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The coronavirus pandemic forced many employees to work from home for long periods of time. Organizations scrambled to make it possible, employees set up new home offices, and business boomed for programs like Zoom and Microsoft Teams. In the process, many organizations learned that remote working arrangements may be more possible than they previously thought. As society emerges from this pandemic the question becomes – what now? Do we go back to our old ways of doing things, or will we move forward with new ideas and new arrangements that make more sense for businesses and individuals alike?
I would like to argue that a hybrid work environment – one that combines remote work with in-person engagement – is an equitable and efficient model to consider moving forward. Workplaces that were able to continue their mission throughout the pandemic with just a few hiccups as they transitioned to online systems are prime candidates for this new working model.
A hybrid working model would take its cue from hybrid educational models which have been active for quite a long time. A cohort of learners comes together to get to know each other and form a bond; they then go their separate ways to accomplish work, sometimes checking in as small groups or working partners, then they come back together periodically as milestones arise. The in-person group time fosters relationships that are harder to establish remotely, but the remote time allows flexibility and independence in getting the work accomplished.
There are a number of benefits to a hybrid organizational structure – here are a few that I think offer the strongest argument for the arrangement moving forward.
Hybrid Offices decrease Overhead Costs
Educational institutions that operate on the hybrid model are often more nimble with less overheard. No longer is the huge campus green with its sprawling landscape and costly buildings the only way to go. Cohorts can meet in a variety of places without needing permanent campus buildings. They can even rotate their meeting spaces based on the needs of the project at hand or the locations of the students. Southern New Hampshire University has a remote campus in Vermont (where I had the privilege of teaching a few courses) that operates on this model. They offering on-demand cohorts where graduate courses in education are desired and use community-based meeting places to host weekend-long cohort gatherings. The staff is therefore able to operate out of a small 4 or 5 space office with no big classrooms that stay empty for long periods of time, no lawns to manicure, and no huge maintenance staff to pay.
Can a business operate this way? Why not, I ask? Why couldn’t a business have a central meeting place with enough offices for a few key staff and shared rotating offices for those who need them occasionally? Some firms have been operating like this for a while – take, for example, accounting firms where staff are often traveling and wouldn’t use an office more than a few days a month. Instead of holding an empty office for that person, there are a number of shared spaces that can be used on a rotating basis.
Hybrid Organizations can be more Nimble with Hires
In a recent conversation with the Chief Operating Officer at Seventh Generation, we were discussing the challenge of hiring diverse staff for an organization that is located in Vermont. Vermont’s largely white semi-rural population does not always offer the diverse candidate pool from which a large national business like that would like to draw.
But in a hybrid model, where most employees could work largely from remote locations, an organization like that immediately widens their candidate pool. Instead of asking everyone to move to Vermont or only choosing from candidates who are already here, they can draw from a national or even global candidate pool. And instead of needing a building where everyone can work, they can instead use their resources to fund employee gatherings on a quarterly basis. They can create community in-person, but accomplish work remotely.
The opposite is also true. A company that is based in a large city might pay exorbitant fees to have an office building that hosts all of their staff. If, however, they shift to a largely or even partially remote team, their need for office space is less and they can also recruit from all over the country. The wave of folks who moved from large cities to Vermont demonstrated during the pandemic demonstrated this possibility vividly. Those employees could move to a beautiful rural location and raise their kids in the Green Mountains while maintaining their jobs with big city firms.
Hybrid Organizations can Lesson their Environmental Footprint
Hosting 20 staff in an office impacts the environment in a few ways – one, the building in which you are hosting them requires heat, electricity, and waste removal; and two, the staff who work there likely all drive their cars or take some other form of transportation to get to work daily. The sudden decrease in air pollution in so many cities during the pandemic made this vividly clear. Fewer people traveling to offices means fewer cars, busses, and taxis on the road. In our house, we completely stopped using one of our cars 90% of the time.
By transitioning to a hybrid model, you save your employees the trip, and save the carbon emissions at the same time. Even if you gather all of your employees a few times a year and some of them have to fly to get to you, you will likely still come out ahead compared to daily commuting. Imagine if half of the offices that now require employees to commute changed that system? The impact would be felt around the world.
Hybrid Organizations benefit Families & Employees
Consider the time saved when an employee can skip a half hour commute each way every day of their working life. That is an hour that we can give back to families. By doing so, we equalize the playing field for more working parents and their kids. All of a sudden, mom can make it home in time to coach soccer practice and dad can cook dinner more often. Fewer parents have to choose between working full-time and spending time with their kids, and kids actually see what the working world looks like by watching their parents. And if a few loads of laundry get done between meetings or a staff person actually gets to go for a run, then everyone is healthier in the long-run. The balance is not easy, but the more it becomes the norm, the more families will learn to work from home efficiently and effectively.
Likewise, families will have more choice in where they want to live. Maybe their budget can go further in a smaller town not so close to a city, or they love the school system, or they want to raise chickens and live on a farm. They can do that now, because the length of their commute doesn’t have to be the number one priority.
Dare I claim that hybrid organizations could save rural communities that were suffering from out-migration to cities? That all depends on effective infrastructure and internet, but it sure had an impact on Vermont during the pandemic.
Making Hybrid Arrangements Work
Deciding to become a hybrid office is not as easy as simply telling folks they can keep working from home. To make this transition successful, organizations will need to examine their policies and make specific adjustments to ensure equity, productivity, and a successful working environment for all employees. Supervisors will have to consider policies and strategies for keeping in touch with employees, businesses will have to make choices about which technologies best serve their purposes, and individuals and families will have to determine whether the model is sustainable given their personal circumstances. We have to remember that internet connection strength varies, not all homes have good office spaces, and some employees need more hands-on support.
Likewise, my argument for a HYBRID organization requires creating regular spaces and times where all employees come together in productive, well-facilitated ways. Effective employee retreats, working conferences, and planning sessions becomes essential. I truly believe there is no substitute for team-building than in-person interaction, and that in-person meetings can be transformative if well-planned. Hence my argument for hybrid, rather than fully remote, organizations.
With careful thought, intentionality, and good planning, hybrid organizations can and will flourish over the next ten years, and I can’t wait to see how it changes our society for the better.
I also hope that my skills in facilitation and meeting planning can be even more useful as impactful gatherings rather than rote meetings-for-the-sake-of-meeting become even more of a necessity. Please get in touch if you want to discuss planning an effective gathering for your organization!