Create a hybrid work model as part of a competitive strategy

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How many days per week does your business ask you to come back to the office? It has become a polarizing question, and the answer is seen as a marker of whether the company or employees come first. Apple, for example, says it wants office workers on Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays starting in September, a plan that has sparked a backlash from employees. Citigroup also asked its employees to be in the office three days a week. Some companies, like Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan Chase, are hoping to return to an everyone-on-the-spot model. Bank of America wants all vaccinated employees to be on duty by September. Ford Motor, Salesforce.com and Twitter say they will extend working from home indefinitely.

While plans vary widely, most companies are considering a hybrid arrangement like Apple’s – a fixed schedule of remote days and office days. But uniform policies for all employees are a mistake. Leaders should make more nuanced choices that reflect the needs of employees and the business. It’s more complex than just choosing a scheme for the whole business, but the gain in that complexity will be worth it.

Think of this model as “strategically hybrid,” a timeline that reflects the specific ways that individuals and teams interact to create value. Optimizing a business in this way can help sharpen its competitive position. This can increase productivity and speed in some areas, while doubling creativity, collaboration, and the full human experience in others. Together, these choices will be difficult to replicate and may form the basis of lasting advantage.

The following questions should guide these choices: Where do we want to prioritize efficiency, speed and coordination, knowing that the answer often points to remote work? Where do we want to prioritize creativity, spontaneity, and complex problem solving, which are more likely to happen in person? For culture development activities, what is the right mix of in-person and virtual interactions? If employees in different positions or roles have their own preferred workplace, what flexibility will we provide? Are we prepared to lose people if we cannot accommodate their preferences?

Consider the return-to-work choices of two hypothetical companies. Trendy Store and ClassicClothes.com are retailers. Each sells casual clothes. Trendy Store’s competitive strategy is to be store-centric and forward thinking. ClassicClothes.com’s strategy is to sell an organized collection of established brands online. The different strategies that guide their return to work plans can be viewed by department. In finance, Trendy performs routine activities and his productivity has increased by working remotely. Post-covid, staff will continue to work remotely, coming to the office two days a month for work reviews. ClassicClothes.com dynamically adjusts online prices, for which its financial group consults the merchandising division on an hourly basis, and so this team will resume its functions. For procurement, Trendy designers will return to the office each day to collaborate on a process that cannot be properly replicated online. ClassicClothes.com sources from regular brands, so its merchandisers will be working from home. For sales / customer service Trendy needs staff to come and serve customers in person, but ClassicClothes.com does not.

In all functions, the choices of each company are guided by its overall corporate strategy. These choices could be even finer. In Harvard Business Review, Lynda Gratton argues that managers should make return-to-work decisions not only by function or department, but also individually, taking into account variables such as the length of an employee’s commute to work, availability of space at home, etc …

The strategic hybrid approach has significant potential drawbacks. Building a cohesive corporate culture will be more difficult in such a workplace. Organizations need to ensure that their diversity and inclusion goals are not inadvertently hampered in this process. Allowing some people to continue working from home and forcing others to return to the office risks growing jealousy, resentment, and complaints about fairness. The strategic reasons for these decisions must be communicated clearly and firmly.

Giving each employee their ideal arrangement cannot be a major concern. Yes, some people may leave for another job if presented with a return-to-work policy that does not suit them. But this risk will likely decrease over time. It will be a rare company that says, “Work where you want, when you want, the choice is yours!” Shifting to the strategic hybrid requires recognizing the types of in-person collaboration that create value while balancing the concerns of people. stakeholders to improve the competitiveness of the company. Success is a key part of job satisfaction, ultimately, and making smart compromises is the essence of leadership.

Nitin Nohria is a professor and former Dean of Harvard Business School.

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