Going Hybrid? 3 Key Risks To Mitigate

An image of a hybrid team

Originally published in Forbes by Laurel Farrer

Like the lovely spring weather, return to office strategies are in full bloom, with companies like Microsoft and Google all encouraging their employees to make workdays in HQ part of their flexible schedules. The prediction that hybrid will be the workplace model of choice for the foreseeable future is now confirmed. 

As companies begin this return-to-office mass migration, many are beginning the hard work of adapting their operations to fit a hybrid workplace model, including policy building, infrastructure cleanup and improving employee experience. In this best-of-both-worlds future of work, what could possibly go wrong?

Because no two companies are mirror images in their operations, company cultures or business objectives, in order to properly design a winning model for the future, organizations consider potential risks that may be exclusively unique to them, so they can go into hybrid working with eyes wide open and be strategic about their virtual organizational development plan.

Based on historical case studies that showcase the common mistakes of hybrid teams and expensive risks of flexibility policy retractions, there are three primary dangers that business leaders should beware of if implementing a hybrid work model: 

Risk 1: Proximity-Biased Management

Using messages like “return to work” instead of “return to office” may be the first sign that company leadership has a biased opinion about the loyalty of those that choose to continue working remotely, since the former phrase suggests that being back in a centralized workspace will resume productivity. That’s a dangerous opinion to have, since it ignores the two years of hard work (and, often, overwork) that employees have been producing in order to maintain business continuity during an unexpected, international crisis. It’s also an indication that management methods are still based on physical supervision and haven’t been properly updated to measure off-site work as equally or accurately as on-site work. Over time, both of these habits can lead to the favoring of on-site employees and discrimination of virtual workers, putting the company at risk for workforce attrition or legal action.  

To minimize the risk for proximity-biased management in your hybrid team, implement the following preventive measures: 

  • Performance Management — Design a framework that prioritizes the root word of “productivity” — to produce. In other words, value the output of workers over their presence in a certain location, since results can be submitted and equally measured from any location.

  • Leadership Training — In many cases, micromanagement and proximity bias are just a result of the classic conundrum, “You don’t know what you don’t know.” After generations of managing teams in a centralized environment, the expectations of virtual leadership seem foreign to many supervisors. Luckily, there is a simple solution. Update your training and career development programs to include virtual leadership skills that help managers lead remote workers as effectively as they do on-site workers.

Risk 2: Workplace Discrepancies

Working from anywhere may feel like a luxury for remote professionals, but often the variables of these workplace environments puts them at a disadvantage to their in-office counterparts. Consider measuring the performance of one employee who is in the office with a lightning-fast internet connection, professionally-cleaned office and state of the art computer; in comparison to one of their colleagues who is hunkered down in the corner of a noisy coffee shop with a spotty connection and blenders running in the background. Their performance reviews are likely to be drastically different, but that has nothing to do with their professional qualifications. 

To equitably set all of your workers up for success, regardless of their location, consider offering the following programs: 

  • Health, Safety, & Setup TrainingOccupational health and safety regulations may or may not be enforced offsite, but to keep everyone safe, and remain compliant, organizations should at least educate workers about what those standards are and how to enforce them in their home and mobile offices. Discuss safety protocols, emergency action plans and common hazards in onboarding, continuing education trainings and in your company’s digital handbook.

  • Equipment and Security — Providing quality equipment in home and company offices of the same quality to what you have in the office is important to maintaining continuity and consistency across all work locations. Take an inventory of equipment and information security policies, paying special attention to “Bring Your Own Device” (BYOD) policies to ensure optimum performance and capability for all employees, regardless of where they work.

Risk 3: Workforce Discrimination

Hybrid models are inherently complex, just by nature of the dichotomy in environmental conditions. Creating and maintaining an equal employee experience is fraught with challenges and blindspots when you have team members working from a variety of locations, using different equipment and performing in a spectrum of conditions. 

On one hand, this wide range of diversity is one of the greatest benefits of the future of work, and they can generously reward your company with productivity and profitability. On the other hand, if proper change management procedures haven’t been implemented, then your organization may be in danger of creating an imbalanced employee experience, which can snowball into complaints, attrition or even lawsuits. Minimize the chances of those problems arising with a few simple steps: 

  • Flexibility Accessibility & Training — The most common error of new hybrid organizations is leaving decision making about flexibility permissions and training up to “the discretion of each manager.” While this is an efficient change management model, it’s a hotbed of risk for biased decision making, based on each manager’s personal opinions of and/or experience with remote work. Instead, give approvals and training for flexibility on the company level.

  • Information Accessibility — When it comes to having shared office spaces, it’s instinctual to keep certain files, roles or activities based in the office because that’s what we did before the pandemic. But in a hybrid world, keeping resources locked in the office creates more accessibility to them for the people that happen to be on-site and prevents accessibility to them for the people that happen to be off-site. That imbalance might just be the difference between one employee staying productive and the other being blocked. To resolve, make sure the digitization process is complete for all departments and records.

So, what’s the first step in minimizing risk in your company’s new hybrid model? Start by evaluating your operational infrastructure to ensure that your people and processes are just going back to the office, not going back to an outdated, proximity-based way of working.  Focus on taking a deep look at your management practices, workplace consistency and risk for biased decision making. Intentionally building these program and protocols can ensure that an inherently diverse daily employee experience doesn’t snowball into discrimination or operational loss, by prioritizing location-independent productivity and equal employee experience.

Megan DilleyHybrid Teams