Lessons from the successful adopters of hybrid working

No one ever said that going hybrid would be easy. Those who’ve made a success of it so far have some hard-earned insights to offer firms still grappling with the transition
Man and woman in office with board full of postit notes behind them. Hybrid working

While hybrid working is hardly a ground-breaking concept, it’s still a relatively new alternative to the office-based nine-to-five structure that millions of enterprises have relied on for years.

Of course, the pandemic-enforced lockdowns gave the corporate world a taste of how it could work. Now that the Covid crisis is easing, many companies are converting to hybrid models. After all, in an era where workers have quit in their droves and firms are struggling to recruit and retain talent – finding ways to bolster staff satisfaction has become more important than ever to employers. 

Unsurprisingly, such arrangements are proving popular with employees. Glassdoor.com named ‘hybrid’ as its word of the year for 2021. The recruitment website revealed that users writing reviews of their former employers mentioned the word 1,290% more times that year than they’d done in 2020. 

Several prominent organisations have adopted hybrid working recently, including online writing assistant Grammarly, LinkedIn and the Bank of England, which is working towards a system whereby employees spend at least 40% of their time in the office from June. 

Grammarly, a business founded in 2009 by three Ukrainians, was valued at $13bn (£10.5bn) at the end of last year. The firm announced its move to what it calls a “remote-first” model in September 2021. Working from home (WFH) is the focus, with its offices in Kyiv, New York, San Francisco and Vancouver rebranded as “hubs” for face-to-face collaboration.

Writing on the Grammarly blog at the time, CEO Brad Hoover explained: “We believe this balanced approach gives our team members the best of both worlds: plenty of focus time as well as in-person collaboration that fosters trust, unlocks creativity and accelerates innovation.”

While some businesses sound as though they have hybrid working nailed, new adopters may be concerned about how making the move could have an impact in important areas such as productivity and morale. 

Jo Owen is the author of Smart Work: the ultimate handbook for remote and hybrid teams (Bloomsbury Business, 2021). His first advice to them is: “Don’t panic – everyone is figuring out how to make hybrid working work and everyone has teething problems. It’s natural.”

The weekly drumbeat of one-to-one check-ins is a key hybrid working ritual of ours

The Covid lockdowns gave many businesses an unexpected opportunity to sample remote working, given that they had little option but to try it. Organisations that had previously operated exclusively in the bricks-and-mortar workplace were forced to head online, with many soon realising that elements of WFH were actually more effective than their traditional processes. 

Software company Salesforce found that the number of time-consuming emails sent by its staff each week fell by nearly half, for instance, as its newly formed remote teams started using collaboration tools such as Slack instead.

Early in the pandemic, the firm introduced staff wellbeing surveys to help decision-makers “understand how our employees were feeling and address ‘pain points’ as we moved from our offices to our homes and then to reopening,” recalls Jenny Shiers, senior director of employee success at Salesforce UK. “We learnt that nearly half of our workforce wanted to come to the office only a few times a month, but also that 80% of employees wanted to maintain a connection to a physical space.”

Claire McCartney, senior policy adviser on resourcing and inclusion at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, concurs. She would advise any firm that has recently adopted hybrid working to go further and consider routinely seeking the views of all parties that could be affected by the move.

“The key is to obtain regular feedback and then update your approach to hybrid working based on that information,” McCartney says. “Gather it from your customers and clients as well. Check that they are all happy with arrangements and make any adjustments required.”

Similarly, it’s crucial to keep an open mind, particularly during those important early few months, says Lizzy Firmin, HR director at Essex law firm Ellisons Solicitors, which has successfully adopted hybrid working.

“Don’t set anything in stone. See how things go and keep talking to people about it,” she stresses. “If you need to make minor adjustments and/or give more clarity as you go, then do that. People like to have some guidance, but the key is to provide them with a framework without being too prescriptive.” 

Jen Scherler-Gormley, head of HR in the UK and Ireland for Cisco Systems, agrees that it’s important to be flexible and responsive when finding your feet. The tech conglomerate is a seasoned exponent of hybrid working, with half of its employees already operating remotely before the pandemic. 

“It’s all about the learning process,” she says. “You can’t just create a one-off perfect hybrid work model. Circumstances may change in a few weeks, months or years. Keep your approach flexible, not fixed.”

If you’ve found that cliques are starting to form in parts of the business because of its adoption of hybrid working, this may require some delicate management. Ill-feeling can arise between people who can work from home and those who can’t – or between those who want to and those who don’t. 

It can even be a point of generational conflict. A recent survey of 4,000 professionals published by recruiter Robert Walters has found that, while flexible working is important to people from gen Y, respondents from generations X and Z tend to be dismissive of millennials who are “playing the family or long-commute card too much”. 

“One of the big risks of hybrid working is the creation of two tribes that will despise each other,” Owen warns. 

But this risk can be managed. He recommends adopting a “middle-out approach. Let each team decide how they want to manage hybrid work. Trust your teams to make sensible decisions. Most will. This ensures that everyone is committed to the solution and it creates a level playing field where it matters most.”

Understanding what qualifies someone’s role for more or less time in the office is also important, as is relaying this clearly to your team.

“Organisations should create transparent policies and principles about eligibility for hybrid working,” McCartney says. “It won’t be possible to treat everyone the same way, but it is important to have some parity of opportunity when it comes to flexible working in general.”

She recommends that businesses consider hybrid working as “one of many” possible approaches. Time-flexibility options should be made available for employees who aren’t able to make the most of working from home. 

Whether your team is still testing out hybrid working or has been doing it for a while, maintaining a sense of community is essential. As Scherler-Gormley notes, “you can’t just assume that connections are happening organically”.

The key challenge for sustainability consultancy Evora Global has been “getting the balance right”, says its co-founder and MD, Chris Bennett. The business, which started developing its hybrid model after the UK’s final lockdown restrictions were relaxed, has entered the “extended roll-out” phase. 

“People like working from home, but relationships grow in the office,” Bennett says. “It’s where those incidental conversations happen that help teams to develop. I want my staff to feel they’re in the best possible place to be productive. Everyone is allowed to work from home, but many choose to come to the office. We have more than doubled our headcount during the pandemic, so we were meeting a lot of people for the first time when the office reopened.” 

Building a sense of camaraderie, especially between colleagues who haven’t met in the flesh, is likely to require more work than a management team might be used to in this respect. The opportunity to bump into someone in the kitchen or bicker over what to play on the office radio is almost non-existent, meaning that engineering opportunities for team connections might be required. 

“I think staff are happier with the hybrid approach when it comes to work/life balance,” Bennett says. “But, at a deeper and more subtle level, the forging of social bonds is slower.”

A global survey of professionals published in January by recruitment firm Robert Walters found that two-thirds of respondents were “highly likely” to leave their jobs in 2022 unless they received more face-to-face contact with their leaders. With this in mind, it’s vital that managers hold more meetings simply to ‘check in’ with each of their team members and see how they’re getting on. Such straightforward measures can help to alleviate problems ranging from career frustrations to feelings of loneliness.

Scherler-Gormley believes that the success of any hybrid organisation relies on flexible, empathetic leadership. 

“The best leaders will get closer to their team members and connect with them regularly,” she says. “The weekly drumbeat of one-to-one check-ins is a key hybrid working ritual of ours. Employees share what they loved and loathed about the previous week, what their priorities are for the coming week and what support they need. Listening to your teams and understanding them as individuals should be a priority in every organisation.”

HR chiefs should keep an eye out for line managers who are weak in these areas and act accordingly, Owen advises.

“Managing people remotely is far harder than it is in an office,” he explains. “The office is very forgiving of mediocre management. When your team is remote, managers must be more purposeful and deliberate in what they do. The skills bar has been raised – and only the best managers will survive.” 

Shiers believes that adopting a hybrid model makes it more important for an organisation to treat each employee as an individual. Employers should demonstrate their understanding that people will always want and need different things at various stages of their careers, no matter how they prefer to work. 

“We’re continuously listening and evolving to create a culture that prioritises wellness, flexibility and inclusivity,” Shiers says. “We are working to ensure that every employee can be the best version of themselves, regardless of their location. Their individualism needs to be celebrated.”