5 Times When Hybrid Employees Should Go Into The Office
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Hybrid employees don’t hate the office - they hate commuting, surveys show. For many employees, commuting takes over an hour per day and costs thousands of dollars per year. Peer-reviewed studies find clear associations between longer commute times and lower job satisfaction, increased stress, and poorer mental health.
Given that data, when I consult for organizations on determining hybrid work arrangements for their employees, a primary focus is making sure each office trip is worth the commute. We use data to determine what endeavors offer the best return-on-investment for in-office work. We then convey a commitment to employees to maximize the value of their time spent in office by bunching as many of these high value in-person activities together on office days.
Doing so helps improve hybrid employee retention, engagement, and morale while reducing burnout. After all, as a Flex Report by Flex Index shows, the fastest-growing companies are those offering more flexibility: that means you better have a good reason to ask employees to give up the flexibility of working from anywhere.
Below we explore what types of in-person activities and work generate the best ROI, so hybrid employees feel that commute trip was worth it!
What Kind of Work Should Hybrid Employees Do at the Office?
The large majority of hybrid employee time is spent on individual tasks, such as focused work and asynchronous collaboration. These activities are most productively done at home.
Being in the office is most valuable for high-impact, lower-duration activities that benefit from face-to-face interactions. Here are some examples:
Intense collaboration involves teams coming together in person to solve problems, make decisions, align on strategy, develop plans, and build consensus around implementing ideas they brainstormed remotely and asynchronously. Face-to-face interactions allow team members to observe each other’s body language, picking up on subtle cues like facial expressions, gestures, and posture that they may miss when communicating remotely. These nuances carry much more weight during intense collaborations.
In addition, in-person interactions facilitate empathy, which helps teammates build and maintain a sense of mutual trust and connection. Such bonds can be strained during intense collaboration, making it valuable to have intense collaboration take place in the office.
Finally, the office creates a context that facilitates collaboration through meeting rooms with whiteboards, easel pads, and other relevant tools. This collaboration-conducive setting takes employees out of their regular state of mind and helps them inhabit a different mental context, enabling them to switch gears and be more cooperative and inventive.
Any conversation that bears the potential for emotionality or conflict might be better handled in the office. It’s much easier to read and address other people’s emotions and manage any conflicts face-to-face, rather than by videoconference.
Conversations that have performance evaluation overtones should rightly occur in the office. These conversations might range from weekly 1-on-1 conversations between team members and team leads that assesses how the former performed for the last week and what they will do next week, to a quarterly or annual performance review. Similarly, it’s best to handle in-person any human resource concerns.
Another category of challenging conversations that belong in the office: conflicts that started remotely and couldn’t be settled there easily. My clients find that getting the antagonists to sit down and hash things out in person works wonders for the vast majority of disagreements.
Cultivating Team Belonging and Culture Connection
Our brains are not wired to connect and build relationships with people located in small squares on a videoconference call. They’re wired to be tribal and connect with our fellow tribe members in face-to-face settings. In-person presence thus offers an opportunity to build a sense of mutual trust and group belonging that’s much deeper than videoconference calls.
And let’s face it: Zoom happy hours are no fun, at least for the large majority of participants. While it’s possible to organize fun virtual events, it’s much easier to do such activities in person.
As a result – whether at the level of small teams, mid-size business units, or the organization as a whole – activities aimed at creating a sense of group cohesion and belonging are best done in person. These activities can be simple social events, or can be combined with intense collaboration in the form of strategic planning.
For example, one of my clients, the University of Southern California’s Information Sciences Institute, organized retreats at both group and division levels to facilitate both a sense of belonging and a stronger strategic alignment.
A survey by The Conference Board reveals the key role of professional development for employee retention. While online asynchronous or synchronous education may suffice for most content, face-to-face interactions are best for in-depth training. Being in-person allows trainees to engage with the trainer and their peers more effectively.
Physically present trainers can “read the room,” noticing and adjusting to 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 in-person learning facilitate a deeper and more focused level of engagement with materials.
Mentorship, Shadowing, and Real-Time Training
Particularly for junior staff, the office can provide an incredibly valuable venue for learning by osmosis and developing mentors.
When team members are in the office, it can be easier for mentors and supervisors to observe performance and provide immediate feedback and guidance.
Similarly, mentees and junior employees can ask questions and get answers in real time, which is at the heart of on-the-job training. It’s certainly possible to do so remotely, but it takes more organization and effort.
Mentorship and leadership development often require subtlety and nuance, navigating emotions and egos. Such navigation is much easier in person than remotely. Moreover, mentees need to develop a sense of real trust in the mentor to be vulnerable and reveal weakness. Being in person is best for cultivating such trust.
The best practice for hybrid work involves helping employees make the most of their time by asking them to come in only for high-value, face-to-face activities. These tasks include intense collaboration, challenging conversations, cultivating belonging, and professional development.
For most staff, the optimal amount of weekly time allocated to these activities ranges from 1-3 days per week. Junior staff requiring more on-the-job training and recently-promoted leaders may be on the high end of the range, while more established individual contributors might be on the low end of the range.
Indeed, one survey of 1,500 employees and 500 supervisors found that spending one day a week in office together provided an ideal balance of connection to colleagues with job satisfaction.
Beyond aligning office time with the right high value activities, leaders should invest in clear communication and feedback channels. That enables employees to share what’s working, what can be improved, and make any tweaks to improve the approach. Doing so will help facilitate employee buy-in and engagement, which will reduce burnout while improving retention, engagement, and morale.
About the Author
Dr. Gleb Tsipursky
CEO, Disaster Avoidance Experts
Dr. Gleb Tsipursky was lauded as “Office Whisperer” and “Hybrid Expert” by The New York Times for helping leaders use hybrid work to improve retention and productivity while cutting costs. He serves as the CEO of the future-of-work consultancy Disaster Avoidance Experts. A proud Ukrainian American, Dr. Gleb lives in Columbus, Ohio.
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