Considerations for the return to work


A return to work is around the corner, but what will that look like? For many businesses, that will not mean “business as usual”. The adjustment to remote work has many people considering a hybrid workplace. However, hybrid work has become a blanket term used to meekly describe the dynamic that the future of work suggests. Hybridity in the workplace is much more than the location and time we work; it’s not that simple. The merging of in-person and virtual work will mean the emergence of completely new a paradigm for all workers. Just like we had to shift to different processes and systems for remote work in the virtual landscape, we must consider the full picture of what hybrid roles and hybrid workers will look like in order to be successful in a new kind of work environment.

First of all, returning to work in person is a question of who is comfortable doing so. While some people are eager to be back in a collaborative office space, others aren’t so ready for various reasons–be it health concerns, a preference for remote work, or a resistance to getting back into an in-person work routine. Make no mistake, getting back together face-to-face is going to be a transition. It won’t immediately revert back to how it used to be because too much has happened since then. We’ll have to readjust our schedules–like organizing care for kids and adding a commuting routine back in–and get reacquainted with social norms and behaviors that come with an in-person work environment. From seemingly little things like questioning, “Do I shake my co-workers’ hands?” to larger concerns about whether employees will start back full or part-time, returning to work will mean ironing out kinks and getting readjusted. You’ll also need to consider the configuration for your hybrid environment–will there be multiple offices? What does hybrid mean to your organization–does it mean Mondays and Fridays in the office and every other day remote? This transition will take time. 

As employees begin to reestablish patterns and norms, they will be faced with new and potentially unexpected thoughts and feelings. They may find this process difficult and unsettling. Make sure to listen to their needs and give them time to adapt. While many may be excited to rush back, we’ll need to support those that need more time. We also don’t want to rush into hasty decisions that don’t sere our long-term needs and unnecessarily alienate team members.

It is our responsibility as leaders to establish clear expectations and “new norms” while also holding space for team members’ needs so that everyone can transition as painlessly as possible. 

I was recently chatting with some of the facilitators in our community and they declared that there is no such thing as a hybrid workshop. Their point was that if you are seeking full and equal participation from everyone we need to ensure that the interface for everyone’s ideas has consistent and equal bandwidth. In order to do that, all of your in-person attendees need to join the virtual session individually, making them all virtual participants as well. 

There is currently no software specifically made for hybrid work; software that exists assumes for remote work. We will need tools and processes that not only seamlessly support the merging of productive in-person and virtual work, but that also make connection a priority. Perhaps the greatest challenge for remote teams is genuine connection. It’s the essential missing element of in-person connection that cannot be replaced by technology–no matter how innovative. There is no substitute for human interaction. That’s why many businesses are prioritizing physical togetherness for their employees even if they have the choice to remain fully remote. The value for connection–however you create and maintain it–is paramount to do meaningful work together. 

The word of hybrid also ushers in new concerns around co-location and who is actually in the room. Many workers have relocated during the pandemic and may no longer be near an office. What are the lines of collaboration that have been severed locally? Co-location will impact our design choices and skew our perspective. For example: When designing hybrid meetings, workshops, and other gatherings, there will be a natural pull to group co-located individuals during breakout sessions. While this may work out sometimes, we certainly shouldn’t take it for granted.

Do you see room for hybrid work within your organization? If so, how are you preparing for the shift in the workplace? If you decide to support a hybrid workplace, how will meetings work with some team members in a physical room and others dialing in virtually? What will you need to do to encourage equal connection amongst dispersed and in-person team members? How will hybrid work change talent acquisition? Will in-person team members have advantages or disadvantages that virtual workers won’t and visa versa? What technology needs to exist to fully support an effective hybrid work environment? The intricacies of a hybrid workplace are vast, but it’s a puzzle that can create a full, functional picture. 

If you are considering a hybrid work environment, keep this in mind: at the center of productive work is the people who make it happen. Keenly focusing on your team members and what they need to thrive is essential, especially in a hybrid environment. There is definitely no one-size-fits-all approach to getting the best performance from individuals and creating the best experience for them to succeed in. Learn your team members’ strengths and create opportunities for them to utilize them. One person may work best in person, while others may soar when they’re able to buckle down and hone in on their duties alone in their chosen workspace. It may seem like a game of Tetris at first, but leaning into the specific needs and preferences of your team, paralleled with how everyone can work best together, will create the most effective and inspiring work environment for all. 

It’s important to remember that we are entering a new age of experimentation. While it may seem familiar, this is new territory, so everyone will have a different perspective and approach. We must find what works best for our teams while also merging with the methods and preferences of other companies and people we work with. For example, I’ve recently been asked to facilitate a session where I’m remote and everyone else is in person. Each experience we have in the hybrid workspace will be a prototype to help us build new and innovative ways of collaborating. 

This transition will be interesting and we’ll all have to decide for ourselves and for the betterment of our teams which approaches, systems, and processes create the most advantageous results. Stay curious and stay safe.