In 2020, the global pandemic forced every single company in the world to make major changes to its operating structures and processes in a matter of weeks or months. It was a dramatic change and a challenging year, but technology companies, by and large, weathered the storm.
Many companies in traditional industries like banking, retail, travel and manufacturing are planning to go back to business as usual. This means daily commutes and employees in the office, five days a week. But technology companies that are small or mid-market are taking more measured steps. They recognize that the world has changed and wonder if this moment in time can help us build a better work architecture for the future.
Companies planning their future of work are considering three models: traditional, remote-first and hybrid. The traditional model is the one most familiar to us. It entails five (four if you’re lucky) days in a corporate headquarters or regional office. Historically, cities like San Francisco, New York and Boston have attracted talent and maintained their dominance because of network effects.
Mention remote-first companies, and people think of companies like Gitlab, Buffer, Automattic and Sketch. These companies hire people who can work from anywhere (that the company is legally allowed to employ), with teams possibly gathering a few times a year.
Finally, “hybrid work” is a newly coined term that is oft-used but poorly defined. This model runs the gamut from traditional to remote-first. Nobody has figured out how hybrid companies should work, and some believe it’s just a bridge to a remote-first world.
Many companies are certain they will stick to their traditional or remote-first models because their cultures are too deeply rooted in them. However, if your company is exploring the hybrid model, there are several key considerations. Spoiler alert: This is not a one-size-fits-all solution, but can help you align with what works best for your business.
Let’s get one thing out of the way: Your workplace model will be heavily influenced by your ability to attract or retain talent. Movable Ink noticed that 60 percent of new hires in the past year don’t live near its hubs in NYC and London. At tech companies, we use the term “product-market fit” to define the successful stage when a product meets the needs of a specific market. Similarly, we’re about to see a new concept emerge: “employee-workplace fit.”
Employees have particular needs or preferences, and the pandemic has created a unique marketplace of workplace models. A 40-something parent raising three kids in the suburbs will have different preferences than a 22-year-old college grad who needs training and wants to build a social life. The benefits of a hybrid workplace are myriad: It widens the talent pool beyond magnet cities and gives smaller companies a way to compete with large corporations, engages a diverse workforce that has chosen not to live in a magnet city, is more inclusive of employees trying to structure a workday, forces better playbooks for global expansion, orients companies to evaluate employees on outcomes rather than time in the office and decentralizes the risks surrounding a single geography. Employees today have unprecedented freedom of choice that should be recognized as we position our companies for success.
Exceptional people and HR and operations teams are necessary to build the new hybrid workplace. Their focus is on a people-centered operating system. We think about three key areas.
Goal Setting and Measurement
One of the big reasons managers aren’t comfortable with remote employees is the fear that people aren’t doing their work and that they won’t know if their direct reports are productive if they aren’t in the office. A Boston Consulting Group study of 12,000 professionals found that productivity during the pandemic remained the same or even improved slightly. Arguably, the real problem is that employees are working incredibly hard in areas that don’t move the needle. This can be demotivating for the employee and frustrating for the manager.
In a hybrid workplace, it becomes essential to focus on outcomes rather than activities. Most companies have leaned on the crutch of the office and failed to develop this muscle. Putting a goal-setting framework like OKRs (objectives and key results) in place aligns the organization, creates transparency about progress and motivates people to understand how their work connects to the company’s mission. It lets people better manage their time. It recognizes the star employees who make a significant impact over those who spend the most time in an office.
People Training and Enablement
Another concern is how to train new employees, especially if they have limited experience in the role. The traditional model requires new hires to learn things on the job by asking the people around them. This model has generally worked, but we never stopped to think about its limitations. Each manager may have developed his or her own custom onboarding and training, creating inconsistent learnings across the company.
The in-office model also fails when one has to think about hiring and ramping international hires. But guess what? Those new hires with zero work experience likely had a structured curriculum recently at university. A thorough and consistent onboarding plan and training department ensure that employees receive a consistent education about customers, products, and the business as a whole. This can be paired with more targeted apprenticeship and peer-based learning. If you don’t have onboarding and training teams at your company, you should look to invest here.
Culture and Relationship Building
The last concern is probably the biggest one. We are all worried that culture will suffer and our employees won’t forge relationships as easily. This is a legitimate issue, deserves the greatest thought, and is a challenge of the remote-first model. Be intentional about your time together in a shared workspace. The workspace is simply wherever a team assembles and could be your headquarters, a short-term co-working space, or even a hotel lobby when your team visits a client. If the bulk of your week is sitting in an office near co-workers, with headphones on, typing away, you’re just working in parallel.
Interactive work is different. It means we actively engage on a topic, brainstorm, whiteboard, pick up non-verbal cues and solve new problems. Conversations drift, and breakthroughs happen. A lot (but not all) of creative work requires interaction, and this is the kind of work that benefits the most from teams meeting in real life. By focusing in-person time on creative activities, we make it possible for execution work to be done wherever the employee sees fit. And yes, some may choose to do execution work in an office.
To make this work, functional teams will have to figure out the right cadence to get together in person and structure their time effectively. There is no one-size-fits-all model. Some teams will meet twice a week or bi-weekly, others will meet for a few days a month and still, others may only need a quarterly gathering as most of their work is execution-oriented or in the field. What is important is that each team comes away with a shared, detailed understanding of its work and makes measurable progress towards its goals. It’s also a chance to forge genuine relationships. We enjoy our work much more when we get to know the people with whom we work. Zoom and Slack, while excellent, can feel transactional. Making lunches, dinners, and other social events a part of these get-togethers helps build bonds.
None of this will be easy, but it’s essential, and there is no better time than now. Rethinking the workplace can remove the constraints of the past. Each of us has the opportunity to build a new work architecture that will scale our companies far into the future.