The many flavors of hybrid work

Understanding the variations in approaches to flexible, hybrid, and remote teams

Jargon /ˈjärɡən/ noun

Special words or expressions that are used by a particular profession or group and are difficult for others to understand.

When it comes to change and innovation, jargon certainly comes with the territory. The transition to hybrid work is no different. And so as every organization in the country starts to develop their long-term plans for how to evolve beyond the “everyone remote” COVID era, the buzzwords have started to fly.

From “distributed” to “remote-first” to “hybrid” and “flexible work,” there’s a whole new language around how companies are choosing to operate.

The good news is, common language and descriptions are emerging for these hybrid / remote variations. In this post, we’ll map out the different approaches to hybrid and remote work and the language representing them. We’ll also define and contrast them, and detail their implications on geographic distribution and recruiting practices.

But first: RIP to 5 days in the office

Okay, so this isn’t exactly breaking news. But the traditional 5-day in-the-office workweek? Done. Gone. Sayonara. And I don’t just mean that from an “HR trends” or headlines perspective. Since October, across my 100+ conversations with companies ranging from law firms, to manufacturers, to tech startups - I have yet to find a single one that plans to go back to the office 5 days/week. Even those organizations that previously had strict “no work from home” policies have acquiesced to some degree flexible work arrangements and/or work from home allowances.

The cat is quite literally out of the bag, and I don’t think there’s any going back in. So for all intents and purposes, 5 days in the office is dead. RIP.

With that covered, let’s get into the flavors of hybrid…

Flavor 1: “Office as default”
(a.k.a. flexible work arrangements)

At a glance

  • Office expectations: 4+ days in the office for [nearly] all employees

  • WFH: Some opportunities to work from home ~1x/week (approvals often required)

  • Virtual hiring: No (or extremely limited). Some companies might have satellite offices with only a few people, but not truly virtual in the “anywhere” sense

  • Common amongst: Companies that were 100% in-office pre-COVID and/or industries with significant client-facing activities; also, executives that believe productivity is highest in-person

The big picture

“Office as default” might feel like a small (if even) step toward the hybrid world. Yet, for a large portion of the American working population, it holds real significance when you consider their prior baseline. For the majority of companies in this category, they have a long history of all work being done in the office. In most cases, any kind of flexible work or work from home didn’t exist or was by limited exception only.

COVID broke the dam by forcing these organizations to transition to fully remote for extended periods of time. Now, while the organization may still have a strong perspective regarding work happening in the office, the desire (er, demand) from employees to retain some remote flexibility has begun to shift the entrenched in-office behavior. As I wrote about last week, for many CEOs/Exec teams, even this shift toward flexibility brings discomfort. But it’s a first step toward empowering employees to do their best work from anywhere.

Flavor 2: Hybrid Work

In the “Hybrid” category, there are really two variants that are emerging. Let’s break them down individually.

Local hybrid

At a glance

  • Office expectations: ~2-4 days on average, but with some companies allowing flexibility from 0 to 4+

  • WFH: Open to [nearly] everyone, except for functions considered “critical to be in the office” (e.g. hardware teams, etc.)

  • Virtual hiring: None or very limited. Employees must be “tied to an office” or within “regular commuting distance”

  • Common amongst: Companies that believe in-person collaboration for employees is essential to organizational productivity and/or culture, but that also want to give employees flexibility around where they get work done overall

The big picture

Along with “remote friendly hybrid,” “local hybrid” is the most common approach to the post-COVID work environment that I’m seeing - from companies of all sizes. These organizations vary in exactly how often they expect employees to use the office and what percentage of their workforce they think will come in regularly. Some have stricter rules than others (e.g. one day a week for required in-office meetings) but overall, their approach reflects a belief both in the value of in-office time, plus the flexibility earned by employees to be productive (and balanced) out of the office.

What distinguishes “local” from “remote friendly” is how the organization plans to approach geographic clustering and remote work. For “local hybrid” companies, they will continue hiring in office-based geographic centers. This is driven by the desire for new employees to continue being within a reasonable distance to come to the office regularly. In some cases, it is also related to localized operating requirements (e.g. proximity to a client base, like being near DC for government contractors).

Remote friendly hybrid

At a glance

  • Office expectations: Anywhere from 0 to 4+ days in the office, with guidelines varying by company and team

  • WFH: Open to everyone, with very occasional exceptions for roles considered “critical to be in an office” (e.g. customer support, etc.)

  • Virtual hiring: Prioritized, with any “local hiring" being restricted to a very small subset of specific roles/locations. No required ties to a work location.

  • Common amongst: Companies that see hybrid as a meaningful opportunity to expand talent acquisition reach, while still wanting to preserve opportunities for regular collaboration to be done in-person

The big picture

From a day-to-day perspective, “remote friendly hybrid” is very similar to “local hybrid” in terms of in-office vs. WFH expectations. That said, the different posture toward remote hiring impacts the organization in a few important ways:

  1. Opens up the hiring pool beyond office-based geographies

  2. Places additional emphasis on “remote vs. in-office” equity in terms of in-office guidelines, offerings, benefits, etc.

  3. Amplifies investments in diversity hiring programs

In practice, this means “remote friendly hybrid” organizations are more likely to have even more flexible and varied in-office attendance. They tend to be most interested in redesigning office space to orient even more toward in-person collaboration (vs. desk work).

What has stood out most notably is how frequently these organizations cite their desire to broaden their talent pool and improve diversity in their team composition. For many HR leaders, they see the COVID-inspired transformation to hybrid as a supercharged chance to connect with an untapped talent pool. They also believe it will enable them to more aggressively pursue - and meet - diversity hiring goals by recruiting in geographies with different demographic compositions. If that plays out in practice, it could lead to a transformational improvement in diversity and inclusion in the workforce.

Flavor 3: “Remote First”

At a glance

  • Office expectations: 100% optional, often with downsized footprint geared toward collaborative work and events

  • WFH: Default state for all employees, whether local or remote

  • Virtual hiring: Default orientation, with rarely any consideration of geography in hiring

  • Common amongst: Companies that believe they can be fully productive while remote, but see value in maintaining some physical footprint for anything from limited in-person work, to company events, to physical storage

The big picture

COVID forced millions of organizations into the deepest of deep ends with remote work, and, well, some companies seem to have fallen in love with swimming! These are the organizations most responsible for driving the momentum of the “remote eats the world” narrative, as they far outnumber the fully distributed teams we’ll talk about below. “Remote first” companies don’t just see virtual as a new opportunity for hiring or diversity, but the preferred way of building a successful, productive organization. And these companies certainly include a subset whose CFOs saw this as game-changing opportunity to capitalize on reduced real estate costs.

While they still hold onto some physical space, many will downsize considerably or even transition to small satellite offices without a headquarters or significant square footage. There will be no expectations for people to come into the office with any frequency, and there may even be restrictions on office usage frequency given space constraints.

These organizations are likely to face critical decisions around office space retention (why keep any?) while taking on most of the challenges that distributed teams will tackle as well.

Flavor 4: Fully Distributed

At a glance

  • Office expectations: None! What office?

  • WFH: From home, from coffee shop, from park…anywhere employees want.

  • Virtual hiring: The only type of hiring

  • Common amongst: Tech companies that have a legacy of remote-friendly work and/or that have thrived as fully remote and don’t want to look back

The big picture

These companies have enjoyed constant headlines since last summer, with notable Fortune 500 names joining the ranks of companies that are going “office-less” and building fully distributed teams. Organizations in this category will realize all the cost and operational savings of not having an office, and will enjoy the upside of being able to recruit and build teams anywhere.

At the same time, they’re eager to adopt new mechanisms and software for collaborating, and for creating team culture and bonding, including in-person events for the team to travel to post-COVID. These companies believe they can leverage the practices they adopted during COVID’s remote period to maintain high productivity while giving ultimate flexibility and freedom to their employees.

What’s your favorite flavor?

Each of these new models of hybrid and remote work will provide opportunities and challenges for organizations to face. And it’s likely that even more variations will emerge as we get closer to a complete reopening of offices and the reality of a post-COVID world.

As you or your teams work to determine the hybrid flavor that fits your organization, make sure you are addressing these questions:

  • How will you collaborate? What is best accomplished digitally vs. in-person? What tools and software will you need in each case?

  • How do you want to hire? Do you need local teams? Can you be fully productive virtually? How will you create culture across locations?

  • How will you onboard in-person and remote employees? Will you require travel or in-person activities? How do you create equitable experiences for local vs. remote employees?

  • What will your real estate strategy be? How much space do you want? How much do you need? What layout/design makes sense for your hybrid strategy?

  • How will your teams coordinate office usage + remote communication? How do you synchronize in-office time for local teams? How do you set guidelines around communications and “online time”? Will employees be able to find each other (in-person or digitally)?

This is just a portion of the full list of considerations that will influence (or result from) the type of hybrid approach your organization is pursuing.

Being able to clearly name, define, and describe your approach is the first step. It will help your teams - and new hires - have a clear picture of the company you are building, the expectations you are setting, and how you envision success in the new world.

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