What Happens When We Come Back to the Office? Keys to a Better Hybrid Return

By Saydeah Howard

When I wrote “Forging a New Future: Post-Pandemic Transition Tips” back in May 2020, we didn’t yet realize that the conversation on returning to work had only just begun — and was premature. At the time, most companies had quickly pivoted to remote work with the hope that we’d be back to normal by fall. Now, a year into COVID-19 times, companies have mostly landed on what works in the short term, having made tweaks to now-functioning systems.

With the deployment of vaccines, and the reduction in new positive cases, the conversation of return to work has resurfaced, evolved, and accelerated. Companies are now debating a range of organizational options from “fully remote” to “hybrid” to a return to fulltime “in-office” work. If you are not already, now is the time to consider where your company falls on this spectrum — and to make informed, intentional choices about the system you create.

Early in the pandemic, a number of companies announced they were going to allow employees to work remotely forever, but most companies waited to solidify their long-term plans. In recent weeks we’ve seen a number of statements from organizations that clearly indicate hybrid work is gaining in popularity. For example, Salesforce recently announced that it would offer three ways of working for its employees: some will come into an office part-time (~3 days a week); some employees will be fully remote; and, the smallest group will report to the office every day.

Google, Facebook, and Microsoft have all recently shared their physical re-opening plans, which includes a small percentage of employees working in office, and then phasing in additional colleagues over time. Companies of all sizes need to think about what it will mean to work in a hybrid environment with some employees working onsite, while others are still in their home offices. Perhaps for a longer period of time than just the transition back.

Below, I’ve delineated a few key points for companies to consider as they move into a hybrid work environment. Think of it as a starter tool kit for executives and board members to help ensure a successful transition.

Take a 30,000-foot view

First, start by recognizing where you are in your company development. What size is your company? A partially-remote startup with less than 100 employees likely had an easier time adjusting to COVID-19 norms than an established, never-remote 5,000-person company. For the latter, they may have been able to make it work for the past year, but it was not ideal for their business. What lessons have you learned that you can now apply to your hybrid work environment?

What kind of workers do you have? Think through the different teams that make up your organization. Are they knowledge workers in expensive cities? Manufacturing talent in the Midwest? International customer support? Then ask if all those groups need to be in the same physical office all of the time, some of the time, or not at all. Be intentional as you create the in-office and remote schedules and thoughtful about which departments get to be where, when.

Conduct an internal audit

After getting an understanding of your organization, talk to your people. Do a survey of your employee population. Find out what’s worked and what has not in the past year. Recognize that a lot of employees are going to have anxiety about returning to a physical office, even if it’s only for three days a week, and even if there are fewer than 50% of the staff there. Be conscious that a return to hybrid work may not be easy for everyone and address the concerns before the doors are open. Listen to the feedback and revise your strategy accordingly.

Real estate

When moving to a hybrid model, you will need to rethink your company’s real estate footprint. Does your company still require 50,000 square feet in an expensive urban center or four or five smaller hubs in suburban locations? If everyone is no longer spending 9-to-5, Monday to Friday, in one location, you may need a smaller HQ, or additional offices in numerous cities so a dispersed workforce can hold team meetings at regional hubs. Make sure your real estate and facilities leaders are part of the conversation and sharing their expertise and insight.

As you think about real estate, do not forget that employees will need to be seamless in their home office and work office setups. How do you prepare physical spaces for multiple employees bringing different technology setups each day? How do you ensure that large meetings with participants onsite and remote work smoothly? Meetings are conducted differently in a world where everyone dials in from a different location. How will you make sure that the virtual participants are as engaged as those in the actual room?

Coordinating times and locations

If you are choosing hybrid, it is best to systematize the time individuals spend in office together. A drop-in space for hybrid workers is a wonderful idea, but to maximize utility and safety, there needs to be a system in place. Who will spend time there? When? For how long? Determine which groups need to regularly work together frequently, and which ones can function well with a bi-monthly meeting and more virtual interactions. How can you organize the time together to leverage productivity and engagement? One strategy is to organize by department — Monday for finance, Tuesday for engineering, etc. — but be cognizant if teams need to collaborate with other groups as well.

There are a number of new technology tools to help companies better manage hybrid work environments. If you need to limit the number of employees in certain locations based on local or state guidelines, a technology tool like Worksphere, Envoy, or Robin are worth considering, especially if contact tracing becomes necessary with potential virus exposures in the workplace.

Bring in your Board

Lastly, your board should be a part of this discussion. And if you’re on a company’s board of directors, you should be having this conversation with your CEO and the leadership team across functions. What is our unified approach to a post-vaccine world? What do we believe the future of work looks like? And, most importantly, what do we believe the future of work looks like for our organization?

Whatever option you choose — fully-remote, hybrid, or in-office — stop and make sure you are being intentional and thoughtful about it. Ask the questions now that will help your workforce and company be successful later.

Saydeah Howard is the Chief Talent Officer at IVP, a later-stage venture capital firm based in Menlo Park, CA.

Find more resources at ivp.com/covid