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Nickle LaMoreaux

Chief Human Resources Officer, IBM

Embracing the uncertainty of hybrid work

The future of work is at neither the “9-5 in the office” nor “work from anywhere, all the time.” It’s in the messy middle.

Reading time 6 min

This piece also appeared in Fast Company.

The past year of remote work has shown us very little about what the future looks like. That’s because our working model simply switched from one extreme to another. In the pre-pandemic world we operated from one defined norm: work happens primarily in an office from 9-to-5. During the pandemic, we replaced that with a new universal norm: we can’t go to the office so work happens primarily at home. The future of work is at neither end of this spectrum. It’s in the messy middle.

New Future Forum data shows that the majority of knowledge workers expect a hybrid future. Only 17% long for a return to full-time office work, and only 20% want to continue working remotely full-time. A majority of 63% want a mixture of the two.

And, during a global online brainstorm for all IBMers last year, 60% told us they prefer to be in office at least 1-3 days per week and 72% said they see the office as a place to go for specific team activities. The vast majority miss social interaction, spontaneous collaboration and the learning and networking opportunities that come from being in the office.

While both IBM and Slack are committed to delivering this hybrid model, we’ll be the first to admit that hybrid work is relatively untested. In fact, we believe that getting hybrid work right depends on embracing this uncertainty. It depends on resisting the urge to impose new tops-down policies and structures. Instead, individuals and small teams should be empowered to experiment with how work gets done best for them. 

This decentralized approach carries risks, especially over the near-term. At its worst, it might lead to organizational chaos, where different parts of an organization can never get in sync because they are all operating on different rhythms. But at its best, it’s well worth the inevitable short-term growing pains. It promises to unleash access to a broader talent pool, more empowered employees, and organizations that can operate with newfound agility and decisiveness. 

Here are the three key steps we’re taking to create a sustainable foundation for hybrid work:

New design principles for how work gets done

At IBM, we believe that this next era of work is one where companies, leaders and employees will need to think deeply about work design — determining a new way for how work gets done and continually evaluating what is best done together in the office and what tasks are most effectively done at home. 

Like all good change management, this starts with clear and consistent communication. Leaders need to set new expectations that liberate all employees from the tyranny of the 9-to-5. They need to lay out new design principles that paint a picture for how individuals and teams can take control over how work is done.  

Above all, leaders need to focus on the outcomes they expect to see, not the path required to achieve them.

These principles should be deliberately high-level, avoiding the temptation to dictate the specifics of what the work week looks like. Above all, leaders need to focus on the outcomes they expect to see, not the path required to achieve them.

For example, at Slack, the leadership team radically changed the way it runs a key Monday morning engineering and product management team meeting. Instead of leaders asking teams for rapid-fire updates on progress on key projects, teams now share written updates designed to give the broader organization a view into their work. The in-person meeting itself is then used for teams to surface opportunities to strengthen cross-functional collaboration and to ask leaders for the resources needed to execute the steps of their project.

A people-first, not a work-first schedule

Teams at Slack have both “sync hours” when people are available and fully present, as well as dedicated “maker hours” when individuals have time and space for deep, focused work. Within these parameters, small teams should have the autonomy to define the specifics that work best for them. For example, teams of 5 or 10 have the freedom to set their weekly hours, to determine how many times per quarter they want to meet collectively in-person, and to adjust these schedules based on the immediate realities of the projects they are working on. 

Perhaps most importantly, ensure that the leadership of your organization models this behavior. Because if the C-suite defaults back to pre-pandemic norms where work consists of daily rounds of in-person meetings in gilded boardrooms, well then no right-thinking employee will truly believe that they really have a choice to work differently.

At IBM, the “Work From Home Pledge” has become a powerful tool for keeping this bottom-up approach front of mind everyday. Elements such as being “family sensitive,” supporting “flexibility for personal needs” and “setting boundaries“ give every member of the team the license to put their personal life first. It also sets a new tone for what can be expected of colleagues, defaulting to people-first instead of work-first.

Rebuilding the infrastructure of collaboration

The infrastructure you used in the office-centric does not support a remote-first model. And it’s equally true that the virtual infrastructure you relied on for the past year won’t support a hybrid model. Both your physical and digital tools need an overhaul.

Instead of rows of desks that provide everyone with a work station, you might only need space to accommodate the quarter of employees who will be in the office on any given day. This may mean dramatically downsizing the physical footprint of your offices, or it could mean reimagining the office as a space primarily designed to facilitate social connection and team building. 

It also means that you need to empower your people to design their physical work spaces for their needs that day or that week. Furniture should be easily moved, walls should be easy to reconfigure, and more. As managers design how work gets done, they should also be able to customize the spaces where their teams work — to fit the needs of the team that day. 

The infrastructure you used in the office-centric does not support a remote-first model. And it’s equally true that the virtual infrastructure you relied on for the past year won’t support a hybrid model.

Your digital infrastructure needs to become the focal point that the office once provided. At Slack, we’ve gone so far as to declare that our office in San Francisco is no longer homebase; instead, the digital channels within Slack itself are the HQ. This puts every member of the team — no matter where or when or how they work — on a level playing field. It creates a foundation of information that is the great equalizer, giving every employee shared access to the context they need to make informed decisions.

Getting hybrid work right is going to be hard for every organization. Incremental change, tweaking around the edges, or making ad hoc accommodations will never be enough. Companies who take this work seriously will undertake a wholesale re-thinking of the experience they offer their employees. They will embrace the uncertainty that comes from moving away from a defined schedule. They will take a people-first approach, giving individuals and teams the autonomy to design what works best for them. And they will rethink the tools and processes that have been long taken for granted, pioneering new approaches for an entirely new way of working.