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As companies reopen their offices, they are deciding how the virtual work arrangements they’ve relied on during the pandemic will factor into their long-term plans — or not.
Google’s “flexible workweek” calls for employees to spend at least three days a week in the office and the rest at home. Microsoft’s “hybrid workplace” means most employees can spend up to half their time working remotely. Ford Motor’s “flexible hybrid work model” leaves it up to workers and their managers to decide how much time they need to spend in the office.
Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase don’t have names for their postpandemic policies, because they expect most employees to return to the office for most of the time. Goldman’s C.E.O., David Solomon, called working from home an “aberration,” and JPMorgan’s chief, Jamie Dimon, said it had “serious weaknesses.”
But many companies have hatched a postpandemic plan in which employees return to the office for some of the time while mixing in more work from home than before. The appeal of this compromise is clear: Employers hope to give employees the flexibility and focus that come from working at home without sacrificing the in-person connections of the office.
How, exactly, to strike this balance can be less obvious.
Should companies require employees to be in the office on certain days? For a set number of days each week? How should those in the office accommodate colleagues working remotely?
To help answer pressing questions like these, DealBook assembled advice from experts about where to start, how to avoid common pitfalls, and the most important things to consider when not everyone is working in the same place.
Where to start
Robert C. Pozen and
Mr. Pozen, a senior lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management, and Ms. Samuel, a technology researcher, are the authors of “Remote, Inc.: How to Thrive at Work … Wherever You Are.”
A review of the research on virtual teams comes up short on universal best practices for designing a hybrid office. But it does suggest certain factors that companies should focus on. We call these five factors FLOCS: function, location, organization, culture and schedule.
What is the function of each team member? A team that spends many hours on brainstorming or collaborative tasks needs more time at the workplace. By contrast, teams that do a lot of deep, focused work benefit from the relative quiet of home.
What is the location of each team member? Hiring in a single metropolitan area means you can join your teammates in a nearby office or meet up easily for one-on-one meetings. Conversely, there’s no point in making employees report to the nearest office if everyone they work with is in another city.
What is the structure of the organization? In a comparison of two accounting companies, researchers found that a flatter hierarchy helped facilitate virtual work, because remote workers didn’t feel too far from the center of the organization. Our own research also found a strong correlation between employee autonomy and productivity outside the office.
What is the culture of the company? Companies with an individualistic culture seem to make a smoother transition to virtual work; by contrast, companies that stress “us” over “me” have been slower to adopt online collaboration.
What is each team’s schedule? If schedules are similar and work is interdependent, it’s good to encourage everyone to work roughly at the same time. If employees live in different time zones, it’s better to set a few common windows for real-time communications like videoconferences, and let most other work unfold through email or document sharing.
These factors make it easier for managers to address the most common challenges faced by hybrid teams. Take communication barriers: What if half the team is in the office and the other half is dialing in from home? If their locations are dispersed (so the Zoom callers can’t make it into the office) and the organization is flat and decentralized, the company could use a buddy system to make each person in the room responsible for keeping one particular Zoom caller fully in the conversation. If the caller misses something, the in-room buddy can fill in that person via text chat; if the caller is being talked over, the in-room buddy can step in to ensure that the person is heard.
Another common dilemma is deciding exactly who will be in the office on which days. This is further complicated by a significant gap between executive and employee perspectives, with most executives feeling that company culture depends on people spending at least three days a week in the office and most employees saying they want to spend at least three days a week working remotely.
The answer begins with function: Who needs to work closely together to do jobs effectively? These people should spend the most time together. If their locations are close and the team is largely on the same schedule, interdependent team members can go to the office on the same two or three days a week, for the same set of hours. That also opens the door to significant savings on real estate by rotating different teams through the same space.
Similarly, this lens can deal with a typical problem among mostly remote employees: feeling second class, especially if other employees choose to be in the office every day. If employees will rarely be in the office because of location, and an organization is hierarchical in a way that emphasizes climbing the ladder, they may feel left out and worry that they’ll miss out on promotions. A team manager can help them by encouraging a schedule that lines up with the rest of the team and addressing cultural biases that exclude particular groups by going directly to remote employees with the latest news and job openings.
There is no single right way to design a hybrid workplace. But asking the right questions can help each team shape what we call the Goldilocks plan — with not too much or too little remote work.
Today in Business
Choice has a downside
Mr. Bloom is a professor of economics at Stanford University.
In monthly surveys about remote work that my research team has conducted since May, we’ve found that 30 percent of U.S. employees never want to return to working in the office, while 25 percent never want to spend another day working from home. Given such different views, it seems natural to let the workers choose. One manager told me: “I treat my team like adults. They get to decide when and where they work as long as they get their jobs done.”
But this approach raises two concerns. One is that it’s likely to result in “mixed mode,” the widely disliked situation when some people are at home and others are at the office, all appearing in one Zoom box in the conference room.
The second, less obvious concern is the risk to diversity. It turns out that who wants to work from home after the pandemic is not random. In our research we found that among college graduates with young children, women want to work from home full time almost 50 percent more often than men do.
This is problematic given evidence that working from home while your colleagues are in the office can hurt your chance of promotion. In a study I ran in China at a large multinational company, we randomly assigned volunteers to work remotely or remain in the office. Remote employees had a 50 percent lower rate of promotion after 21 months than their colleagues in the office.
Adding this up, you can see how the let-them-choose approach could lead to a diversity crisis: Single young men who generally opt to go into the office five days a week could rocket up the firm while employees with young children, particularly women, prefer to work from home and are held back.
Remote work can be a huge benefit for firms and employees, but should be centrally organized so everyone within the same team is in the office on the same days. This is how working from home will work out.
The elements of teamwork
To better understand how teams can best work together online and in person, the Harvard researchers Ashley Whillans, Leslie Perlow and Aurora Turek interviewed employees at a consulting firm as it adapted to remote work during the pandemic. The researchers used what they learned to define categories of team interactions, which companies can consider when deciding how to structure work — regardless of where it happens.
Content interactions: communication about tasks, such as sharing feedback while sitting side by side. When work went virtual, more of these interactions took place asynchronously, through digital work tools such as Slack. One manager said communication had improved because individuals had more time to think.
Bounce interactions: new idea generation, as with an impromptu whiteboard brainstorming session. In the virtual version, individuals often generated ideas on their own, and then they and others emailed them back and forth. That made it harder to align with others; some teams adjusted by moving brainstorming sessions to videoconferences.
Process interactions: defining and structuring work, such as check-in meetings. Without an option to drop by a colleague’s desk to ask a casual question, teams felt there should be more process conversations, but also that these chats could be exhausting. Some teams moved away from using video meetings to less-demanding communication tools like Slack.
Social interactions: getting to know one another, such as sharing meals when traveling together. Some teams experimented with virtual happy hours or dinners, but not everyone was interested in taking personal time to participate, and many saw these virtual events as less effective than in-person outings.
Huddle interactions: informal exchanges, like those that take place in a hallway between meetings or over coffee. These largely went away in the virtual environment, and managers became the primary conduit of all information. Some teams began scheduling time for informal conversations about work, such as sending a Google invite to debrief after a meeting.
Development interactions: mentorship and development feedback. While weekly meetings continued in the virtual workplace, informal feedback conversations stopped. One person suggested “sideways” feedback meetings, where all participants, regardless of position, give feedback to one another.
Ms. Perlow, one of the researchers leading the study, told DealBook that considering these categories while managing partly remote teams can “shine a light on the different aspects of teamwork that we need to make sure we’re solving for.”
“We used to be co-located, and that was one beast. Now we have 100 percent virtual, and that’s one beast. Hybrid is going to be its own beast,” Ms. Perlow said. “It’s not going to be just a little bit of each. It’s going to have its own core issues.”
What do you think? What’s the ideal mix between remote and office work? What’s lost when people work less in the office? What’s gained when they work more from home? Let us know: firstname.lastname@example.org.