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5 Reasons Your Hybrid Policy Isn’t Working, And What Will Work Instead

Failures of flexible work usually stem from ineffective implementation. The good news? For every pitfall, there's a fix.

Hybrid work is here to stay. According to the 2024 CEO Survey from The Conference Board, only 4% of US CEOs will prioritize a full-time return to the office this year, while retaining talent will remain a critical area of focus. Employees highly value flexibility, so it makes sense that CEOs plan to give it to them in this historically tight labor market.

For almost two decades, I’ve advised organizations on flexible work and culture change.  When organizations effectively implement flexible work policies, I’ve seen that they boost metrics across the board—engagement, talent retention, innovation, productivity and profit. When they don’t implement effectively, they struggle, often citing flexible work policies as the problem.  The truth is that failures of flexible work usually stem from the following five pitfalls of ineffective implementation. The good news is, for every pitfall, there’s a fix.

1. Treating hybrid work as a policy change, not a culture change.

When developing a hybrid work initiative, many organizations make the mistake of starting with the policy details—how many days people should work in the office, who is eligible, and so on. However, successfully implementing a hybrid policy requires system-wide changes to your business systems and infrastructure and the mindset and practices of leaders and workers throughout the organization.

The fix: Creating a productive, flexible workplace requires a culture change. There are three critical pillars to success when implementing hybrid work: your approach must be intentional, inclusive and iterative. Intentionality means creating a plan by design, not default. You must think through what key results you want from your flexibility strategy, what resources you’ll need, what scenarios could emerge that you will proactively plan for, and what you’ll measure to know it’s successful.

Inclusivity means bringing more voices into the process and ensuring everyone has an opportunity to thrive.  You want to watch out for things that can derail your initiative, like unconscious biases—especially proximity bias, where an ingroup and outgroup are formed based on who is in the office and who isn’t.  In this case, being intentional and inclusive would lead you to design work allocation systems and review structures to ensure that people working at home get the same opportunities as those working in person. Finally, being iterative means continually improving.  During organizational change, you have to expect some bumps in the road.  The challenge is not to automatically revert to the old ways just because something isn’t working; build iteration into the process for best results.

2. Prioritizing presenteeism over purpose.

Many leaders worry that they will lose culture, collaboration, and engagement if their employees aren’t working together in person. These concerns were the source of many return-to-office policies mandated by employers after the pandemic. The problem was that many managers didn’t take steps to make the time in the office collaborative. Employees often sat at their desks and did Zoom calls or worked alone with their doors closed, things they could have done at home—without the commute. This forced office time created the opposite effect—disengagement, and even backlash. The latest example I heard of employee rebellion was ‘key fob collecting.’ Similar to coffee swiping, this is when employees take turns carrying each other’s key fobs into the elevator in the morning—one employee swipes the key fob at the mandated start time while the other employee comes in later.

The fix: Employees need to get a return on their experience when they go into the office. Return on experience (ROE) at an organizational level means developing your culture and creating the experiences your people and your organization need to thrive. If you’re asking your people to commute to the office, create experiences that cause people to see the value in being there. These experiences should include opportunities for connection, collaboration and contribution, including more than just free food (though that probably wouldn’t hurt)! Organizations can host group events that create connections, and managers can mentor in person.

Recently, an executive told me he had trouble getting his staff to attend his mandatory monthly meetings. I asked him what he did at these meetings.  He told me he gave updates by referring to a PowerPoint deck.  I suggested he think about ways to make the session interactive, asking team members to bring their own input to contribute to the meeting or creating opportunities for brainstorming.  When I spoke with him a few months later, he said he implemented these changes.  He was delighted — not only were all his team members coming in person, but the team was gelling, and productivity was soaring.

In the above scenario, it’s worth noting that it’s just as crucial for each individual to be intentional about how to make the most of their time in the office.  The manager created the opportunity for interaction and connection; it’s incumbent upon individuals to show up and participate in person as well.

3. Believing that flexibility is a tradeoff for performance.

Many managers mistakenly think that if their employees work from home, they don’t need to be as accessible. Recently, a client complained that his employee wasn’t getting back to him on Fridays. I asked him what he said to the employee about it, and he said, “Nothing, I’m trying to be flexible.” I told him that offering flexibility is not a free pass for employees to be unresponsive or underperforming. That’s not a flexibility issue; it’s a performance issue and should be treated like one.

The fix: Flexibility must come with responsibility.  Embracing flexibility is a collective responsibility of the organization, senior leaders, and workers at every level.  Organizations must put structures, systems, and guidelines in place so that employees have the tools to flourish.  Leaders must change how they lead, mentor, train, evaluate, and build connections.  And individuals must be intentional about connection and proactive about communication.

The first step to ensuring responsibility is clear communication of expectations.  Employees must clearly understand the company’s expectations around their hybrid policy and performance.  Managers can implement processes to manage this over time.   Regular meetings can focus on accountability to ensure leaders and employees follow policy expectations and monitor results.

4. Thinking flexibility is a work-life balance tool.

Flexibility is not a work-life balance tool, though many think it is. To make this point, I often ask people if they worked harder and longer when they worked at home during Covid lockdowns. The answer was usually yes. I then ask if they had more free time, and the answer is usually no. Flexibility alone does not contribute to a better ability to juggle work and home.

The fix: Boundaries are an essential component in flexible work environments. Without boundaries, flexible work policies can create more stress, not less. Boundaries simply mean that an organization respects an employee’s life outside of work (including senior leaders and managers!) Implementing boundaries requires reciprocal respect and communication between leaders and workers. Managers should communicate with an employee if they want them to work extra hours on an urgent deadline. If an employee has an important obligation outside of work, the employee should feel comfortable telling the manager, who in turn should respect it.

One important note: some leaders worry that respecting boundaries means workers won’t work as hard or won’t be as productive. But implemented well, boundaries create bridges between leaders and workers, not barriers. If an employer needs an employee to work longer hours during a rush project, that just needs to be communicated. Respectful communication, in turn, builds trust and loyalty. With boundaries, many employees still work very long hours; they just work them flexibly.

5. Managers and individual workers don’t get the training they need.

Managers are the linchpin between leadership and the rest of the organization. Employees’ experience with their company, even their mental health, is closely tied to their direct supervisor. According to a recent study, managers impact employees’ mental health as much as their spouse or partner and more than their therapist! If the supervisor doesn’t have the tools or training to support a hybrid team or is struggling themselves, everyone struggles.

The fix: Managers need training to overcome the managerial pitfalls of hybrid work. For example, a manager’s biggest challenge is staying connected—manager to employees and employees with each other.  Training can help teach managers new ways to host virtual meetings or better ways to maximize time spent in person. For workplace flexibility to succeed, organizations must provide training and support and managers must shift their behaviors to manage and lead differently. However, training managers alone does not guarantee success. Individual employees also need training and resources to thrive in a hybrid workplace.

Important sidenote: Employees at every level are experiencing record levels of stress and burnout. Providing them with training ultimately makes their jobs easier, but they also need support from their organizations and boundaries that protect their well-being.

If you implement the five fixes for effective hybrid work, you’ll find productivity and talent retention rise.  You’ll turn hybrid work stress into hybrid success.


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