Twitter re-opened its corporate offices on March 15. Fellow technology giant Google will follow suit soon, with employees returning to Bay Area offices and other U.S. locations starting on April 4.
Despite how long it’s taken and the many stops and starts along the way, the move to open the office back up may in fact be the easy decision. Figuring out how to work together going forward will be more challenging to implement. In making the announcement, Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal said “distributed working will be much, much harder,” citing some of the challenges the company will need to overcome as they navigate their new dynamic, such as hybrid meetings.
Google, for its part, said the Mountain View, Calif.-based company expects workers to be in the office three days a week and have two days of remote work. That will make meetings and some workplace transition challenges simpler. Twitter is taking a softer approach, saying employees can continue to work remotely full time if they choose.
These two approaches to hybrid work, one requiring employees back in the office and the other allowing them to choose for themselves, highlight the divergence of opinion about office reopening and exactly how companies should approach the hybrid work era.
What’s the Right Re-opening Strategy?
Many employees want to return to the office in some capacity. A 2021 survey from Eden Workplace found that 85% of employees were looking forward to returning to the office. Socializing with coworkers, access to better equipment and getting out of the house were some of the reasons employees listed in favor of a return to the office environment.
But the question remains: Should employees be given the option to return or be forced to? According to Joe Du Bey, CEO of San Francisco-based Eden Workplace, both approaches could have benefits. A flexible policy like Twitter’s will be more well-received by employees and risks little attrition, at least to start, Du Bey said, while Google’s approach may seem riskier and may alienate some employees in the short term. It could end up being the more frequently adopted option, though.
“We may discover in time that those with a totally flexible office policy like Twitter risk having ‘zombie offices’ with just enough stragglers there to keep the lights on, but not enough people to create a positive experience for the majority,” Du Bey said.
Given that many employees want to return to the office to interact with their coworkers, the more flexible options may end up being the same as working remotely. If it ends up being a negative or neutral experience for employees the perception of a mandatory hybrid policy could change drastically as employees in the office demand a more vibrant setting.
Related Article: Is a Return to the Office Right for Your Company?
3 Approaches to Hybrid Work
While there’s one term for this mixture of remote and in-person work, what it actually looks like is variable. “Hybrid work just means there are options and flexibility, and that can look different for different organizations,” said Bart Waldeck, chief product and strategy officer at Dallas-based Tango Analytics, a software modeling platform for real estate and facilities management.
Each company will likely interpret hybrid work differently, but are generally three approaches:
1. Mandatory Days
The mandatory hybrid model Google plans to implement could prove beneficial, said Adam Crossling, marketing consultant at Warwick, England-based Zenzero, an which provides IT support to small- and medium-sized businesses. “Coming to the office for three out of five days is a great means to get back on track and gain some kind of normalcy in your life,” he said.
One of the drawbacks of remote work for some employees has been an inability to separate their work life and personal life. While more structure, this model still gives employees time back to maintain a healthy balance between their personal and professional lives, Crossling said.
2. Flexible Schedules
Another option is to implement flexible schedules, which Twitter is currently doing. This could also mean that employees come into the office and then leave once work is completed rather than being forced to stay until the end of the day.
3. Half and Half
Another option is a half-and-half approach. This leaves some of the decision making at the team level where most work gets done. There are no mandatory days across the company in this model, but specific teams or departments collectively decide to work in person occasionally to facilitate easier collaboration.
“Flexible hybrid at the company level, mandatory hybrid on the team level, which is the model we see across many startups these days,” said Du Bey, who also uses this approach at Eden Workplace.
Related Article: Is the Hybrid Work Model a Half Measure?
The Challenges of Distributed Working
Some of the reasoning behind a mandatory return to the office, even if it is part time, is that distributed working will be more challenging that in-office work. However, that may not be the case. Organizations have learned how to use tools meant for distributed teams over the last two years, and most companies will be fully equipped to handle the task.
“The technology we have at hand helps companies to manage distributed employees,” said Crossling.
Just as many companies got better at remote work as it accelerated in response to pandemic-driven office shutdowns, they are likely to get better at working in a hybrid environment over time with the tools available. In fact, they cold find that work could even become easier. “What we learned in the past two years is that distributed work has no impact on productivity, so it will become less challenging,” Waldeck said.
While productivity isn’t likely to be impacted by the shift to a hybrid model, there are other factors to consider, such as organizational culture and individual well-being. “People are social beings, and it is still important to be able to collaborate in-person with some frequency,” said Du Bey.
That means the end result may be less dependent on technology and more dependent on HR policies and workplace and team norms. Closely examining those factors in deciding how to approach office re-opening and hybrid work can help companies determine which approach is best for them.