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February 14, 2022 6:35 AM EST

We’ve recently heard from leaders who are finding the coming return to office even messier than they anticipated.

Some share a set of core problems:

  • Employees don’t want to come back more than occasionally. They view working from home as an important benefit and feel their productivity during the pandemic supports their case for remaining fully remote, even if they could commute to the office. (And some have moved out of commuting range.)
  • The organizations have hired fully remote workers during the pandemic. This has allowed them to tap into more diverse and less competitive talent pools. But those new remote employees don’t intend to move to come into an office regularly.
  • Given these two factors, leaders are struggling to convincingly articulate what the purpose of an office is and why just part of their staff should be required to come in. Having an increasing number of permanently remote employees is complicating, because workers who do endure the hassle of commuting into the office will regularly find themselves sitting at their desks with headphones on logging into Zoom meetings with their remote colleagues. It undermines the leaders’ justification for any enforced hybrid or full-time in-office schedules.

In some places, this is now coming to a head as many offices remain ghost towns and the leadership’s anxiety and impulse to do something mount. “The biggest thing is companies want people to go back but don’t know how to do it,” says Larry Gadea, the CEO of Envoy, which makes office management software. One customer “told us if we could get [workers] in their office two times faster they would crash helicopters full of money through our window.”

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So now that many organizations are in this complicated situation, what’s the approach that’s most fair and most likely to succeed? (We’re assuming that “helicopters full of money” is not a research-supported best practice.)

The truth is that experts are divided. We remain in uncharted territory. But we spoke this week with some of the sharpest thinkers on these issues to get their advice.

Nicholas Bloom, a professor at Stanford Business School who has studied remote work for years, is skeptical of “mixed-mode” configurations, where some workers are remote and some are hybrid. “Imagine there’s 15 of us in a team—five are fully remote and 10 are hybrid and coming in three days a week for the hybrid—that’s incredibly frustrating,” says Bloom. “Every time you have a team meeting, you’re sitting on Zoom in the office with the five people that are remote, and it’s pretty obvious you’re going to get a two-tier system.”

Bloom advises:

  • Most companies should stick to a hybrid approach, with the standard being all workers coming into the office Tuesdays through Thursdays. Research suggests there’s little to no impact on productivity and culture, connection, and innovation improve with in-person time. Plus employees value such flexibility as the equivalent to an 8-10% pay increase.
  • With workers who have been hired remotely or have moved out of range of an office, “it’s a tricky issue.” One approach is to give them a certain amount of time to relocate to where they can be part of the hybrid schedule. Another is to grandfather them in and let them remain remote. That has the downside of the frustration and two-tier system and is likely to decrease their ability to get promoted because of proximity bias. “For grandfathered hires that are hired during the pandemic and are doing well and happy not getting promoted, I’d probably leave it as is,” says Bloom. “I wouldn’t hire anyone new into that position that’s fully remote.”
  • Some roles in “niche operations” like tech support, payroll processing, and editing could be fine to keep fully remote forever. Though that suggests to Bloom that they might possibly just as well be outsourced. And he says there is a legitimate question of whether fully remote is appropriate for certain industries like finance and tech. “If it were my firm, I’d be slightly nervous about taking a leap in the dark, but I’ll keep an open mind,” Bloom says.

Lynda Gratton, a professor at London Business School whose book Redesigning Work is coming out this spring, says companies need to focus on the different kinds of work employees do and which kinds benefit from being in an office. She also thinks mixed-mode approaches could potentially work for some organizations.

  • Gratton breaks down knowledge work into focused work, coordination work, and cooperative work. Focused work (eg writing a memo) and coordination work (eg project management or in-the-moment feedback) can be done remotely on your own. It’s cooperative work (eg working on a new client pitch or brainstorming a new product) that benefits from being in-office.
  • “You say, ‘Look, we want you to be in the office because we want you to cooperate with each other,’” says Gratton. “‘That means you’ve got to be seeing [each other] face-to-face.’” She says offices need redesigning to give employees better spaces to work with each other, rather than rows of open-plan-seating.
  • Gratton points to BT as a place where the mixed-mode approach has worked for years, saying the UK telecom company made an effort to make sure that promotion rates weren’t lower for fully remote workers. “If you enter into it in the spirit of experimentation, then you’ll see whether it works or not.”
  • There’s also money. “People are saying, ‘If I come back, I want to be paid more to come back because this is a benefit that you are taking away from me,’” says Gratton. “And I have no problem with that.” She points to pay increases at banks that want employees in-office full-time. Companies with a preference that workers be in the office all or most of the time might have to pay more to recruit and retain them, given flexible options offered by rival employers.

Katie Burke, chief people officer at HubSpot, believes that providing employees flexibility remains critical even amid reopening. The tech company—which has over 5,500 staff globally and has been experimenting with hybrid and remote work for months—generally isn’t requiring staff to be in-office and has embraced the multi-mode approach. Her advice for navigating the problems we started by outlining is essentially, don’t force it.

  • Employees prefer options as to where they work. Last December, HubSpot asked them to choose whether they primarily wanted in-person, flexible, or remote work for 2022. Some 52% prefer to work from home, with 12% in office, and 26% flexible hybrid. That compares to about 10% of its workforce being remote prior to the pandemic.
  • Companies should embrace flexibility, even if it’s more complicated. “The key for us is making sure employees know they don’t *have* to come back to anything, but if and when it’s safe to do so, we are excited to welcome them, whether it’s for daily work or just an occasional visit,” says Burke.
  • HubSpot’s strategy includes three Es: enablement, experimentation, and empathy.
  • Enablement involves equipping managers and workers with tools and support for hybrid, such as templates for 1:1 meetings and connectivity suggestions.
  • Experimentation includes virtual events, so that employees from different teams can get to know each other. It’s also a recognition that HubSpot won’t get everything right the first time, and approaches will need to evolve
  • Empathy includes special support for caregivers and employees of color, including training and encouraging managers to talk about their own experiences. “We need to infuse more flexibility in scheduling, location, and childcare arrangements to create room for more caretakers, women, returners to the workforce, and BIPOC leaders,” says Burke.
  • The company is tracking employee Net Promoter Scores and other data to understand where bias or inequities are impacting different groups of staff, including by where they’re working.

As we’ve written before, there’s an important diversity and inclusion dimension to these questions. Research indicates that workers of color are less likely than their white colleagues to see going into the office as a benefit—which Slack’s Future Forum attributes to less micro-aggression and code-switching when workers are remote. Organizations that are adamant about in-person requirements could face greater challenges recruiting and retaining BIPOC talent—and need to work actively to make offices more inclusive environments. (Some tips for that here.)

Overall, as you can see, the approaches to the current messiness differ significantly. It’s probably not any consolation that pretty much everyone agrees there needs to be an element of trial and error. But one important area of consensus is the need to clearly identify the type of work people can do best in an office—generally it involves collaboration and connection, the work Gratton calls “cooperative.” Then organizations need to explain that in a compelling way and to make sure offices are configured for such work.

Do you have feedback or related questions? Please share them by emailing us at hi@charterworks.com.

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