Many of us have spent some portion of the last few years working remotely. As severity of the pandemic and restrictions declined, some of us have either returned to the office full-time, or companies have decided to shut down office spaces and become fully remote. But what happens for those in the middle, who navigate mixed days and can choose when we are and aren’t in the office? In many ways, it seems like the definition of the best of both worlds. That option offers the opportunity to eliminate a commute on days where you want a little bit of extra time to cook dinner or make it to a child’s activity, while maintaining the option to head into the office on other days when you want to catch up with coworkers and attend team meetings in person.
The reality is a little bit more complex. Infinite flexibility can be ambiguous, especially when there isn’t intention and consistency throughout leadership. It’s critical to implement structure within flexibility – this is not an oxymoron – to set clear intentions throughout a team. Otherwise, there is a risk that a lack of clarity in leadership expectations can lead to inequity within a team, particularly for women. How can you make flexible models work well – what’s the good, the bad, and the ugly?
By: Sophie Warwick
When done right, it’s my opinion that the hybrid model is the perfect model. It offers additional hours in a week for employees to meet life’s demands and limit burnout, while still providing the opportunity to connect with your team in person. I recognize that this perspective comes from a position of privilege. Many people do not have the opportunity to work from home and have not for the duration of the pandemic. I believe more compensation needs to be provided to these employees whether in the form of salary, vacation, or flex days to limit burnout and provide them the support they deserve.
1) The opportunity to stay home when surprises come up in your personal life. Surprises come in all shapes and sizes, from being home to let a repair person in for a warm fridge to a snow day keeping the kids at home. This disproportionately impacts women as they are still the majority of primary caregivers in Canada. In the past, this may have meant taking a day off, but with the normalcy of remote working, life’s surprises offer limited disruption in your workday. There’s no longer a need to reschedule meetings when the hybrid model is the norm, which limits lost time to administrative work. The meeting link is likely already in the calendar even if it was a preferred in person meeting.
2) Getting back additional time in your week by reducing commute time. Even if your commute time is only 27 minutes each way (the average driving commute time in Vancouver), you save almost 2 hours per week if you work from home on 2 days. That gives you 108 minutes a week (or 5,184 minutes a year based on working 48 weeks. That’s a whopping 86.4 hours a year) that can be used towards exercise, meal prep, or time to spend with friends and loved ones. The savings are even more if you use transit with a higher average commute of 44 minutes (Crawford, 2021). The additional time can be hugely valuable to individual happiness and reduced stress.
On a larger scale, it also means reductions on carbon emissions and a reduction in our environmental impact. There are many jobs that require individuals to work from a specific location, but many don’t, and this model can be hugely beneficial to our net impact, while still allowing for the in-person socializing and team building that can be so valuable. And if you’re like me and often spend time spiraling about climate change, this is a big win.
3) More time to take care of you. Around 3 months into working from home during the pandemic, I began to feel a sense of calmness I hadn’t felt in many years. The fear of safety for my loved ones was still high, but I’d begun to get to the stage of living with that fear. I began reflecting on how much I previously had to pack into a single day. I was commuting to and from work and to the gym and then out to meet friends for dinner. They were all valuable and fun experiences, but in hindsight I enjoyed them all ever so slightly less because I’d packed too many into one day. I found that reducing the amount I schedule in makes me enjoy everything that does make the cut so much more. I have more energy to appreciate those experiences.
As someone who loves to cook, I now cherish so much that my big cooking nights are those that I work from home and can start right as I finish the day. Instead of rushing home and starting late, I cook slowly and peacefully. It is so impactful to reducing my day-to-day stress and makes me more successful and energized when I return to work the following day.
4) Increased flexibility for project opportunities for multi-regional businesses. It’s no longer as valuable in many industries if a company has boots on the ground in a particular city. Or, if you’re interested in working on a greater variety of projects and your company has multiple offices, when virtual meetings are the norm, there is more opportunity to try those different experiences within a company without moving to that new city. With a generation who tend to have shorter tenures and a strong hunger for new experiences dominating the workforce, offering creative opportunities to implement variety in jobs is imperative to retention. I’m so grateful that I now have the freedom to work with teams across Canada, both for the opportunity to learn from a variety of people, but also to further develop my skillset by navigating regional differences in my work.
Without important structure in the hybrid working model there is a risk of regressing the gender equity we’ve achieved in the workplace so far when we still need to improve it. Bias influences our decision making significantly and can be further aggravated when we don’t interact with those who are different from us. Working remotely means we require intention to maintain connections and ensure we’re giving all team members equitable attention.
1) Don’t underestimate structure and clear expectations. When the “unlimited vacation model” first started in tech companies it seemed like the greatest thing since sliced bread. But it’s a little bit more complicated than it seems. Obviously, 52 weeks of vacation a year is too many, so then what is the line and how do you prevent competition and resentment between employees because the expectation is unclear?
The hybrid model is no different. When there really is no preference at all, that is wonderful, but even that needs to be made explicitly clear, and considered consciously in performance reviews. Do employees that work the same model as the leadership team get promoted more often than those following a different routine? If as a leader you notice a preference to those employees who are in the office, then you need to set up some structure to make the opportunity equitable. Try selecting a day with your team when you’ll all be in the office, so there is equal access to connect in person. So often, I hear of companies that boast you are free to choose, and yet senior leaders start each meeting by announcing how valuable being in person is. If that’s the case, be direct and communicate your needs clearly.
2) Recognize who may require more flexibility and ensure any bias is disrupted in evaluating those individuals. Women still make up the majority of caregivers (both for children and aging parents) in Canada (see Beyond parental leave) and may value the ability to work from home more than some men, particularly those without children. With inequity in face-to-face time and no conscious effort to correct biases in performance evaluations, women may be disproportionately losing promotion opportunities because they benefit more from the option to work remotely, due to their higher at home demands. Confront and challenge bias to promote those who make it into the office and ensure necessary policy is in place to review performance evaluations to guarantee preference isn’t made to those who work from the office. Contact us at email@example.com for support in reviewing policies.
3) Missing important opportunities to connect with those outside your team or senior leaders who are beyond your direct report. We still live in a highly gendered society. It can still be socially awkward and difficult to make time for virtual coffees with leaders or coworkers of another gender, particularly for a more casual catch up when we’re seeking to build a professional relationship as opposed to asking a specific or technical question. Recognize that within a male dominated environment, staff who are women or non-binary may not be reaching out, or being reached out to, as much as men as a result.
It can be valuable to plan your in-office days around your team, but you may also want to plan those days around connecting with more senior leaders or those in a different department. I would recommend a sign-in sheet where people can fill in their in-office days the week before to allow others to plan around. It doesn’t have to be a binding contract but does allow more opportunity to connect with certain individuals. It’s also a less formal way of encouraging a larger group on a particular day – because let’s face it, if you’re travelling all the way into the office one day it’s a lot more fun to arrive to see people in the office than be surprised that you’re the only one who came in that day.
4) Reduced office spaces shouldn’t mean reduced essential facilities. With desk sharing sometimes pushing for smaller office space, some important amenities may be lost to downsizing. Pump rooms, on-site daycare, or daycare compensation (see Beyond parental leave), are critical support services to keep parents in the workplace. It absolutely makes sense to have smaller office spaces if less employees are in the office and hotspots allow for desk sharing, but make sure the important services your employees need are still maintained. When they are removed, it then limits access to the office for parents who may now be unable to pump at work or afford the nearby daycare, or additional childcare hours to accommodate commute time. This would disproportionately limit access to important facetime for parents.
The hybrid model can absolutely be successful, and employees can perform effectively in person and remotely. However, some structure needs to be implemented to define clear expectations and policies for an effective hybrid working model. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org for policy advice on equitable structure for navigating the hybrid model.
Crawford, T. (2021, April 22). COVID-19: Study finds Vancouver commuters save up to 14.2 days a year working from home. Retrieved from Vancouver Sun: https://vancouversun.com/news/covid-19-study-finds-vancouver-commuters-save-up-to-14-2-days-a-year-working-from-home#:~:text=Vancouver's%20numbers%20were%20calculated%20using,days%20saved%20would%20be%20higher.