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Master the Politics of the New Hybrid Office

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When Kristi Fox, chief HR officer of a financial-services firm in St. Paul, Minn., helped prepare the office for in-person work in May, she and her colleagues came up with the idea to offer free breakfast and lunch in their cafeteria on Mondays and Fridays to encourage attendance. So far, it’s working—but only on Mondays. “Not a chance for Fridays. No one wants to come into the office then, if they can help it,” she says.

Their office allows their staff of about 3,000 to come in any day or days of the week they want, without reservations, and about 17% have opted in so far. The most popular days are Mondays and Wednesdays, which Ms. Fox believes allows workers to transition more smoothly into the weekend.

Divvying up days and teams in the post-pandemic hybrid workplace can be complicated. For one thing, few people want to come in on a Friday. Both experts and those who have prototyped their own companies’ return-to-work plans say that, perhaps counterintuitively, structure can be your best friend: Mandating schedules is usually better than endless choices, and a clear, unified message to all employees is essential.

A McKinsey survey of 5,043 full-time employees around the world between December and January found that people had diverse work-from-home preferences. Nearly equal portions of those surveyed said they’d prefer zero days of remote work per week (17%), three days (22%) or five days (19%). This suggests many workers are flexible—but that can be an issue in itself.

“What makes hybrid work kind of interesting is that it’s the only kind of work we don’t know how to do,” says Ethan Bernstein, associate professor of management at Harvard Business School. “People mastered working from home. In-person is the way things were. But there are so many ways to get hybrid wrong.”

Many hybrid offices are asking certain teams to come back together on the same days so they can collaborate in person.


David Paul Morris/Bloomberg News

Hybrid workplaces should be mindful not to set schedules in a way that makes it harder to get work done, he says. “We should be optimizing not for personal preference of senior members, but collective needs of the organization and employees.” That means not just letting the C-suite pick their schedules first, but surveying your team first to gauge how people feel.

For instance, Snyk, a Boston-based cybersecurity company, has polled its employees since last fall about in-person work. Once the office reaches 75% capacity—it’s still at 25%—workers can choose between staying fully remote, getting a dedicated desk at the office, or a “flex” option that lets them reserve temporary desks at the office but work from home other days, says Diana Marchese, the company’s head of people experience. According to their surveys so far, the most popular option in the Boston office will be stipends for a combination of at-home work and a few days at reserved desks in the office.

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“For me, though, it’s a no-brainer: I picked the permanent desk option because I really value my own space,” Ms. Marchese says.

Alyson Watson, San Francisco-based founder of the startup Modern Health, says her company’s back-to-work plan, after much deliberation, is that everyone based in San Francisco will come in the same three days a week, Tuesday to Thursday, starting in September.

“We considered all options, including staying fully remote, which we ruled out pretty fast because we really missed in-person collaboration,” she says. But the fully optional model, where employees could pick whichever days they wanted, raised too many questions, she says. “Having some structure is a way of leveling the playing field.”

Their thinking, she explains, is that Mondays would be good for planning and Fridays for reflecting, and intensive teamwork would happen in the middle of the week.

“One-size-fits-all can make life a lot easier,” says Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, chief talent scientist at


a Milwaukee-based staffing firm. “When you give too much choice to employees, you can inadvertently create a two-tiered system. Despite best intentions, there will be rewards for people who come into the office at the right place and the right time, creating a sort of implicit or hidden bonus for showing up.”

He observed that allowing too much choice in return-to-work arrangements may inadvertently disincentivize women from opting for in-person work, since women often take on more domestic labor and child-rearing tasks at home.

“Measure who comes in, and how often, based on your current model. If women, minorities or people who commute [long distances] are less able to attend, you should change your policies,” Dr. Chamorro-Premuzic says.

Companies should also try to avoid hybrid meetings, he says. “If you have a meeting and half are in-person and half are Zooming in or dialing in, it’s a very unequal situation,” he says. Those in-person could continue to debrief after the call. “Look for measures that equalize, even if you’re trying to create flexibility.”

Many hybrid workplaces, especially those with hot-desking arrangements, have embraced “neighborhoods” where certain teams come into a certain part of the office on certain days. Dr. Bernstein of Harvard Business School says that companies can also experiment with project-based re-entry. “It’s often the case that a certain segment of the company is sprinting towards a certain goal, and it can be productive to bring them all in during that time, rather than get bogged down by a team-based schedule,” he says.

Finally, many companies are figuring out how to preserve the benefits of remote work for employees who are mandated to come back in, especially if their workforce is geographically scattered.

Ms. Watson at Modern Health recalls how much her team enjoyed getting quality time with their families or the opportunity to work from scenic locales last year. Even though she’s excited to get most of them back in the office, she didn’t want to create inequity between her Bay Area colleagues and those who can continue to work remotely. “So last week, we announced an additional policy that anyone based in the Bay Area can be fully remote any two months of the year,” she says. “There’s no silver bullet, but we’re trying our best to figure this out.”

Write to Krithika Varagur at [email protected]

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