Reduce the chance of slipping back to old routines while maximizing the desired benefits of any workplace arrangement.
Amidst the flood of changes during the Covid pandemic, working, learning and staying at home were among the most defining aspects of everyday life.
Organizations either reinforced or scurried to introduce guiding principles, policies, technology and other supports to allow for hybrid work; and for many businesses, it was a successful experiment.
Many organizations continue to be in the midst of configuring a more permanent workplace model that enables potential responses to Covid mandates while addressing the myriad of opportunities related to remote, hybrid or on-site work.
No matter the selected model, building a strong foundation, ensuring executive alignment and being intentional about sustenance are necessary to minimize the chance of slipping back to old routines while maximizing the more long-term benefits of the workplace arrangement.
LaMarsh Global and FlexPaths support organizations and leaders as they implement and sustain a hybrid workplace. Leveraging decades of experience in organizational change related to workplace arrangement, their teams understand what is necessary for success and sustenance within organizations of all size.
The case for a hybrid workplace
A hybrid workplace – which encompasses the spectrum of workplace arrangements between completely remote and fully at work – is a best-of-both-worlds approach that makes use of the technology and lessons we've learned through the Covid pandemic while retaining the benefits of in-person collaboration and some degree of familiarity.
The two ends of the spectrum are often justified (depending on the industry, customer needs or ease of acquiring talent), but a hybrid model is emerging as the norm.
The desirability of a hybrid arrangement can be accounted for by employee preferences. Now more than ever, employees prefer a more flexible working model: a 2021 study by McKinsey & Company noted 52% of workers prefer a hybrid arrangement over fully remote (11%) and fully on site (37%). Compared to pre-Covid, preferences for on-site working were swapped for preferences for a hybrid model – and the proportion of employees that prefer remote working remained relatively steady.
Even for companies that have responded to Covid-related requirements, transitioning to a hybrid workplace is another step that is being considered. A study by Microsoft in 2021 indicated two-thirds of leaders say their organization is considering physical changes to the workplace to accommodate a hybrid model.
She notes leaders continue to face a large degree of uncertainty from Covid variants, but now's the time to diligently consider a long-term plan.
We are in a better position now to make these decisions thoughtfully," says Sheila Fain, CEO of LaMarsh Global.
"Organizations need to be thinking about the longer-term sustainment piece, just like any other strategic decision in their business."
Meryl Rosenthal is the CEO of FlexPaths, and she has been supporting leaders and organizations as they implement workplace mobility since 2005. Meryl believes there is risk of slippage even when companies put in the hard work to create alignment, business cases and new mindsets.
Especially as the pandemic and its impacts continue far longer than anyone’s expectations, it is important to acknowledge the volatility and uncertainty. New mindsets and attitudes (which may be outside our comfort zones) need to prevail, and executives cannot afford to make decisions and take actions that are subjective.
Now’s the time for leaders to solve for the greater good of the organization and talent.
Sustaining the desired state of a change
The three states of a change describe an organization (including its structure, people, processes and culture) through the change process.
- Current state: The organization before the change.
- Transition state: The organization as it progresses through a change.
- Desired state: The preferred or target organization when the change is successfully completed.
The goal of sustainment is to prevent the change from being undone, unless there is a deliberate decision to go in a new direction (or back). Sheila affirms that sustainment doesn't mean the desired state is the final state.
"Change continues to be necessary, but it needs to be intentional and within guiding principles that are set out for the effort that is being implemented," says Sheila.
Many aspects of the Covid pandemic accelerated organizations into a transition state and prescribed the desired state (albeit a temporary desired state). Out of necessity, companies entered transition states without clarity on the desired state.
After successful transitions to largely remote arrangements, leaders now have the opportunity to consider what a long-term desired state looks like and to what degree will changes related to the pandemic be maintained.
How to sustain a hybrid workplace
Moving from a reactive strategy to a proactive strategy requires a change in mindset.
"We have to take a moment to look at what we've learned and at what's coming. This is an opportunity to bring your best people together and to talk about this in a calm, strategic and forward-thinking way."
Meryl and Sheila offer these suggestions to shift towards a proactive mindset and provide the foundation for a sustained change.
Align leaders and stakeholders
Before writing a new policy or communicating to employees, the first step is ensuring leaders and internal stakeholders are aligned – and remain aligned – on the decision and commitment.
"I find the companies that are the best suited to a change in their workplace arrangement acknowledge it's a journey and not a sprint," says Meryl.
The change process is simplified when consideration for a workplace change goes beyond the C-suite and is vetted through various levels of an organization and by the leaders that will be responsible for carrying out the policy.
"Building policies and processes isn’t the challenge," says Meryl. "Getting everyone on the same page is the challenging part."
The process is often easier because aligning leaders and ensuring they fulfill their responsibilities is among the most important and difficult aspects of change management. Pushback by executives on mobility initiatives can cascade doubt, uncertainty and resistance through managers and employees.
Make the change intentional
Strategy, clarity and communication are all integral to intentional decisions, but, according to Sheila, a common challenge in any change are leaders choosing to do something different than the plan.
"Leaders sometimes make whatever decision makes sense to them at the time and can undo the decisions that were made before implementation when it becomes real," she says.
"The biggest risk is setting a new policy in place and then everybody does whatever they want. Governance needs to continue, and there needs to be guidelines under which people operate."
An intentional decision delivers transparency on who owns the change and the decision-making processes available if a leader wants to depart from what was agreed upon. When creating an implementation plan, be frank on the degree of culture change that may be necessary when stopping old behaviours and introducing new ones. In addition, outline reinforcement tactics and accountability measures that will be necessary to achieve the desired state.
Make leaders' expectations clear and give them a choice: are they going to hold their people accountable? If not, do they understand the impacts or consequences of their decision?
Avoid a conditional approach
Meryl cautions against extreme conditional decisions – such as trial periods without clear thresholds – when the decision has been vetted and makes sense for the organization. Leaders should declare the decision, just like how decisions were made before the pandemic.
Conditional approaches may be the result of leader's own anxiety and doubt they faced during the pandemic, says Meryl. It is understandable to question decisions during unprecedented and unexpected change, but it's a danger to implement a policy that everyone expects will be reversed.
Plan to review the change
Sustaining a change isn't about sustaining it forever. There will be a need to go a different direction in the future, so sustainment aims to fulfill the goals of the change until that time.
"Consider a shelf life or a review date for the decision," suggests Sheila.
Even before implementation, define the metrics and thresholds for success. After a set period of time, review how the realized desired state compares to the desired state on paper and evaluate the data.
This plan to review the change helps to address the question: how long are we going to sustain what we've put in place if it isn't working?
Be practical and real about the change
Moving to a different work style or arrangement has benefits for both employees and organizations, but the inherent challenge of change cannot be ignored.
Hesitancy to change is understandable – new technology, different desks, taking down walls (or putting them up) are competing against decades of working on-site.
"It's important that people don't see a workplace realization as a loss," adds Meryl. Communicate the change with authenticity and demonstrate the intent of opening up opportunities while minimizing disturbances through improved flexibility.
Support for sustaining your change
If your organization is considering a hybrid model, Sheila and Meryl affirm to take a step back and evaluate where you are today and what your leaders and employees want from a new workplace arrangement.
Sustaining a change does not mean it will be permanent, but rather the change has the best opportunity to succeed until it's time for the next transition.
As leaders in workplace mobility and change management, FlexPaths and LaMarsh Global can support your change – from before initiation to sustainment. ■
FlexPaths helps Fortune 1000 companies, mid-sized businesses and organizations launch, leverage, and sustain hybrid work, build inclusion and culture and empower change management competencies to make them a reality. Their proven four-step approach – Align, Build, Activate, and Sustain – meets companies ‘where they are,’ filling gaps and solving for people and process.
About LaMarsh Global
LaMarsh Global bridges change management theory with the challenges that businesses face today through tailored solutions and training for leaders, practitioners and organizations.