Opinions of contributing entrepreneurs are their own.
Hybrid workers don’t hate the office — they hate the commute, surveys show, because for many, the commute takes more than an hour a day and costs many thousands of dollars a year. And peer reviewed find studies clear associations between longer travel times and poorer job satisfaction, more stress and poorer mental health.
Given that data, when I consult for organizations to determine hybrid working arrangements for their employees, a primary consideration is minimizing staff travel time. That means using data-driven methods to determine which efforts offer the best return on investment for office work, making them worth the commute. We then develop a communication strategy to convey the value of these face-to-face tasks to hybrid employees, ensuring that they come to the office for such high-impact work activities. In turn, we are committed to minimizing their time in traffic by bundling together as many activities as possible that require face-to-face presence. This helps improve retention, engagement and morale of hybrid employees and reduce burnout.
What kind of work should hybrid employees do in the office?
The big majority of the hybrid worker’s time is spent on individual tasks, such as concentrated work, asynchronous communication and collaboration, and video conference meetings, which are most productively done at home. Employees absolutely do not have to come to the office for such activities. Still, the office remains a key driver of value for high-impact, shorter-duration activities that benefit from face-to-face interactions.
Intense collaboration means that teams come together in person to solve problems, make decisions, align strategy, develop plans and build consensus around the implementation of ideas they have developed. remotely and asynchronously brainstormed. Face-to-face interactions allow team members to observe each other’s body language and pick up on subtle cues such as facial expressions, gestures and posture that they may miss when communicating at a distance. These nuances carry much more weight during intense collaborations.
In addition, face-to-face interactions foster empathy, which helps teammates build and maintain a sense of mutual trust and connection. Such bonds can become strained during intense collaboration, making it valuable to have intense collaboration happen in the office.
Finally, the office creates a context that facilitates collaboration through meeting rooms with whiteboards, easel pads and other relevant tools. This collaborative attitude takes employees out of their normal routine mood and helps them live in a different mental context, allowing them to switch gears and be more cooperative and inventive.
Any conversation that involves the possibility of emotionality or conflict is best handled in the office. It is much easier to read and address other people’s emotions and manage any conflict face-to-face than via video conference.
That means that all conversations that have the undertone of performance evaluation should rightly take place in the office. The content may vary from weekly 1-on-1 conversations between team members and team leaders reviewing how the former performed last week and what they will do next week, to a quarterly or annual performance review. Likewise, it’s best to handle any human resources issues in person.
Another category of challenging conversations that belongs in the office: conflicts that originated at a distance and could not be resolved simply there. My clients find that for the vast majority of disagreements, it works wonders for the opponents to sit down and talk things out in person.
Cultivating team membership and organizational culture
Our brains are not wired connect and build relationships with people located in small squares on a video conference call, they are wired to be tribal and connect with our fellow tribesmen in face-to-face settings. So, face-to-face presence offers the opportunity to build a sense of mutual trust and group membership that goes much deeper than video conference calls.
And let’s face it: Zoom happy hours are no fun, at least for the vast majority of participants. While it is possible to organize fun virtual eventsit is much easier to do such activities in person.
As a result, face-to-face activities — whether small teams, medium-sized business units, or the organization as a whole — provide the opportunity to create a sense of group cohesion and belonging. They can involve simple socializing, but some are also combined with intense collaboration in the form of strategic planning. For example, one of my clientsthe Information Sciences Institute at the University of Southern California, hosted retreats at both the group and divisional levels to foster both a sense of belonging and stronger strategic alignment.
a questionnaire by The Conference Board reveals the key role of professional development in employee retention. While online asynchronous or synchronous teaching may be sufficient for most content, face-to-face interactions are best for in-depth training as learners can interact more effectively with the trainer and their peers.
Physically present trainers can “read the room”, notice and adjust student body language and emotions. Peer-to-peer learning, in turn, helps create a learning community that builds trust and promotes mutual understanding and retention of information among adult learners. And the physical props and spaces available for face-to-face learning facilitate a deeper and more focused level of engagement with materials.
Mentoring, leadership development and on-the-job training
Whether integrating junior staff and providing on-the-job training, mentoring and coaching current staff, or developing new leaders, the office provides a valuable venue for such informal professional development.
When 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.
Likewise, mentees and supervisees can ask questions and get answers in real time, which is at the heart of on-the-job training. Are certainly possible to do this remotely, but it takes more organization and effort.
Mentoring and leadership development often require subtlety and nuance, overcoming emotions and egos. Such navigation is much easier in person than at a distance. In addition, mentees must develop a sense of genuine trust in the mentor in order to be vulnerable and expose weaknesses. Being personal is best for cultivating such trust.
Spontaneity and weak connections
One of the main challenges in maintaining corporate culture for remote or hybrid workers is the reduction of cross-functional weak connections among the workforce. For example, research has shown that the number of new hires has dropped by 17% during the pandemic compared to pre-pandemic levels. Other research showed that staff working remotely during the pandemic lockdowns built closer intra-team ties with members of their own team, but their inter-team ties with those of other teams deteriorated. This loss of connection can negatively impact the company’s long-term success, as achieving organizational goals often requires cross-functional collaboration.
Such connections arise from spontaneous interactions in the cafeteria or during chit-chat after a cross-functional face-to-face meeting. These kinds of impromptu encounters can also help spark conversations that lead to innovations. And nevertheless organizations can replicate them to some extent, the office in remote environments provides a natural setting for such spontaneous interactions and their benefits.
The best practice for hybrid work involves helping employees reduce commutes by asking them to come in only for high-value, face-to-face activities. These tasks include intense collaboration, challenging conversations, cultivating togetherness, professional development, mentorship, and building weak connections.
For most employees, these activities should take up no more than one day a week; junior employees receiving on-the-job training and recently promoted leaders pursuing leadership development may need two or three days in the short term of several months. Indeed, one questionnaire of the 1,500 employees and 500 managers think that a schedule of one day a week offers the optimal balance between connection with colleagues and job satisfaction.
Leaders should also develop and implement a transparent communication policy to explain this approach to their employees, get their feedback and make any adjustments to improve this policy. Doing so facilitates employee acceptance and engagement with this new approach, reducing burnout and improving retention, engagement and morale.