The workplace is back in action, and companies around the world are testing a hybrid work model for the very first time. Every organization’s approach to this model will be different depending on their needs, which is why there’s no step-by-step guide to doing hybrid work the “right” way. Testing to see what works and what doesn’t for your people is the only way to improve. That means your team needs to be agile and prepare to put out fires if they crop up. And they will, as you’ve probably found.
Fortunately, there are tactics you can use to stay ahead of workplace issues and implement fixes faster. In this ebook, we’ll help you anticipate and solve workplace challenges in a hybrid work setting so you can help your people get the most out of this flexible model of work.
In this guide, you’ll learn how to:
1. 6 hybrid work challenges to watch out for and how to solve them
No two organizations approach hybrid work in the same way. Policies, people, and physical space vary based on a company’s needs. Still, many hybrid work challenges are the same across organizations. In this chapter, we’ll go over common hybrid work challenges that companies are grappling with and how you can approach solving them.
1. Too many people come back at once
Bringing too many people back too fast could cause a few issues.
- First and most obvious, it can strain your resources and cause overcrowding. This makes for an unpleasant and unproductive on-site experience for employees.
- Second, you’re not staffed to support the number of people on-site and work out the early kinks of hybrid work at the same time.
- Third, the people who need to use the workplace can’t because it has reached capacity.
So how do you deal with having too many people back at work? How do you scale back the return without discouraging people from being on-site? One approach you can take is to offer workplace perks to entice employees to come in on a less popular day instead. Envoy’s platform data of over 225,000 desk reservations shows that Monday/Friday is the least popular combination of days to book desks.
For example, you may not typically offer catered meals, but on slower days you may purchase breakfast or lunch. Another approach is to rebrand less popular days. These days may be more attractive to employees who need quiet time to do their work. Implement “quiet hours” on days when fewer people are in the workplace so people who need to do heads-down work come on-site then. Opposite of that, you may encourage employees to come in on slow days and brand them as “team days” when people can come in and build connections. Consider organizing a happy hour on those days or an after work game night. Using desk booking software, you can help teams book a neighborhood of desks so they can work nearby each other. (This will also prevent a single team from reserving a large amount of desks.)
Remember that too many people wanting to come back to the workplace is a good problem to have. It’s a signal that people value the workplace and you don’t want to discourage that. Instead, focus on redistributing attendance so fewer people come in on any one day.
2. Not enough people are back
The flip side of too many people coming back at once is having too few coming back. Figure out what your employees need to come back to the workplace. Dig into why they aren’t ready or excited to return. Survey your employees to learn what they’d need in order to feel comfortable going back to the workplace. Make sure to provide choices and let them select more than one answer. Here are a few common reasons people may not be ready to return:
They’ve gotten used to their remote setup and don’t think going back on-site offers enough advantages.
They like not having to commute to and from work. It saves time and money. They may also rely on public transit and don’t feel comfortable using it yet.
It’s too soon
They’re not convinced that it’s safe to return yet.
Waiting it out
They’ll eventually go back but they don’t want to return until all the kinks are ironed out.
Unsure who’s there
They don’t know who’ll be at the workplace to coordinate work and socialize.
This could be anything from not having a nanny for children or having to care for their elderly relatives.
Survey insights can help you adjust your protocols so more of your people are willing to return. For example, at Envoy we found that nearly three out of five employees have a point of view on meeting room capacity.
• < 1% don’t want meeting rooms to be available.
• 47% want meeting rooms to be available but not exceed 50% capacity.
• 1% want meeting rooms to be available at full capacity.
• 40% don’t have a strong preference.
Nearly three out of five employees have a point of view on meeting room capacity.
Here are a few other standout findings from the employee return to work survey:
40% want desks to be separated by six feet for safety.
40% say free parking must be available.
60% say food and drinks must be available.
When you understand why people aren’t coming back, you can work on how to make returning to the workplace more appealing. Here’s an example. If employees cite their commute as a top reason they don’t want to come in, try offering a monthly travel allowance to cover the cost of fuel, ride-sharing, Ubers, or public transport. Here’s another. If employees are worried about health and safety, be sure to reiterate what you’re doing to keep people safe. Share photos on Slack of the workplace that features happy returnees. Schedule workplace tours to show people what’s new. Be sure to focus on the things people are most concerned about, whether that’s safety protocols, having enough quiet spaces, or something else.
Speaking of Slack, create a channel dedicated to workplace engagement. This should be different from where people report problems and should focus on exciting bits of the workplace—social interactions, new amenities, cool tech, and more. Encourage your team to post photos on a regular basis to keep the channel from going stale. Remember, show—don’t just tell.
Finally, encourage people to share their hybrid work schedules so they know who’s going in and when. This will assure employees they’re not going back alone and help them plan ahead to meet with work friends and teammates.
3. The workplace is too loud
Some countries have been back to work for a while. One thing we’ve learned from China’s return is that hybrid work can be noisy. People are not only collaborating in-person, they’re collaborating with people virtually, too. All this engagement can result in a loud and disruptive work environment. A workplace experience survey revealed that while 75% of employees believe noise management is key to a good workplace, only 30% of people are satisfied with the noise levels at work.
If employees are complaining that they can’t do heads-down work, make sure to arrange dedicated quiet areas. Create and enforce best practices in those spaces. For example, you may restrict or prohibit employees from taking meetings in quiet areas. If the noise problem persists, try moving quiet areas further away from open spaces, which tend to be louder. You can also add desks to areas of the workplace that get less foot traffic and designate them “quiet desks” people can book. If needed, you can even explore the option of converting a conference room into a quiet room.
Solving volume issues is tricky, especially in a hybrid work model. Many people use the workplace to build connections and collaborate. You don’t want to discourage that. At the same time, striking the right balance is important to ensure the workplace supports employees who need to focus.
4. Folks aren’t using every part of the workplace
You may find that people aren’t using certain areas of the workplace. It could be that employees need a different mix of collaborative and quiet space. Or they may be hesitant to work in a new setting. Whatever the case may be, unused workspace is wasted space. So what can you do?
First, unless you’re told otherwise by employees, don’t assume something is wrong with the space. It could be that people are simply not familiar with it. They may not even know they can use it! Consider spotlighting underused space to show people what they’re missing out on. This could be over email, at your regular all-company meeting, on Slack, or even on signage in the workplace. Another idea is to steal a tip from the tech world: name your workspaces. This is a great way to reinforce your company’s brand while making each space more memorable.
If these tactics don’t work, it could be that your space is simply not what employees need. Analyze workplace data to understand which spaces get the most use. You should be able to gain insight into how often people book meeting rooms, when they book them, and how many meetings were attended versus skipped. If you offer hot-desking, you should have access to analytics on desk utilization broken down by employee. Consider converting underused areas into a more in-demand type of space. The team at Culture Amp uses workplace data to adapt their space to suit the needs of their employees. For example, analyzing the data, they realized they should design a large space for people to collaborate.
As always, remain agile. It’s possible that as more employees return to the workplace you’ll need to change the space again. Let them know that the workplace will be in flux for a while as you optimize the space for their needs. This will prepare people for change and encourage them to share their preferences.
5. People hang around after hours
In a hybrid work model some employees may only be on-site a few days a week. These people want to make the most of their time in the workplace and some may even hang around after hours to socialize.
Think of this as an opportunity to help employees build workplace connections. If you find employees asking about happy hours or after-work events, this is a signal that people crave more face-to-face interactions. Another thing to look out for is more people hanging out after hours than before the pandemic. This could indicate that people miss their colleagues and want to use the workplace to connect with them.
When planning after-work activities, be mindful to not disrupt late-night workers. Consider reserving a space on certain days of the week where employees can socialize after hours. Don’t forget to let your people know well in advance when these activities will take place. This way, if someone has a lot of head-down work to do, they can avoid going into the workplace on days with planned activities. Or, they may make a point to finish their work in time to join.
Of course, after work activities may not be possible or ideal. Many companies, for example, have to vacate their space after normal working hours so cleaning crews can safely sanitize. If this is the case for you, consider how you can promote engagement between employees throughout the workday instead of after it. Consider morning or lunchtime activities, or encourage teams to implement walking meetings. Be sure to work with your people to figure out the best solution for your company. Try interviewing select employees, for example, to learn what kind of touchpoints they’d like to have with their peers.
6. Remote workers lack management and executive visibility
Most companies with a hybrid work model have employees who never (or very rarely) go into the workplace. Without a consistent presence on-site, these people may find it hard to build relationships with their colleagues. They may also struggle with executive visibility and being recognized for their work. While these employees enjoy the flexibility of hybrid work, they don’t want to risk stunting their career growth as a result of it. The workplace plays an important role in preventing employees from leaving your company because of visibility issues.
For starters, make sure that you have video conferencing capabilities throughout the workplace. Be sure this technology works, employees know how to use it, and there’s a clear process for reporting issues. Nothing is more frustrating than having your camera on for a meeting and not being able to see the people on the other end—especially if you’re the only one who’s remote.
Being visible in the workplace isn’t just about work recognition. Include remote employees in social gatherings like happy hours and company activities. It may be a little awkward and will take some getting used to. Try to encourage a group of remote employees to join these events so they can socialize with each other during conversation lulls. Including remote folks will help on-site employees put a face to the name of people they usually only see on Slack or in Google Docs.
The challenges of hybrid work are bound to crop up in the workplace. Don’t panic. No problem is too big to solve. These are some of the common hybrid work challenges that companies are experiencing. Your organization may have similar or different ones. Either way, remember to diagnose the issue first and take an agile approach to solving it. As you test different solutions to problems that come up, you’ll move closer to optimizing the workplace for your people.
2. How to get ahead of workplace problems and implement solutions fast
Workplace problems are inevitable, especially if hybrid work is a new model of work for your company. No amount of planning will change that. In fact, while you work on optimizing your workplace, it may feel like all your team does is put out fires. Luckily, you can minimize the number of incidents and the impact they have on your employees and business. To do this, you’ll need to get ahead of workplace issues before they evolve into major issues. Here are some tactics that’ll help you do that.
Spot problems early
Most problems don’t appear out of thin air. More often than not, there are warning signs that hint at emerging issues. By keeping an eye out for these signals, you can tackle challenges before they become more complex and disruptive. Some things to look out for include:
Processes not being followed
e.g., Employees not booking desks through your tool or forgetting to complete your health attestation form.
Receiving more than a couple of questions about the same thing
e.g., People may ask how to use workplace technology or who will be on-site on a certain day.
A workplace team member overwhelmed with work
e.g., Someone that oversees multiple large projects has missed several deadlines and has been less communicative.
If you have a phased approach to bringing people back to the workplace, spotting these issues early will ensure your team can improve them before more employees return. If you can address an issue on the spot, that’s ideal. But your team may not be available or resourced to do that. That’s why it’s handy to have a system in place to keep track of workplace issues. A shared spreadsheet or project management tool (Asana and monday.com are good options) works well. Have your team log new problems and make sure to meet on a weekly basis to update the status of each one. You can assign a label or traffic light color to each potential issue and address those that pose more imminent risk.
But what about preventing problems from developing in the first place? Workplace analytics enable you to anticipate if more people plan to come on-site than you can support on a given day. This will ensure your team has enough space and amenities to support people in the workplace. It’ll also help you see the most popular times to come into work. Knowing this, you can advise employees who need to do heads-down work to come in on days when fewer people are there.
It’s a red flag, for example, if fewer people complete your health attestation compared to how many people are on-site. Or if fewer than 40% of the total number of employees you’re resourced to accommodate comes into work. Workplace analytics can also help you spot if people aren’t following your processes. For example, you can see if certain people aren’t registering their visitors or are coming into the workplace more often than they’re allowed.
Consider hypotheticals and learn from your peers
When you implement a new solution or process it’s good practice to consider ways it could go wrong. This may seem like pessimistic thinking, but it can put your team a few steps ahead of an issue if one arises.
This forward-thinking approach is sometimes called a premortem. Once you have a plan in place, ask each of your team members to come up with one or two ways that plan could go awry. You may even find it helpful to have someone on your property management team join to broaden your perspective. Documenting possible scenarios will sensitize your team to spot risks sooner. A premortem will also prepare your team to expect that plans may change. This reduces friction and helps you embrace an agile working style that can pivot directions fast if needed.
For example, you may have thought through capacity issues related to your workplace. But what about your building’s reduced elevator capacity? During busy times, people may get held up in the lobby waiting for a lift. To prevent issues, ask your building manager which times of the week the lobby is busiest. On those days, limit the number of people who can come into the workplace. Or, schedule people to come in a bit later to avoid the crowded lobby.
Talking to peers at other organizations is another way to identify and mitigate possible challenges. You may know folks in similar roles or follow workplace thought leaders on social media. Organize a bi-weekly call to hear how their teams have approached topics that are top of mind for you. Be sure to ask what workplace communities they’re a part of that you can join. Slack and LinkedIn groups can be an ongoing resource for you as your team evolves your workplace for hybrid work.
Create a backup plan
Along the same lines of thinking about hypothetical situations, always have a backup plan. Plans change and things break, whether it’s problems with employee workplace schedules, staff changes, vendor mishaps, or building issues. To plan for unforeseen events, develop a written backup plan for any major projects. It should include:
- What events need to happen to trigger the backup plan.
- The who, what, where, when, and how. Who’s responsible for overseeing this plan? Who will help? What do they need to do? When does it need to happen? Where will it take place? How will they do it?
- Clear communication guidelines that outline how often stakeholders should be updated, who should update them, and how they’ll update them. If it makes sense to update employees, you should include details around that process as well.
Finally, make sure all stakeholders who’ll be involved in executing the backup plan are aware of their roles and agree to do them. Be sure to get buy-in from other teams if you’ll rely on them to execute the plan.
Don’t problem-solve in a silo
Complex challenges need creative solutions. This is especially true in a hybrid work model where you may experience novel issues. Asking someone from another team for help solving a problem can help you gain a fresh perspective and resolve the issue faster.
You may not have a dedicated workplace technology manager, but a technical support specialist on the IT team may be able to offer some helpful suggestions for why your conference room cameras keep breaking. You can also seek support from teams you don’t partner with often. For example, trying new seating layouts requires creative problem-solving. Consider looping in members of teams across your organization to play an ongoing role in building the workplace. Make it easy for people to participate by posting questions in a channel like Slack where people can quickly and easily respond. For more complex issues, set up time with a cross-functional team to discuss the issue at hand. Once you’ve defined the problem, you may want to lead a brainstorm to come up with solutions as a group.
At Culture Amp we’ve created project teams that focus solely on our employees’ wellness, safety, and social needs.
Office & Facilities Partner Culture Amp
Ask for feedback
Yes, ask employees to give your team feedback. This is always important and they’ll undoubtedly have feedback to share on how to improve the workplace. But think about getting feedback from less obvious sources as well. For example, vendors. You may have a catering vendor who sets up your company’s weekly lunches. And you may have a lot of extra food that goes to waste because your company’s new health and safety policy states that you can’t keep leftovers. Your vendor could have advice for how to reduce food waste and get better at ordering the right amount of food for your workplace. Contact them and ask them what other organizations are doing or if they can offer serving guidance. Check who’s planning to come to work before placing orders to ensure that the people you expect to have on-site haven’t changed their schedules.
It may be a while until the workplace operates smoothly. Don’t worry; this is normal. It’s an opportunity to continue to iterate and improve your workplace for hybrid work. As we’ve said, challenges are bound to come up. Prepare your team to get ahead of them using the tactics above. Remember, solving workplace problems fast is key to getting more people to come back on-site. If you work on creating a great experience for the employees who are already back, more people will want to return.
3. Getting clear on your goals, testing, and iterating
You have a lot to do and tracking the impact of your work may feel burdensome. And yet, it’s a critical step to take if you want to improve the workplace and address the challenges of hybrid work. Make sure you’re identifying goals, testing, and iterating on your initiatives—but don’t let it slow you down! Follow these steps to help your team track how well you’re doing so you can remain agile.
Step 1: Identify your goals and how you’ll measure success
The role of your workplace has probably changed since adopting a hybrid work model. Make sure your team is on the same page about the purpose the workplace serves and your goals. Then, figure out what metrics you’ll use to measure the success of your workplace initiatives. This is key to improving your workplace for employees and justifying budget requests.
How you measure success will depend on your goals. The Accenture Future of Work Study 2021 found that productive employees report having an abundance of resources. Set goals tied to workplace satisfaction and aim to provide people the resources they need to get the most out of working on-site. These goals may be around workplace capacity, tools and technology, workplace amenities, or space utilization. Know the high level objective you want to meet, such as, “build a seamless employee experience.” Then set specific and measurable goals that’ll help you meet it. For example, you may want to implement a workplace technology tool to reduce the number of steps required for employees to work on-site.
Sometimes, collecting employee feedback is the only way to know how well something is working. In these cases, it’s perfectly reasonable to send out a survey to understand how people are responding to workplace changes. As Laura Naim, Workplace Experience and Sustainability Manager at REA Group points out, collecting feedback shouldn’t be a one-time thing. “You want to make sure you’re keeping the conversation going with employees.” Expect people’s minds to change and be sure you’re keeping on top of their evolving sentiments. Depending on the structure of your organization, you may need to work with your HR team to get the survey out to your people. Consider sending a pulse survey out on a regular basis, especially in the early stages of your return to work. This will ensure you keep tabs on how people feel about the workplace as you continue to improve it for hybrid work. For example, you may ask:
• Do you feel like the office is a place you can come in and do heads-down work?
• Did you attend a company-organized social event this past week?
• How was your overall experience in the office this past week?
Be sure to ask questions that’ll help your team take action. Make it as easy as possible for employees to respond by limiting the survey to 3-4 questions.
Step 2: Test thoroughly and track progress
Keep in mind that building the ideal hybrid work environment requires testing to find what works best. For example, you may have rearranged the workplace to solve noise pollution, but was your quick fix the best fix? The only way to know is by testing it out. Try different space arrangements and tactics. Here are a few examples:
- Designate quiet spaces in areas of the workplace where fewer people tend to work anyway.
- Implement a policy around taking calls in open spaces (e.g., require headphones or prohibit calls outside of enclosed spaces).
- Put signage up to enforce noise policies and send employees friendly reminders on a regular basis.
- Add acoustic partition panels between desks.
- Expense noise-cancelling headphones.
Then, monitor the quiet spaces to see if people use them and ask employees if the changes have improved their experience. Positive signs to watch out for include:
• Improved sentiment on survey responses related to space and workplace noise
• An increase in the number of people booking desks in quiet spaces
• Fewer noise complaints
Another tip to help your team remain agile is to obtain flexible vendor contracts. This can include any of your vendors—food caterers, goods and services providers, maintenance teams, etc. It may take your team a while to work out the right flow for these services. In the meantime, as you test to see what works best, keeping flexible contracts will lessen constraints around budget and resources.
Finally, be sure to keep track of your team’s experiments. You might keep a changelog to record notable changes to your different initiatives. This way, you’ll be able to see when a change was implemented, why, what was changed, and the result. It can be handy to know what solutions your team has tried in the past so you can implement them elsewhere if they’re successful. (And to avoid trying the same thing twice if they’re not.)
Step 3: Iterate
Iteration is key to improving your workplace and reducing the challenges that come with hybrid work. According to a McKinsey study, “Lagging companies are least likely to experiment and iterate processes.” The study also says that companies that fare well are those more likely to iterate on a regular basis and make tweaks to their processes as needed.
Lagging companies are least likely to experiment and iterate processes.
Keep in mind that while your organization settles into a hybrid work model, you may need to make small and large changes. For example, you may need to make tweaks to your workplace layout or employee schedules. Or you may need to make larger changes in response to company-wide updates. Changes in how many days employees are mandated to be in the workplace each week is one example.
No matter the size of the change, they’re important to helping you adapt to the hybrid work model. That said, bigger changes will require you to do more to keep your team motivated. Pivoting directions quickly may discourage them and make them feel like their hard work is being scrapped. They may also feel like decisions are being made around them and that they have little say in the work they’re doing. When larger changes need to be made, remind your team that this model of work is new and change is normal. Be sure they feel empowered to share their ideas for improving the workplace. Afterall, they’re the ones on the ground doing much of the hands-on work.
For companies new to hybrid work, it can feel like change is the only constant. It may seem daunting, but having the ability to adapt will be one of your team’s best assets. It ensures you’re actively improving the workplace to keep up with people’s evolving needs. Lean into it by embracing a “test and iterate” culture. Identify your team’s goals and how you’ll measure your progress. Keep iterating your workplace initiatives until you figure out what works best for your company. Finally, remember that what works best at one point may change. Keep your team’s spirits high by getting them excited about change. Be sure they feel they can contribute to improving the workplace and aren’t only expected to take direction.