance and quality, poor implementations resulted in unintended consequences such as increased friction in team dynamics, decreased collaboration effectiveness and lowered productivity. The good news is that there are lessons to be learnt so that these failures don’t have to be yours.

Below are five considerations to structure more effective Return-to-Office policies and reflect on whether the benefits of a fully digital operating model are right for your organization.

Consideration #1

Favor purpose over preference: empower teams to own the outcome instead of burdening them with your opinions on where to get it done

Myth #1

Younger/new employees benefit from physical colocation with senior colleagues for learning

Pressure from certain quarters to bring everyone back to the office as soon as possible avoids an inconvenient truth: many roles and teams are simply doing better when not in an office. According to a Microsoft study, since the pandemic work-from-home culture set in team communications have increased using collaboration and chat tools. Slack published its own report and its survey of 9,000 knowledge workers in six countries across the globe cited remote work as a general net positive. Soundbites in defense of organizational culture are both understandable and at the same time ignore the fact that culture is constantly evolving.

Ask yourself if your policy choices are being guided by the preferences of a powerful few or whether the decisions are consistent with your organization’s purpose.

Consideration #2

Favor interactions over location: if a return to the office increases friction to get it done, postpone

Myth #2

Face-to-face time is crucial for team dynamics and cooperation

The parallel forces of the “return to work” movement and social distancing requirements have resulted in a meerkat office environment: occasionally, co-workers stand up and exchange a few words across the room, but most of the time is spent heads down on Zoom/Teams/Slack calls. Cafeterias remain shuttered and employees compensate with packed lunches from home or restaurant take-out that, bizarrely, mimics their isolated behavior at home. The Washington Post notes that for some it feels “100% pointless to be in person” due to the friction in team dynamics as a direct result of some working in the office yet socially distanced whilst others are working from home relatively unencumbered.

Such hybrid implementations certainly help to prop up the local economy – gas stations, public transportation systems, restaurants and coffee shops are all thrilled to welcome the return of the office worker bee – but is this helping your organization in any meaningful way? Ask yourself if your planned hybrid implementation will help or hurt team dynamics and cooperation.

Consideration #3

Favor collaboration over day counts: reimagine physical spaces and time in the office around collaboration and allow heads-down individual work to remain remote

Myth #3

Employees want to be back in the office (some do, more don’t)

Increasingly, policies are being expressed in terms of the number of days employees will spend in the office on the basis that they have voiced a desire to be back in the office for at least a few days a week. These expressions are seldom accompanied by rational explanations about why a day-based approach to in-office presence makes any sense. Such policies create a quandary for managers: they are easy to measure but challenging to implement without an adverse impact to collaboration when different team members choose to come in on different days. The Washington Post says that while some workers are returning to the office voluntarily, it’s no panacea: “It feels more like going to Starbucks and working there. You’re going to a shared place, but most of the people you’re working directly with aren’t there with you.”

Ask yourself if you are taking the time to reimagine your physical spaces in ways that enable effective collaboration, or simply perpetuating the isolation of virtual collaboration in rows of cubicles and individual offices? Are you structuring time spent in the office around activities that justify bringing everyone together or are you simply ticking a box to be perceived as giving employees what they think they want? And are you exploring novel ways such as Orbital’s technology to deliver in-office capabilities in a virtualized manner?

Consideration #4

Favor level playing fields over freedom of choice: ensure that tightly coupled teams come in on the same days and for collaboration purposes

Myth #4

Employees want freedom of choice

Flexible work-from-home policies make for great corporate PR – individuals work with their managers to pick the days of the week they’ll be in the office to meet the organization’s policy quota – but they can be counter-productive. When some team members are in the office whilst others are remote, team dynamics and productivity suffer because our technology is insufficiently advanced to make the experience seamless; few real-world office collaboration spaces have the technology to provide a remote employee with the same presence as someone who is physically in the room. Due to such audiovisual constraints, the tendency is for those in person to discount those who are remote. The New York Times notes that “even as the hybrid workplace reduces some longstanding barriers, it could introduce another type of inequality. Bias against remote workers could become a new obstacle to making workplaces more diverse and inclusive, say management experts and corporate executives themselves.”

In time we’ll have holographic projection capabilities on par with the imaginations of Isaac Asimov and George Lucas, but for the time being we need to contend with the fact a level playing field for all collaborators is essential to mitigate the limitations of present-day technology.

Consideration #5

Favor pay-for-performance over pay-for-location: side-step the damage that low-cost labor arbitrage will bring to your organization over the long term

Myth #5

If people want to work remotely, I don’t have to pay them as much

Geography as a component of determining compensation fails when the office can be anywhere. Nevertheless, some organizations are persisting inequity by offering employees an unfair choice: return to the office or accept a (typically downward) salary adjustment that will negate the quality-of-life improvements employees attained by moving to a lower cost location during the pandemic. Such low-cost labor arbitrage has a well-documented track record as a race to the bottom in the ongoing war for talent; instead of strengthening company culture and creating stability, such approaches promote a mercenary mentality. And why not? If companies choose to squeeze their employees, then they too should expect to be squeezed as the barrier to mobility shifts from being a physical to virtual one. According to the Wall Street Journal, “As more companies start to tackle these issues, they are looking for ways to measure the impacts of remote work pay and on upward mobility. Companies want to track whether face time influences salaries, and if it does, they want to know how to correct the situation.”

Ask yourself if you compensated your employees for the bumps in your revenue that their bumps in productivity have delivered as a direct result of working from home.


As you think about your own Return-to-Office journey, you will likely have different goals and needs than other organizations so there are no “best practices” to consider. Instead, consider what makes sense for your people and do that, even if it means bucking the trend. Your employees and your shareholders will thank you.

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