Take the Lead: The Hybrid Workplace Is Here to Stay

Flexing new muscles to build and lead the hybrid office

By Aditi Malhotra

It has been a full three years since the COVID-19 pandemic put us all in lockdown mode. Jog your memory back to the time when social distancing and lockdown measures started emerging, and you may be able to pull out some strands of that email from your employer describing a new kind of workplace that would station you remotely. A year in, when restrictions pertaining to the lockdown started easing and shutters started lifting, the remote offering began transitioning into a hybrid option, with continued enthusiasm for flexibility in all its forms.

What does hybrid even mean? The word describes a combination of different elements, or of mixed character. In workplace semantics in the post-lockdown world, hybrid translates to a discussion on where we do our work. It’s a concept corporations and organizations are aspiring to create in which office workers have an understanding that a mixed bag of virtual and in-person work is the new face of the office. For sure, this is an important discussion.

But for leaders and managers working to realize this aspiration, it’s important to acknowledge that the concept of “hybrid” is as much old as it is new. Today, it has a brand value prompted by a public narrative around reshaping the office after a time lived in enforced lockdown. But if you’ve been in a meeting with colleagues in a room with a spider phone in the middle of the table connecting those of you in physical presence with those dialed in, that was your workplace inviting and executing a hybrid culture.

Still, the cue to reimagine the workplace in this new world has been a long time coming, says Jenni Field, founder and CEO of the global communications consultancy Redefining Communications. Field advises organizations in a variety of industries on communicating through circumstances of change. “The construct of the nine-to-five from Monday to Friday with retirement at 60 was in a very different world,” says Field. In that vein, organizational leaders and managers are looking at an overdue opportunity to evolve and redesign the place of work, as its concept intersects with changes in technology, globalization, women in the workplace, and shifts in family dynamics. Field, who herself has worked in a hybrid arrangement as a self-employed individual not bound by obligations to conduct and deliver work from a fixed office space, acknowledges the challenges that come with this opportunity for a flexible workplace design. In a recent Zoom interview from her home office, where Field sported a gray sweatshirt printed with the phrase “work from home,” she offered actionable information for organizational leaders and managers to consider as they flex new muscles to build and lead the hybrid workplace.

Be intentional about the work that’s happening on-site at the physical workplace.

For a long time before the pandemic, those in charge of designing the workplace depended on the incidental and accidental nature of people coming together in a physical office space to decide and influence processes and overall flow, says Field. For leaders and managers building teams from scratch in a hybrid arrangement, as well as those trying to move people into a mixed way of working, having intentional conversations with workers to gauge the rhythm of working is key. “Are there certain things people in a team need to get together for?” is an important question to ask and reflect on. “Is there agreement among members of a team on getting together, say, once a month, or once or twice a week?” is something to get consensus on. Ultimately, Field says, it’s a deliberate process to understand what’s needed to support workers in an efficient and productive way. She cautions against simply doing away with what had been the norm. What’s needed is some shifting because things have to be done differently, Field argues.

Prioritize social connection and communication.

Trust emerges when people spend time together in one another’s physical presence. This natural law of human interaction is something that organizational leaders and managers have the opportunity to prioritize in their plans to recalibrate the office space.

Chitchat in an elevator with a colleague; a post-meeting casual but much-needed debrief; reflections, small talk, and discussions—about personal and professional topics, or even weather and politics—over lunch have all fostered human connection in ways that physical workplaces have supported. Losing this pulse can be a big blow to an organization’s social capital, which is a measure of the community, collaboration, and camaraderie shared by the humans who make the organization’s culture. As leaders and managers, connecting people, creating time and opportunity for them to network and informally converse, is an exciting prospect. Does your team have a Slack channel? Have you tried setting up meetings where your team can drop in and engage in friendly banter? If your priority is flexibility that involves remote work, have you invested in bringing people together for a face-to-face interaction?

Plan, test, and strengthen information technology infrastructure.

If the hybrid workplace is a long-term goal for an organization, then splitting time between the office and other locations is only one piece of the puzzle. People and processes are critical considerations, and so is the technology that can deliver a hassle-free, user-friendly, and inclusive work experience. Possible goals, ideally guided by experts, are to expand the capacity of devices; invest in internal tools that make digital collaboration fun, seamless, and simple; and emphasize cybersecurity in this transition. DW

Aditi Malhotra is an independent journalist who writes primarily about public health, education, and gender. 

Hybrid Work: The Perspective of Women of Color

The choice to work in a hybrid work arrangement, with the option to work from home, is a particular preference for at least one type of worker—the woman of color.

Why is that? Let’s unpack.

In early 2022, researchers at Future Forum—an independent research arm of Slack, a messaging app for business—said that their study of employee preferences for hybrid and remote versus in-office work found “alarming discrepancies in who is and who isn’t coming back into the office.” The research surveyed 10,737 knowledge workers in the United States, Australia, France, Germany, Japan, and the United Kingdom.

Eighty-six percent of Latinos and 81 percent of Asian American and Black respondents said they would prefer a hybrid or remote work arrangement, as compared with 75 percent of white respondents preferring hybrid or remote. The desire to work from home with schedule flexibility was especially strong among Black respondents. More of them had reported being interested in working full-time from home each quarter since May 2021. This was particularly true of Black women who were mothers.

More white workers than employees of color reported interest in returning full-time to the office. The research found that specifically in the United States, white knowledge workers were spending more time in the office by a significant margin—17 percentage points.

Mita Mallick leads the inclusion, equity, and impact initiative at a California-based technology company and also cohosts the Brown Table Talk podcast. She says a woman of color who reached out to her after going into the workplace for the first time since COVID-19 said she’d felt herself “shrinking” at the office.

“There were predominantly white men in the office that day,” Mallick says, “and she immediately went to the furthest corner to situate herself.” Mallick says this is not the first such experience she’s heard. And, she says, “as a woman of color, as an executive, I feel a bit of the same way.”

At the office, women of color, including Black women, frequently navigate microaggressions and overt discrimination. They move through many instances of seen and unseen demeaning and othering behavior that show up in full capacity at a workplace where few women of color are colleagues.

Turns out, the emotional toll required to be at the office is greater than the effort required to do the job itself. So much so, that some women leaders are stepping away from companies altogether because of their experience with belittling microaggressions, according to the most recent annual Women in the Workplace study from McKinsey and LeanIn.org that details challenges and opportunities for women in Corporate America.

In the 2022 edition of the report, women leaders emphasize that it is increasingly important to them that they work for companies that not just opt into, but prioritize flexibility, employee well-being, diversity, and inclusion.

Mallick shares the following tip for women of color who want their need for flexibility to be acknowledged and accepted at the workplace. “If you don’t like the current working arrangement, make the ask. Make the case. Renegotiate. You don’t know if your ask will be accommodated until you make it.”

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