Building a Function-Focused Flexible Work Environment
Or, How We’re Making Hybrid Work Not Be a Hot Mess
Over the past fifteen months, our agency has been asking the same question that every board room has been asking across the country:
What does the return to work look like?
I’ve been watching these conversations with a mix of fascination and horror, from what I feel is a relatively unique vantage point as a thirty-one-year-old CEO. My professional network consists mostly of CEOs and workplace leaders who have been faced with the task of crafting a policy that satisfies everyone, whereas my personal friends in their late 20s and early 30s tend to be in non-management positions, staring down a vague threat/promise that they’ll be back in the office eventually.
If there’s one thing I’m 100% confident in, it’s that everyone is stressed about this conversation.
The best example of how difficult it is to plan the return to work comes from Google. With the smartest minds in the country—and literal billions of dollars—they’re trying everything from building communication rooms straight out of Star Trek, to (and I want to be clear I am not making this up) “privacy robots that inflate balloon walls.” Yet, all that investment, time, and brilliance is still leading to them changing their minds, post-announcement, on when people can actually go back to the office.
Unfortunately, I feel this has led lots of companies to make a terrible decision—essentially giving leadership what they want, with enough caveats that hopefully their entire staff won’t quit: the dreaded hybrid workplace. There are a few types of hybrid workplaces I’ve heard about, but most seem to be leaning toward a workplace where you’re expected in the office a majority of the days of the week to satiate leadership’s desires to “see you working,” while giving you random days back home so you’re happy (i.e., satisfied enough not to search for another job immediately). For example, Apple is asking employees back in on Mondays, Tuesday, and Thursdays.
All this is going to lead to long-term dissatisfaction, frustration, and, ultimately, less productivity at organizations. Staff will feel distrusted and disrespected, while leadership will continue to wonder if employees are working when they’re out of sight.
If companies like Google and Apple can’t solve this issue, what hope do small businesses like Online Optimism have?
Actually, a lot. With a smaller team, we’ve been able to ask every employee, “What do you want us to do? What would make you happy? Productive? Engaged?”
We’re approaching this problem from an employee-first viewpoint and came to a solution that focuses on actual work functions. Through constant surveys, conversations, and some spirited discussion, we settled on a few ideas that helped us build our own policies. While I think we’re a relatively unique company, my endless research on the topic indicated that very few businesses are sharing their full policies, as the entire world takes a wait-and-see approach.
Therefore, we wanted to share:
Our Six Principles to Building a Hybrid Work Plan for a Small to Medium-Sized (5–5,000 Employees), Service-Oriented Business:
- Everyone is unique. Be comfortable with the fact that every employee’s preferences will be different.
- Employees will not work perfectly at home, or on site, and that is a good thing. Understand that some employees will perform better at home, while others will perform better in-office. Performing optimally 100% of the time was never possible, and we should appreciate that working from both places does get you closer to that number more of the time.
- Embrace the happiness/focus trade-off when staff work from home. Realize that employees, particularly those with children, spouses at home, or simply rambunctious pups, may multi-task from home and be extra-distracted at times. Trust that they will complete what needs to be done, and ensure that they’re provided time and space to step away from work. Their happiness is worth it in the long run.
- Enjoy the collaboration and cameradie that come from working in-office. Acknowledge that teamwork simply happens better when together. Stop trying to make large Zoom work happy hours happen. They’re not going to happen.
- Embrace others in person, not through devices. Relationships are better built in real life, not on screens. New employees and new clients should be welcomed with handshakes, preferably alongside coffee or at happy hour.
- Evaluate your policies constantly. Your remote work policy should remain flexible. Your initial plan will not be perfect, and you should stress to your team that this will be adjusted on a standard timeframe. We’re all learning this new work-world together, and both employers and employees should be optimistic about the opportunity to craft a better work environment for all.
Principles are Great, but What are Your Rules?
We’re so glad you asked. With few companies sharing what they’re doing, we’re excited to publicly share our plan to hopefully help you make yours.
Here are the current rules, set forth for Optimists in the future:
- Optimists will have the option to work in-office or at home for all days except the ones mentioned below. We have specifically picked out the amount of time (whether it be a day or week or month) in-office that we believe is necessary for the face-to-face connection to bear fruitful thoughts, based on what functions they’re working to complete.
- Optimists will each have their own permanent desks. While hoteling or other shared desk policies could save us some real estate expenses long term, we feel it’s worth the cost to give team members a space of their own, both in-office and at home.
- We’ve added two special days for everyone per month:
- “Department Days,” which are once-monthly times that we ask a full department to come in together to talk, exchange ideas, and focus on our biggest clients.
- “Mix & Mingle Days,” where cross-department employee groups can build that camaraderie is so essential to successfully working together as an agency.
- We’ll review/discuss these policies every three months, particularly post-COVID, as we learn what works and what doesn’t.
These policies essentially allow all staff to work in-office on a full-time basis if they want or simply the days that in-person collaboration is needed. We believe, based on our estimates, that this will require most of our employees to only work 5–18 days in-office per month, depending on their department/seniority/job functions.
These are the times that we require Optimists to come in for improved collaboration:
|EVENT TYPE||CAUSE||WHO||TIME IN OFFICE|
|Internal||A New Employee Joins Our Team||The Employee||1 Month After Your First Day|
|Their Department||Their First 5 Days. If the employee is located in a different state than the Director, we’ll fly the Director out to collaborate in person.|
|Their Supervisor||3 Weeks. If the employee is located in a different state than the supervisor, we’ll fly the supervisor out to collaborate in person their first week.|
|All Local Employees||Employee’s First Friday|
|A New Specialist (Intern) Joins Our Team||Their Supervisor||1 Week|
|A Full New Specialist Class Arrives||Full Team||Their First Friday. We chose Friday because it’s the day of our weekly team lunch, as well as happy hour. We believe in the power of food and drink to bring people together.|
|Employee Trimester Reviews||Employee + Supervisor(s)||1 Day / Trimester|
|“Department Days”||Department||1 Day / Month|
|“Mix & Mingle Days”||Team Members||1 Day / Month|
|External (Client Related)||Planning Kickoff Meetings||Growth Dept.
All on an Account
|Kickoff Meetings, if Client Requests||Growth Dept.
All on an Account
|Onboarding Periods||All on an Account||1 Day / Onboarding Week|
|Campaign Midway Reviews, if Client Requests||All on an Account||1 Day (if Client Wants)|
|Campaign Renewal Meetings, if Client Requests||Growth Dept.
All on an Account
|1 Day (if Clients Wants)|
|Website Design Project Beginnings||All on an Account||1–3 Days, Depending on the Client.|
THOUGHTS ON THE FUTURE OF WORK?
We’d love to hear them. We’re looking to always optimize this policy, like all of our rules, so any thoughts (positive or negative) will be appreciated.