Home & Office

Hybrid working or back to the office, here's how to keep everyone engaged

While many of us enjoy working remotely at least some of the time, it's a challenge to find the right balance between home and office workers.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor

Giving staff decision-making power is crucial in super-competitive labor markets.

Alistair Berg/Getty Images

Hybrid working is here to stay. While some managers have made moves to try and get staff back into the office, many workers enjoy the balance between work and home life that hybrid working affords. 

So, how can companies create an effective balance between home and office work? Five business leaders give us their tips for creating a successful hybrid-work strategy.

1. Align your strategy to the things people need to achieve

Athina Kanioura, chief strategy and transformation officer at PepsiCo, agrees hybrid working is here to stay and wants to make it a success.

"You need a balance," she says.

While Kanioura is a believer in the benefits of hybrid working, her department is new and fast-growing -- since joining PepsiCo in September 20202, her team has increased from four people to 700, and will soon reach 1,000. 

She believes new workers must meet and connect in person regularly, so her team is expected to come into the office three days a week. 

"Hybrid is great when you have an established relationship, but not when you are new to the organization. You can't make that work virtually," she says.

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Kanioura's staff use their time at HQ to engage productively through meetings and one-to-ones. Home working is for developing insight on projects; office working is for taking action. "When we make a decision, we have to be together -- because we have to debate, we have to argue, and we have to drive to an ultimate outcome," she says. 

2. Use your time in the office to share ideas

Mark O'Brien, senior platform manager at Leeds Building Society, says his organization has found a cadence -- usually three days in the office and two days at home -- that's effective for most professionals and their managers.

"I think we've just been flexible around people's needs. One thing homeworking has meant is that you can cope with some things working from home." 

But as great as it can be to take in deliveries or ensure the laundry hamper is empty, O'Brien recognizes that being in the physical office has its benefits, too.

"I tend to be in quite a bit as I like being in the office," he says. "I do think that there are some things -- no matter how good the collaboration technology is -- that can't replicate being in the office and working together as part of a team." 

O'Brien says it's important to remember that being an effective professional means being part of a wider organizational culture -- and face-to-face interaction is likely to be key.

"It does help to be in and around people and to see them. That's particularly true of collaborative stuff," he says. "Some of that is corridor conversations, especially from a management and leadership point of view. I haven't really found a successful online alternative. It's surprising how much you can do in five minutes chatting after bumping into someone in a corridor."

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3. Use the right channels to stay in touch

Zarah Al-Kudcy, head of commercial partnerships at Formula 1, says there's no such thing as over-communication when it comes to getting home workers as involved as office staff.

"I think you can become reliant on the fact that you've done a group video call and then you assume everything else is fine," she says. "You might think, 'I don't need to check in,' and then you sometimes lose something that's important."

Al-Kudcy says one-to-one interaction is crucial to success. Even small things -- such as one-off Teams, WhatsApp, or Slack messages to check in and see how people are doing -- can be important. 

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Picking the right channel to foster those interactions is also crucial.

"I get a sense for what people like best and do that. You'll find that some people can't deal with WhatsApp, so that means checking in with an iMessage or a phone call. And there are some people who don't really like video calls. So, if I catch up on a video link, like Google Meet, I will just turn the video off," she says. 

"So, there are different nuances for everyone now," Al-Kudcy adds. "And the physical interaction is still needed, for sure. I think the physical interaction is more important for long-term relationships and the people you work with on a day-to-day basis, rather than just the one-off meetings."

4. Get remote workers together to build a conversation

Matthew Lawson, chief digital officer at Ribble Cycles, says he's focused on "building a conversation" for people who are working away from the office.

"The challenge we've had with the introduction of remote working, and Zoom and Teams, is things becoming more transactional, where people think, 'I'm having a conversation with you, you're going to give me something, I'm going to get something back,' and then we move on to the next thing," he says.

"The problem with that approach is that it's not building relations and conversations. It's not encouraging collaboration."

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Instead, Lawson encourages an informal online get-together, where the whole team joins in and has a chat. 

"The team has a laugh; they get interaction, and they see faces that they don't get to see because they're not in the office walking past. We need to encourage more of that," he says.

"I like meandering conversations to happen and that's hard to do remotely. But I feel like, if we can crack collaboration, then a hybrid approach will ultimately prevail."

5. Let people decide what works best for them

Like many other business leaders who've grappled with managing post-pandemic working styles, Cyril Pourrat, chief procurement officer at telecom company BT, had preconceived ideas about what would make an effective hybrid mix.

"My initial idea was to work three days at the office -- and I was actually more specific and also said we should always work on certain days every week as well." 

However, rather than pushing ahead with this vision, Pourrat -- who is also chief executive of BT Sourced, which is a standalone procurement company operating from the Republic of Ireland -- decided to speak with his staff.

"I asked my extended management team to ask their people what they had in mind in terms of going back to the office. They came up with a solution, which was two days a week in the office, and then we implemented it. And it's worked extremely well."

There's another upside that comes from this engaged approach. Pourrat says giving staff decision-making power is crucial in the super-competitive labor market of Ireland, where other major tech players are always on the lookout for talent.

"People feel empowered because they were asked their opinion and then we implemented their recommendations," he says. "In many ways, there was no other choice than to go down this route, but it has worked out really well."

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