As vaccine levels rise steadily worldwide and economies begin to recover, one of the biggest challenges to our return to work management will be supporting the new hybrid workforce. The data points firmly to the fact that employers will need to continue managing remote teams. A survey of 30,000 people in 31 countries by Microsoft found that 70% would like hybrid or work from home options as part of their return to work expectations. Another study by Gartner found the figure of those who will work from home in some capacity jumped from 30% to 48% during the pandemic.
As the move to hybrid is now somewhat unavoidable, employers must prepare for this eventuality long before they begin their actual return to work endeavors. So, what’s the best way to accommodate this as part of your return to work management? The first step is to acknowledge the challenges of managing remote teams and plan for how you will tackle these as you plan a return to work.
Challenges of managing remote teams and hybrid workers
Before you begin to start managing hybrid teams, you will need to prepare for hybrid working in general. This includes:
- Recalibrating your office space: you may need to downsize and install a desk booking system for hybrid workers
- Figuring out which roles may be suitable for hybrid work: business and product development may be, but healthcare services and customer support may not
- Addressing disparities between employees: not every employee may have the space, job type, or childcare support needed for hybrid work
- Assessing potential security risks: you may need added protection for those likely to work occasionally in cafes or while traveling
Providing additional support for hybrid or work from home employees
According to Gartner, you may also want to specifically consider the increased need to provide equipment or resources for employees working at home. Supporting hybrid and work from home employees in your return to work management is not as simple as just allowing them to choose their working environment — it’s about creating that work environment for them. While most companies (70%) in the study allowed their staff to bring equipment home, fewer than 20% paid for internet usage, home phone usage, or office furniture. This could be a barrier to remote working for lower-income employees who wish to go hybrid.
How to manage return to work performance tracking
Managing hybrid and work from home teams will require management to rethink how work gets done. As The New York Times puts it, we need to stop thinking about time management and start thinking about ‘attention management.’
Focus on results, not hours
Now that managers will not necessarily have visibility on the hours that their employees work, it’s vital that for return to work management, they shift their attention to the more important measure — the amount of work their employees are getting done.
The overall trends reflect this. Gartner measured that over half of all employers (previously less than a third) now track the productivity of their employees. The most common ways to do this emerged as frequent manager-employee check-ins (61%) and virtual time tracking (18%).
Establish clear expectations
One of the biggest challenges of managing remote employees and virtual teams is the potential for miscommunication. A report by Gallup found that only about half of employees strongly agree that they know what is expected of them at work. It’s vital that managers communicate the biggest goals for the year, quarter, and month — not only at an individual level but at a team level. Managers can easily do this by creating and tracking OKRs at each of these levels.
Enable teams’ flexible working options
One of the advantages of an increase in flexible working is that it will enable employees to work at a time when they can get the best results. Your return to work management should address this for all employees. Not only will this better accommodate parents trying to juggle childcare schedules, but the CDC actually recommends that staggering start times could be much safer for those in-office. Ensure your employees know you trust them to work on their own schedule and still be productive.
Provide adequate opportunities for recognition
Fairness between at-home and in-office employees should be of huge importance when managing remote teams. According to the BBC, remote workers are, unfortunately, less likely to be promoted due to various factors, including lack of visibility and a misaligned view that in-office workers are working harder. Try to take the time to provide your remote workers with the same positive feedback you would if you were both in-office.
Managing return to work expectations and measuring productivity
Once management has built foundations that properly support hybrid and work from home employees and moved to measure productivity and not just time, what is the best way of actually monitoring this productivity? The Institute of Leadership and Management has the following recommendations:
Day-to-day return to work management for hybrid workers
- Put limitations on the use of email
- Keep meetings short and focused
- Encourage team members to develop relationships
- Check in on workload levels regularly
Structure for managing remote teams and hybrid workers
- Improve planning and time management to meet deadlines
- Develop collaborative and reward-focused management styles
- Be flexible when arranging meetings and respect home working arrangements
- Develop a vision for the team that links with the overall organization
- Ensure there’s a transparency of expectations for all team members
- Try to lead by example and trust your team to do a good job
Challenges managing remote teams with on-site or external responsibilities
As a survey by Slack confirmed, your ability to adopt hybrid or work from home options may, unfortunately, depend on your industry, role, or responsibilities. For instance, the industries least likely to suit long-term hybrid or work from home include healthcare services, customer support, media and communications, arts and design, and education. Your return to work guidelines should try to accommodate workers who are likely to have on-site or external responsibilities that cannot be completed at home and see if you can offer them any flexibility.
The Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM) recommends asking the following questions when figuring out your return to work management plan for hybrid workers:
- Why does this employee need to perform their work in the office?
- To what extent does this employee need to collaborate with others (and can this be done virtually)?
- To what extent does this employee need to exchange information rapidly?
- To what extent does this employee perform innovative tasks rather than transactional ones?
- How is this employee feeling about working from home versus in the office?
- Is this employee feeling disconnected or overwhelmed?
- Is this employee clear about the organization’s strategy and their role in this?
Even if an employee needs to be in the office most of the time, consider whether you might be able to offer a few work-from-home days a month or even once a week to handle the more administrative aspects of their job. You may also want to consider whether certain teams should be in the office on the same days for in-person meetings and which types of meetings are best to hold in person. Will there be days when all employees can work from home, such as Mondays or Fridays?
Return to work expectations: what does the ideal hybrid working week look like?
You might wonder if there is an ideal hybrid working schedule template you can start with to accommodate all this. According to workplace technology company Envoy, there are three ways to approach this:
- Cohort schedules in which groups of employees work particular days.
- Staggered schedules in which not every employee’s start and finish times overlap.
- Custom schedules in which managers set a schedule depending on the team’s need to be on-site that week, or employees choose their schedule.
A report by SHRM (which also found that hybrid work would become the norm by the end of 2021) found that 55% of employees intend to work from home three days a week, so this is a good place to start. However, your return to work management will need to take in your teams’ exact needs and concerns about whether they would prefer a full return or move to a hybrid or work from home model.