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A November 2022 survey by Gallup shows that 46% of hybrid workers report being engaged at work when their team determines their hybrid work policy about when to come to the office. In contrast, if employees are free to decide their own approach, only 41% report being engaged. If management sets top-down policy for everyone, only 35% are engaged, and if it’s their direct supervisor, 32% are engaged.
It makes sense when you think about it. Team members know best what they need to collaborate and socialize together effectively. After all, the only useful function of the office is to facilitate collaboration, socialization and guidance: people are much more productive in their individual tasks at home. So it makes all the sense for the rank and file teams to figure out what works best for their needs.
Yet the Gallup survey shows that only 13% of employees say their team determines their approach to hybrid work. It is unfortunate and undermines the engagement of hybrid workers. And it’s easy to fix.
From my experience helping 21 companies figure out their hybrid and telecommuting arrangements, the best practice is for management to provide broad but flexible company-wide guidelines. Then you can let teams of permanent employees decide what works best for them.
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Empower each team leader to decide, in consultation with the team members, how each team will operate. The choice should be driven by the goals and collaborative capabilities of each team rather than the personal preferences of the team leader. Senior management should encourage team leaders to allow, where possible, team members who wish to do so to work remotely.
To set the scene, first conduct an anonymous survey of employees about their preferences for remote work. All companies are different, and you want to know about your employees in particular. Even more important is that employees want to feel that they have input into major company decisions. This applies in particular to the policy on working conditions. You will get much more buy-in, even from employees who may be unhappy with your final policies, if they feel consulted and heard.
As part of the survey, have respondents indicate who their team leader is: it keeps survey responses anonymous but can be given to team leaders to help them understand the wishes of their teams.
The reason why it is important to ask about this in the surveys is that many lower-level supervisors feel a personal discomfort with working from home. They feel a loss of control if they cannot see the employees and are eager to return to their previous mentoring mode.
That is why there is low commitment when team leaders are given their own discretion to make the decisions. You need team leaders to understand what the actual preferences of their team members are without any team members feeling inhibited by giving the team leader unwanted information.
While you can choose to ask a variety of questions, be sure to find out about their desire for office work frequency. Here’s a good way to put it:
Which of these will be your preferred working style going forward?
- A) Completely remote, coming in once a quarter for a team building retreat
- B) 1 day a week at the office, the rest at home
- C) 2 days a week in the office
- D) 3 days a week in the office
- E) 4 days a week in the office
- F) Full time in the office
In all the companies where I consulted, never more than a quarter wanted to go back to the office full-time. In fact, it was a company with over 3,000 employees that had 61% of its employees express a desire to telecommute. And it wasn’t even a technology company.
In the highly likely event that your results are not too different from the typical company, you should follow the lead of the companies I helped. Namely, you will introduce a hybrid-first model, with a certain flexibility for employees who want to work remotely full-time and whose roles allow them to do so.
Next, ensure that team leaders justify the time their team needs to be in the office. This justification should stem from the type of activities the team does. Team members must be free to do their independent tasks wherever they want. In contrast, many – but not all – collaborative tasks are best done in person.
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Team leaders should evaluate the proportion of individual versus collaborative tasks performed by their teams. They should then use this proportion as a basis for a discussion with the team to determine how often team members come to the office. And there should be a consensus-based decision-making process, informed by the surveys, with a focus on collaboration, socialization and guidance. All team members should come to the office on the same days of the week to facilitate collaboration.
What if team members want to be completely remote and have a team leader who doesn’t want any remote team members? If this team member can demonstrate high efficiency and productivity, and if their tasks are largely individual—80% or more—the team leader should allow them to work remotely. That team member should only come to the office once a quarter for a team building retreat.
However, if the team member needs to collaborate intensely with their team, they may not be able to fulfill that aspect of their role effectively if everyone else is in the office. In that case, they must either come into the office at least once a week. Alternatively, they may consider finding a new team with a more accommodating team leader. Or they may adjust their role in the team to take on largely individual tasks.
There should be a very good reason if the team leader wants more than two days in the office per week. Such reasons exist.
For example, in one company that I consulted, the sales teams making outbound sales calls decided to do office work full time. The team leaders argued convincingly that salespeople benefited greatly from being surrounded by other salespeople during outbound calls. Such conversations are draining and sap motivation. Being surrounded by others on the sales floor who are making similar conversations increases motivation and energy. Also, hearing others call provides an opportunity to learn from their successful techniques, which is difficult to arrange in remote work. However, such exceptions are rare.
Generally speaking, no more than 5% of employees should be forced to be in the office full time. Surveys show that around 80% of employees who are able to work remotely expect to do so. Employers indicate that they will continue to offer a variety of hybrid work options. Nevertheless, many are unsure how this model is to be implemented effectively.
To maximize employee engagement, while facilitating team collaboration, best practice involves teams making the decisions. This team-led model will ensure that team members can work together most effectively. By using this technique, you can seize a competitive advantage when you return to the office.