When I write or speak about the future of work (which lately includes the hybrid model), I’m as guilty as anyone else of pointing to “best practices” or “best-in-class” strategies. You’ve probably heard me say things like, “the hybrid model will be the new norm,” or “here’s how you should respond to COVID-19.”
Of course, there’s a reason for this — it’s always helpful to examine how the most successful companies are adapting to the changing world of work. And if you’re a business leader, I know it’s highly beneficial to look at what others in your industry are doing to navigate through times of uncertainty.
But at the same time, over the past year and a half we’ve seen an immense shift in people’s perspectives on work. Not only are employees demanding a workplace experience that supports their holistic well-being, but they also expect to have a voice on workplace topics that affect them.
And this voice can vary widely. It reflects each employee’s unique preferences and needs, as well as the socio-demographic characteristics that define them as individuals. Not only that, it’s important to remember that the needs of your business also vary based on factors like your industry, geography, and unique customer base.
That’s why going forward, I believe it’s critical that business leaders reconsider how they use “best practices” when defining (or redefining) their workplace strategies. My suggestion? Think of these as recommendations or inspiration — but don’t look at them as a blueprint or one-size-fits-all instruction manual for how you should define the future of work for your company.
By taking this approach, you’ll be more likely to find the right solution that works for your business and your people. And you’ll also be leaving the door open for a more innovation solution, perhaps one that’s never been seen before.
The hybrid model — “best practice” or “inspiration only”?
Let’s look at the hybrid model as an example. So far, much of what has been written on this assumes that the majority of workers are desperate to continue working remotely in some capacity. We’ve probably all seen the news stories about companies like Twitter and more recently, PwC, who’ve announced that they’ll allow their employees to work from home forever.
At first glance, studies from most research organizations seem to confirm that remote or hybrid work arrangements are the way forward. For example, a recent study my company did with Kahoot! found that 78% of workers want to work remotely at least part of the time, with 24% preferring full-time remote work. Research from Gallup revealed similar results, finding that 69% of people want hybrid or remote work and 18% would like to work from home full-time.
These are impactful statistics, and there’s certainly something to be gleaned from them. But by no means do they tell the full story. If there’s one thing I know from leading 60 studies over the past 9 years, it’s that there are almost infinite layers of data to explore — and it’s impossible to share all of these when we report out on our findings.
What these studies — including my own! — often neglect to mention is how these findings differ when we drill down into the data cuts for age, gender, geography, industry, race or ethnicity, familial status, and many other variables including personality type. The differences we see are quite often statistically significant, but we simply don’t have the space to go into detail on all of them.
Here’s one example: let’s say your company’s workforce is largely comprised of staff members under the age of 25, also known as Gen Z. You may be surprised that rather than embrace remote work, many of these employees may entirely reject it in favor of a complete return to the office.
The reason for this is two-fold. For one, these young workers may have a living arrangement that isn’t conducive to working from home (think: multiple roommates or a tiny apartment). Secondly, they may be well-aware that they’ll be able to build a stronger network if they get facetime at the office — and that’s especially important when they’re just starting out in their careers.
These are important considerations that even the most comprehensive survey report may not delve into. However, if these types of workforce factors come into play at your organization, they’ll have a clear impact on whether the hybrid model will succeed or fail.
And that’s just one example. If there’s one thing that’s certain right now, it’s that the world of work as we know it is in a state of near-constant change. And that’s left many organizations grappling with how to address issues ranging from workplace safety and mental health, to race relations, the labor shortage, and more.
Rethinking your approach – focus on employee voice
So how should you tackle major workplace changes without relying exclusively on another company’s best practices?
First, it’s critical that you look to your staff for their input on what they need to be effective at work. That’s especially important right now, because the state of employee voice is far from ideal — perhaps even more so than you recognize. Research from my company and UKG discovered that 75% of people don’t feel heard on important workplace topics like benefits and safety, and 40% don’t feel their feedback leads to actionable change.
What’s even more concerning is that some employees are being heard more than others, and many people don’t feel they can freely express their input. In fact, an alarming 86% of employees feel people at their workplace are not heard fairly or equally. Meanwhile, over 1 out of 3 workers would rather look for a position on a different team or at a different company than share their views and concerns with management.
This means that not only do organizations need to put the proper feedback-gathering mechanisms in place, but they also need to reflect on whether they’re putting this feedback to use — or just wasting their employees’ time. Furthermore, businesses need to ensure that managers receive training on how to be more receptive and fair when it comes to receiving input from their teams.
Rethinking your approach – focus on your business needs
Learning how to listen to your workforce is key when determining whether a “best practice” truly makes sense for your business. But while employee voice is an important piece of the puzzle, there are other factors to consider as well — and these might lead your business down a path that seems to go against the norm.
I think this was well-illustrated in a recent article I came across on Bloomberg, which described some surprising survey findings from staffing agency Robert Half. In a survey from this summer, they found that just 13% of senior managers in Austin, Texas, preferred a hybrid work set-up for their company, the lowest among the 28 U.S. cities surveyed. Instead of adopting a hybrid approach, most firms said they were inclined to have their employees be either fully remote or fully onsite.
The researchers wondered why the interest in hybrid was so low, given the preponderance of technology companies in Austin and the progressive nature of the city and its residents. As it turns out, many companies in the city were already fully remote before the pandemic, so the hybrid model was never on their radar to begin with.
And what about the high percentage of managers who anticipated a full-time return to the office? It turns out there’s a logical reason behind this too. Thomas Vick, a regional director for Robert Half, noted that with Austin being an up-and-coming city, many companies have been investing in expensive new buildings. And so even though it goes against the hybrid trend, “they have buy-in from employees to go back on site because they have this luxurious new office to go to.”
Don’t limit yourself with “best practices”
The unusual situation in Austin illustrates how local circumstances and business conditions can override even the most dominant workplace trends. And there are many other factors that can influence what will or won’t work for your business — so do your own due diligence, including tapping into the voice of your employees, before you jump on any bandwagon. At the end of the day, every company and workforce is unique, and your approach to major workplace changes needs to take that into consideration.
I’d love to know your thoughts on this — is it time to rethink how we look at “best practices” in the workplace? Let me know in the comments on LinkedIn!