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The hybrid how-to: How leaders can embrace flexible working models

Hybrid, the "messy middle" of work models, can be more structured with company-level principles and guardrails

Posted June 15, 2021 by Helen Kupp

Reading time 13 min

This blog was co-written by Helen Kupp, Director at Future Forum by Slack, and Debbie Lovich, Managing Director and Senior Partner at Boston Consulting Group (BCG), with contributions from Future Forum executives.

The Boston Consulting Group has joined the Future Forum as a founding partner. For more information, please read this blog post about the partnership.


Now that offices have begun to reopen, the vast majority of companies are planning for a hybrid future. However, the term hybrid not only fails to capture the scope of change that’s both possible and needed, it also points to the “messy middle” of work models, where there is a greater risk of creating confusing or chaotic experiences for people unless some level of expectations and guardrails are in place.

Future Forum founding partners at Slack and BCG brought together a working group of senior executives across a range of Fortune 500 companies to solve for ways to successfully create sustained high-performance flexibility. Across all of our companies, there’s no “one size fits all” approach, especially because every company and every market is unique. But we’ve found common success in building executive alignment around principles that guide our teams and different guardrails that help bring those principles to life. This approach enables organizations to get started at scale with hybrid work but also leaves room for us to test and learn our way to a better future. 

“Change is happening 10x faster. How do we bottle that energy and use it effectively?”

headshot of Grace Zuncic at Chobani

Grace Zuncic
Chief People Officer, Chobani

“People are looking for both flexibility and trust—to believe that their leaders and the company trust that they can get the work done.”

head of Kelly Ann Doherty at Mr Cooper

Kelly Ann Doherty
Chief People Officer, Mr. Cooper

Engaged, diverse talent drives competitive advantage. The one common factor across every company involved was an understanding that we’re making these changes in order to attract, retain and engage talented people from a broader, more diverse talent pool. Broader geographies benefit recruiting: Dropbox saw its applicants rise 3x after shifting policies. Companies benefit not only from the ability to tap broader geographies but also from better outcomes and more innovation with diverse teams. 

Flexibility will be a core enabler and benefit. People’s expectations of the tradeoffs between home and work have changed, especially from groups like parents or caregivers, where 9 to 5 in offices hasn’t worked for a long time. The Future Forum Pulse recently surveyed more than 10,000 knowledge workers around the world and found that 76% want some form of flexibility where they work, while a stunning 93% want flexibility when they work. Flexibility is now a core benefit—it ranks second only to compensation among factors that employees value in their jobs. 

Future Forum Pulse, June 2021

With more than half (56%) of employees globally who would be open to a new opportunity, especially working mothers and Black employees, companies that offer flexibility will have a competitive advantage in attracting and retaining top, diverse talent.

Future Forum Pulse, June 2021

“A lot of policies and practices that were legacy to the organization can be reinvented with more diverse audiences in mind as we shift working models. The opposite is also true—if leaders don’t think through ways to ensure equitable experiences and opportunities across employees no matter where or when they work, the gulf between these populations will widen.”

headshot of Kevin Donahue at Management Leadership for Tomorrow

Kevin Donahue
VP of Strategy, Management Leadership for Tomorrow (MLT)

Perhaps even more important, leaders need to not only offer flexibility but also ensure that new flexible work models are adopted, or else they risk creating a second-class experience for their more distributed or remote employees. To do that, leaders need to establish principles to focus the organization on behavior change paired with guardrails to avoid creating inequitable experiences or opportunities. Principles and guardrails vary across companies, including our Future Forum executives, and need to be tailored to their business contexts. As a starting point, examples and ideas are included below.

Establish principles that guide your work and focus on behavior change 

Successful adoption of new work models requires being centered on the core principles that drive your culture as well as your business. Simple models, like how many days a week employees are expected to come into the office or a narrow focus on real estate strategy, only scratch the surface. Instead, focus on behavior and mindset change. 

“We’re much more focused on the nature of work and how work gets done. We have a spectrum of models from fully onsite to fully remote across different businesses and regions, which have provided conditions for different experiments. As we bring employees back to the office, we’re tracking behavior and seeing whether, when employees are allowed to go back to the office five days a week, if they actually do. We found they don’t.”

headshot of Helena Gottschling at RBC

Helena Gottschling
Chief HR Officer, Royal Bank of Canada (RBC)

We’ve taken a deep look at the different kinds of work we do and the resources and tools we need to be successful in a hybrid model. We’ve developed ‘archetypes,’ which provide a principled framework for grouping roles, and we’re using them to set the frequency of onsite work. Otherwise, it’s every manager making decisions on their own. Ultimately, we’re providing ‘freedom within a framework’ and having groups and teams define their own norms that consider team and individual needs and preferences.”

headshot of Kirsten Marriner at Clorox

Kirsten Marriner
Chief People and Corporate Affairs Officer, Clorox

“For now all we can do is to provide initial guidelines, but the equilibrium will depend on a bunch of parameters that will continue to evolve.”

headshot of Gianni Giacomelli at Genpact

Gianni Giacomelli
Chief Innovation Officer, Genpact

A few examples of principles that Future Forum executives are using to reshape their approach:

  • Provide flexibility and freedom for people to do their best work. Think beyond people’s ability to work from home a few days to what it means to provide flexibility in when as well as where, and measure performance in terms of outcomes not activity.
  • Give team-level autonomy to achieve goals rather than top-down directions. One size almost never fits all. Provide global guidelines for work arrangements and let teams decide on specifics to suit their needs.
  • Ensure equitable access to opportunity. Design your working norms to ensure equity in access to opportunity, regardless of your work arrangement for diverse talent and those in what were once “remote” offices. Use this as an opportunity for leaders to find new ways to help people build their networks and create opportunity from anywhere.
  • Maintain a learning mindset by being adaptive. Prioritize and create opportunities for experimentation and sharing best practices. Norms and practices will need to continue to evolve as we learn. Commit to measuring outcomes and adjusting as you go.

“We are really trying to not over-engineer our plans. Some people have returned already; those who need to be in the office to do their jobs have been back at least part of the time since July 2020. For those who have been fully remote, though, it will be very hard to say to them, ‘Well, you’ve done your job well for over a year, but now we expect you to go back to the office five days a week.’ Instead, we need to demonstrate that we trust our employees, and flexibility is at the heart of this.”

headshot of Tracy Layney at Levis

Tracy Layney
Chief Human Resources Officer, Levi Strauss & Co.

“Ensuring equitable access in a hybrid environment cannot be emphasized enough. Even before the pandemic, historically discriminated talent struggled to break into influential networks within companies. Without finding new ways for people to build their networks and break up traditional power structures, these struggles will get worse. Our alumni survey found that for every person who’s found it easier to find an executive sponsor while remote, 12 people have found it harder.”

headshot of Tina Gilbert at Management Leadership for Tomorrow

Tina Gilbert
Managing Director, Management Leadership for Tomorrow (MLT)

Set guardrails to help build productive teams and avoid creating inequitable experiences 

Leaders and organizations are adopting rules of the road to avoid the pitfalls of “the messy middle” of hybrid and help create predictability without taking away flexibility or freedom for people. What works well and how these practices take shape in your organization will vary across teams, industries, companies and cultures. A few examples of guardrails to consider across several core themes:

Workplace

  1. Shared space is for teamwork first. Leaders need to reimagine how they use shared space for collaboration, while still meeting the needs of individuals. They will need to experiment but also redesign the shared space to be a more flexible, activity-based workplace that better supports the needs of teams.
  2. Depth over breadth for team time. Teams should be thinking about organizing around monthly or quarterly events with sufficient advance notice, instead of focusing on which specific days of the week people come into the office. 
  3. One dials in, all dial in. Leaders need to drive a consistent experience and level the playing field by avoiding “in-person favoritism.” Outside of intentional time together, meetings should be structured to enable remote participants to be equally present and part of the discussion. That might look like a “one dials in, all dial in” policy, utilizing a digital whiteboard instead of a physical one or designating a hybrid meeting moderator. Ultimately, being intentional about inclusivity and getting this right will require experimentation.

“Ensuring people come together with some regular cadence will be essential to collaboration within and across teams, and there are real risks to people who don’t interact in person as often having less information about what others are doing and thinking, with potential consequences for teams and careers.”

headshot of Pamela Hinds at Stanford

Pamela Hinds
Professor, Stanford University

“We’re all hardwired to strive for success. Making the path to value creation clear and relatable for all within your organization is paramount for maximizing the benefits of hybrid flexibility. It starts with a clearly articulated corporate purpose and an actionable strategy that every individual employee can see themselves as part of, and is best enabled when paired with a robust and well-understood performance management system. With these three elements in place, organizations can allow each individual or team to interpret what hybrid means for them relative to their unique function and skill set.”

headshot of Megan Lyon at Herman Miller

Megan Lyon
Chief Strategy Officer, Herman Miller

“We have learned a lot about how to work differently over the last year. For the first time, everyone has had an equal box to be seen from and heard from. I hope we never lose this from our workplaces. And to help make this change last, many of our senior leaders are choosing to give up personal office space to lead by example.”

headshot of Heather Brace at Intermountain Healthcare

Heather Brace
Chief People Officer, Intermountain Healthcare

Leadership and Culture

  1. Lead by executive example. If your C-suite is still coming into the office five days a week, then employees will expect to do the same for access to opportunities and growth. Instead, lead by executive example and ensure that senior executives are just as distributed as employees and/or aren’t coming into the office more than two to three days a week regularly.
  2. Take symbolic actions. Storytelling is just as important to reinforce this change from the top, especially when the team is distributed. Find small ways to highlight flexible work across the organization. As an example, the Telstra executive team all changed their public profile pictures to show them WFH.
  3. Reskill leaders to unlock productivity and talent. The role of frontline managers, in particular, has increased in scope as leaders become critical for maintaining culture across distributed teams, creating equitable opportunities and enabling flexibility. Reskill leaders to measure success on outcomes, not attendance, and build psychological safety in teams. Hire for “soft skills” and emotional intelligence as well as expertise in order to drive lasting results.
  4. Go “digital-first” versus centralizing power at headquarters. Embrace flexibility and ensure executive leadership is not centralized in any one physical location but rather in a “digital headquarters.” Make executive leadership accessible to more people through programs like digital office hours instead of relying on a serendipitous elevator conversation. Leverage digital tools to host town halls and company-wide communications virtually.

“Modeling by an immediate manager/leader will be key. If official policy espouses flexibility but the CEO shows up physically for work five days a week and her/his executive leadership team end up following suit, that will cascade.”

headshot of Victor Calanog at Moody's analytics

Victor Calanog
Head of Commercial Real Estate Economics, Moody’s Analytics

“Leaders have to walk a mile in their employees’ shoes. They also have to role model the new behaviors for flexibility, and to do that, leaders might also need a set of guardrails—a max number of days in the office for example.”

headshot of Debbie Lovich at BCG

Debbie Lovich
Managing Director and Senior Partner, Boston Consulting Group (BCG)

“Teams have an opportunity to become more productive while also enhancing flexibility and engagement—but it will require a new level of intentionality from leaders. It isn’t just about choosing which days to be in the office, but to be really thoughtful about how we spend that time together and how we interact when we are apart.”

headshot of Anne Arlinghaus at KKR

Anne Arlinghaus
Managing Director, KKR

Ways of Working 

  1. Core team hours. Establish core team hours, an approximately three- to five-hour timeframe when teams must be online for collaborative in-sync engagement. Free up individual flexibility in managing their work schedules beyond core hours—instead of needing to be “on”’ from 9 to 5, make it possible for people like working parents, caregivers and people of all life stages to balance work with life responsibilities. For example, Dropbox created four-hour core collaboration hours that aligned to time zones versus physical locations.
  2. Measure impact not actions. The only way to allow people flexibility is to measure the impact they have versus the time “at desk.” Instead of tracking admin staff hours, ask their internal customers to rate their impact, e.g., an internal Net Promoter Score.
  3. Eliminate or disaggregate meetings. Challenge every recurring meeting to make discussions more meaningful. Move status checks or information sharing into asynchronous formats like updates in-channel or over email, and reserve team time for meaty discussions or team building to create more opportunities for asynchronous work and time flexibility.
  4. Brainwrite over brainstorm. Augment brainstorm meetings with digital collaboration tools such as digital whiteboarding. Focus on engaging diverse types of people (e.g., introverts) by allowing for idea generation ahead of idea review and creating psychological safety for diverse teams.

“We’ve been hosting intimate forums of six to eight people that meet once a month with a moderator-supported framework. The university presidents that have been involved have seen this as a life-saver for building deep relationships, and this gives me hope that when there is structure, these virtual forums can be really effective.”

headshot of Brandon Busteed at Kaplan

Brandon Busteed
Chief Partnership Officer, Kaplan

“We’re just at the start of understanding the power of digital workflows. Perhaps for the first time, nearly every interaction in an organization is digitized through virtual meetings. What was previously unstructured and hidden now has the potential to be rethought for the benefit of culture and collaboration. Let’s not lose this chance to do something radically better for people by establishing digital workflows as our backbone.”

headshot of Atif Rafiq

Atif Rafiq
Former executive at Amazon, McDonald’s, Volvo and MGM Resorts

Other categories of guardrails to consider for your business context

The flexibility stigma is real in corporate America, and it’s time that executives turned it on its head to attract and retain the best people. 

“Knowledge workers never want to go back to pre-pandemic norms, and they are also eager to turn the page on the all-remote experiment that was forced upon them for the past 15 months. For companies, attracting and retaining top talent depends on looking forward to an entirely new way of working: a flexible model that fundamentally reimagines not just where but also when and how people work.”

Brian Elliott, Vice President (he/him)

Brian Elliott
Vice President, Future Forum by Slack

Instead of setting guidelines for how many days employees should come into the office or focusing myopically on the real estate strategy, organizations need to shift the focus from “hybrid” to developing the principles and guardrails that make distributed work successful for all types of people. Without being intentional about broader behavior change, leaders risk widening the equity gap across their employee base. 

More importantly, as Forrester stated in its 2021 Predictions report, “at companies that don’t deliver great experiences, employees will walk or worse, stay and underperform.” As studies show, employees would rather quit than give up flexibility. The competition for talent is on.