Hybrid employees don’t hate the office — they hate commuting to it, surveys show, since commuting can take over an hour per day and cost several thousand dollars per year. Peer-reviewed studies find clear associations between longer commuting times and lower job satisfaction, increased stress, and poorer mental health.
Given that data, when I consult for organizations on determining hybrid employee work arrangements, a primary consideration involves minimizing staff commuting time. That means using data-driven methods to determine what endeavors offer the best return-on-investment for in-office work to make them worth the commute. Then, we develop a communication strategy to convey the value of these face-to-face tasks to hybrid employees, to get their buy-in on coming to the office for high-impact work pursuits. In turn, we convey a commitment to minimizing their time spent in traffic by bunching as many activities requiring face-to-face presence together as possible. Doing so helps improve hybrid employee retention, engagement, and morale while reducing burnout.
What kind of work should hybrid employees do at the office?
The large majority of hybrid employee time is spent on individual tasks, such as focused work, asynchronous communication and collaboration, and videoconference meetings, which are most productively done at home. There’s absolutely no need for employees to come to the office for such activities. Still, the office remains a key driver of value for high-impact, lower-duration activities that benefit from face-to-face interactions.
1. Intense collaboration
Intense collaboration involves teams coming together in person to solve problems, make decisions, align strategy, develop plans, and build consensus around implementing ideas they brainstormed remotely and asynchronously. Face-to-face interactions empower team members to observe each other’s body language, picking up on subtle cues like facial expressions, gestures, and posture they may miss when communicating remotely. These nuances carry much more weight during intense collaborations.
2. Challenging conversations
Any conversation that bears the potential for emotionality or conflict is best handled in the office. It’s much easier to read and address emotions and manage conflicts face-to-face, rather than by videoconference. That means any conversations that have performance evaluation overtones should rightly occur in the office. The content might range from weekly 1-on-1 conversations between team members and team leads that assesses performance for the past week and what they will do next week, to quarterly or annual performance reviews. Similarly, it’s best to handle in-person any human resource concerns.
3. Cultivating team belonging and organizational culture
Our brains are not wired to connect and build relationships with people located in small squares on a videoconference call, they’re wired to be tribal and connect with our fellow tribe members in face-to-face settings. In-person presence thus offers an opportunity to build a sense of mutual trust and group belonging that’s much deeper than videoconference calls. As a result — whether at the level of small teams, mid-size business units, or the organization as a whole — in-person activities offer the opportunity to create a sense of group cohesion and belonging.
4. In-depth training
A survey by The Conference Board reveals the key role of professional development for employee retention. While online asynchronous or synchronous education may suffice for most content, face-to-face interactions are best for in-depth training, by allowing trainees to engage with the trainer and their peers more effectively. Physically present trainers can “read the room,” noticing and adjusting to body language and emotions expressed by trainees. In turn, peer-to-peer learning helps create a learning community that builds trust and facilitates mutual understanding and retention of information by adult learners.
5. Mentoring, leadership development, and on-the-job training
Whether integrating junior staff and providing them with on-the-job training, mentoring and coaching current staff, or developing new leaders, the office provides a valuable venue for such informal professional development. If team members are in the office, mentors and supervisors can observe the performance of their mentees and supervisees, and provide immediate feedback and guidance. Doing so is much harder in remote settings and can result in biases.
Similarly, mentees and supervisees can ask questions and get answers in real time, which is at the heart of on-the-job training. It’s certainly possible to do so remotely, but it takes more organization and effort. Mentoring and leadership development often takes subtlety and nuance, navigating emotions and egos. Such navigation is much easier in person than remotely. Moreover, mentees need to develop a sense of real trust in the mentor to be vulnerable and reveal weakness. Being in person is best for cultivating such trust.
The best practice for hybrid work involves helping employees reduce commuting by asking them to come in to the office only for high-value face-to-face activities. These tasks include intense collaboration, challenging conversations, cultivating belonging, professional development, mentoring, and building weak connections.
Contributed to EO by Dr. Gleb Tsipursky, who helps leaders use hybrid work to improve retention and productivity while cutting costs. He serves as the CEO of the boutique future-of-work consultancy Disaster Avoidance Experts. He is the best-selling author of 7 books, including the global best-sellers Never Go With Your Gut: How Pioneering Leaders Make the Best Decisions and Avoid Business Disasters and The Blindspots Between Us: How to Overcome Unconscious Cognitive Bias and Build Better Relationships. His newest book is Leading Hybrid and Remote Teams: A Manual on Benchmarking to Best Practices for Competitive Advantage. His expertise comes from over 20 years of consulting, coaching, and speaking and training for Fortune 500 companies from Aflac to Xerox, and over 15 years in academia as a behavioral scientist at UNC-Chapel Hill and Ohio State. A proud Ukrainian American, Dr. Gleb lives in Columbus, Ohio.