Despite what we’d all hoped would unfold this year, we are nowhere near the emergence of a “new normal” regarding where and how we work.

Don’t believe me?

All you have to do is a quick Google search to discover that there are just as many articles espousing the “death of the office” as there are the “death of remote work.”

The disruption to how we work that was unleashed by the pandemic rages on. And based on the media’s conflicting (and confusing) mix of headlines, it’s hard to get a handle on what’s actually going on.

Are most organizations really forcing employees back into the office against their will? Or are the days of commuting to an office in the past?

Neither. And both. It’s complicated.

Over the summer, I talked with over fifty HR and operational leaders to learn how their organizations navigated post-pandemic work.

What I learned is that for most of them, it’s still an evolving situation. Hardly anyone felt as if they had fully figured out what the path forward will look like.

Most were struggling to juggle the conflicting desires and preferences of executive leaders with those of employees while also trying to keep an eye on what serves the actual work being done most effectively.

Today, I’m going to share with you my biggest theme and observation based on these conversations, and it has to do with the hybrid work schedule.

Hybrid is the compromise nobody loves

By far, the most common post-pandemic workplace policy is the “hybrid” schedule. More specifically, the 3-2 or 2-3 hybrid policy where employees are asked to split days between working from the office and working remotely.

When asked how they decided on this schedule, there were two reasons shared:

  1. Compromise: It was a middle ground between what executives preferred (full-time back in the office) and what employees wanted (mostly working remotely).
  2. “Best” Practice: It seemed to be what most other companies were doing.

What I found most interesting, particularly for those in the compromise group, was that many feel nobody loves the compromise. Their perception is that people are just living with it for now because they think it’s the best they are going to get.

Why Hybrid is a Bad Idea

In one of my conversations, an HR leader shared with me the great lengths they had gone to in their “return to office” transition. They were seemingly doing all of the right things.

They surveyed employees about their preferences and perceptions. They were allowing a lot of time for employees to adjust to upcoming changes in their schedules.

In their case, they first went from fully remote to an option one day per week in the office. Then they required one day for a few months, then two for a few months, with the goal to eventually get to three days required in the office per week.

And they were even clear about why they asked employees to come back into the office. As a business that relies on creative collaboration, they were certain that sharing space was vital to their success.

They care about their people, and it shows in their approach.

But, she shared an interaction with an employee that highlights the real problem with hybrid schedules.

An employee stopped by her office one day to ask her this question about the new hybrid policy.

“So, do we need to get permission or use time off if we need to leave early on the days we work in the office?”

Before the pandemic at this organization, everyone worked in the office five days a week but knew they had the autonomy and trust to manage their time as it made sense. If they needed to pick up kids or go to a doctor’s appointment, they just made it work.

The employee perceived the new hybrid policy as a loss of that autonomy and trust. #fail

This highlights why most hybrid plans are a bad idea.

Hybrid plans are mostly focused on dictating to employees when and where they will work without consideration of the needs of the individual employee or the job.

This is the opposite of flexibility. And it’s not serving organizational performance or employee engagement.

It’s all about TRUST and DESIGN

In my conversations, there were some organizations that seemed to be thriving in this new, disrupted world of work. They were taking a different path than the “hybrid compromise.”

Of the organizations who are were thriving, they shared a couple of things in common and it had nothing to do with the type of schedule they had chosen. It wasn’t about a great remote work policy or a great return to office plan.

The two factors that differentiate thriving companies from those who (by their own admission) were struggling shouldn’t be too surprising.

1. Trust

These companies have demonstrated real trust in their managers and employees.

For example, one large engineering firm has pushed the decision about how and where teams work down to the manager level. Managers are encouraged to work with their teams to determine what works best for them. And it’s working. Their recent engagement survey shows them in the top tier compared with their peers.

The leaders I spoke with in thriving organizations expressed a common sentiment that they trust employees to determine the best way to get their work done. They trust in their employees’ commitment and desire to succeed. So, they don’t feel inclined to micro-manage how or where they work.

2. Design

The second thing I noticed about the thriving organizations is that they were very intentional in their approach to enabling and supporting employees in their work. While they might not have used the word “design,” that’s exactly what they were doing.

The first step of the design process is always discovery, to learn about the needs of whoever you are designing for. Without exception, these organizations put employee voices and needs at the center of their decision-making. In larger organizations, they included frequent surveys to gather feedback. In smaller organizations, employees and leaders were meeting to discuss solutions together.

One organization, a technology company, had identified that there are three kinds of work their employees do.

  1. Heads down – focus work
  2. Heads up – training, meetings, etc.
  3. Heads together – collaboration, creative

With this in mind, they begin redesigning office spaces to create areas that would be uniquely valuable for different kinds of work, particularly the Heads Together work.

Several organizations I spoke with have adopted a very different way of thinking about office space. They are designing spaces around the needs of the employee and the work with the goal that employees would choose to come to these spaces because they are so valuable.

One leader said they are working to “earn the commute” from employees. If their employees are going to go to the effort to come to the office, they want it to be more than worth it when they get there.

What to do now

Regardless of where your organization is today or how you got there, it’s not too late to learn from what’s working as you move forward.

And it starts with trust. If your leaders don’t trust employees, start there. If employees don’t feel trusted at work, it doesn’t matter where, when, or how you work. Trust is a necessary fuel for engagement and performance in any context.

If you fix your trust problems, you will be able to abandon your efforts to micromanage employee time through workplace policies like “hybrid.”

If you have trust, then you have the foundation to collaboratively design the right solution with your employees.

What I found in my conversations was that the “design” approach was different from one organization to the next. But the underlying intention was the same: optimize work for the needs of the employee, the needs of the role, and the needs of the organization.

These leaders are working to create win-win-win solutions. And they are doing it.

And there is no “one-size-fits-all.” Each organization and each team within the organization is different.

Regardless of where you organization finds itself today in this rapid evolution of work, you have the opporutnity help your organization thrive.

Start with trust, then focus on designing a work experience that cultivates employee performance and commitment.

Your employees will take care of the rest.


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Jason Lauritsen