Before you even think about a hybrid work arrangement, you need to first make sure your workplace is ping pong proof.
Hybrid workspaces are a hot topic right now. The idea that we rethink our shared office spaces to allow for more flexibility and collaboration, that we support both remote and co-located work, and employees can choose the work environments they prefer. There’s some in-office time and some work-from-home time. And this is a great, aspirational way to think about the workplace of the future.
But our current reality is far more complex than just working 3 days in the office and 2 days at home, and we all know that.
We need to talk seriously about how we manage the uncertainty of work availability, for employees and employers.
This is a topic I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about. In 2010, I published my doctoral dissertation on the concept of “atomization” - breaking up one’s time into small chunks to enable control and flexibility. While the capabilities of our technology have only increased our ability to work anywhere at any time, the organizational and societal structures have not always kept up.
But the Covid pandemic has helped to push some of those changes forward. When so many white-collar workers began to work from home last March, employers had to scramble to implement remote-friendly policies. That included everything from home office stipends, flexible working hours, virtual meetings, and so much more.
Now, as we near 500 days into this pandemic, some employers (and employees) are planning a return to co-located work, or moving to a hybrid model. Others have gone permanently and fully remote. Regardless of your company's model, the main thing you need to be thinking about right now is how your workplace could be more ping pong proof.
What do I mean by that? Read on.
First, a brief recent history lesson
What has the past 500 days looked like? In my mind, the pandemic has played out in four distinct phases as it relates to work. Your timing may vary slightly from mine, depending on where you live.
Phase 1: March - May 2020
Most of us didn’t think Covid would last very long, so we figured we could make it through a few weeks working from home with kids and partners and roommates around. Annoying, but no big deal.
Phase 2: June 2020 - February 2021
Starting last summer, it became clear this pandemic would last a while, so we started to find longer-term solutions - better home work stations, pods, in-home childcare, sharing space with parents, whatever we could do to get through another 6 to 12 months. It wouldn’t last forever, but it would last through the year at least.
Phase 3: March 2021 - June 2021
Starting this spring, we started to see the light at the end of the tunnel. We made it! Vaccines are here! Things can start to go back to normal, we can start meeting up in person, and working from the office, traveling, and sending our kids to in-person school.
Phase 4: July 2021 - ??
Hmm, maybe this thing isn't done with us yet. We’ve seen some backsliding, as it turns out that not everyone is as eager to get that vaccine as we thought (and younger kids still can’t get it). Schools close here and there as Covid pops up again. Some communities are seeing increases in positivity rates and reinstating distancing and masking orders. And there's the uncertainty around everything - is this a short-term thing? Do we just have to wait out this surge or do we have another year of this?
We might have moved into phase 3 too soon. Or phase 3 should have been a more tempered approach to slowly reopening. But it doesn’t really matter now, because it's happening. So now we’re seeing increases in cases in many areas, and we’re probably going to bounce back and forth between having this thing under control and not having it under control. We’re in the ping pong phase now, and it’s going to last a while. Maybe years.
So how do you ping pong proof your workplace?
Right now is not the time to think about some ideal post-pandemic future where everyone can work wherever and wherever. We’re going to be in this in-between stage for a long time, so we need to plan for it specifically. And we all know that just getting by isn't enough anymore.
First, let me explain a little more about what the ping pong phase means for work. It means there's a tremendous amount of uncertainty about the future, both at work and outside of work, and individual conditions can change at any time. It's an unpredictable time that demands true flexibility and thoughtfulness. Your employees will all have different experiences, and thus, different needs.
There are a number of unpredictable situations your employees could encounter. All of these are external to work, but will have a big impact on their ability to get work done. For example:
- Schools close or childcare arrangements change.
- A relative gets sick and needs care.
- Local community social distancing and travel restrictions increase.
- Exposure to Covid requires at-home quarantine.
- A partner's work situation changes, impacting the employee's availability.
- Travel conditions change and lead to quarantine away from home.
- The employee themselves could test positive for Covid, even after they’ve been vaccinated.
Any of these things could happen at any time to any of your employees - some of them happened before Covid and will continue long after. So ping pong proofing your workplace will benefit your entire team, even when we’re not fighting our way through a pandemic.
We need to be thinking about building true, individualized flexibility into our work - not just letting your team work from home a couple days a week.
That means flexibility in more than just physical work spaces. That means no one-size-fits-all guidelines requiring employees to spend 60% of their time in the office, or work-from-home Wednesdays, or random Fridays off. These policies seem flexible, but they’re really employer-focused, not employee-focused.
Right now, your employees are (still) dealing with interruptions, last minute changes to availability, distractions, anxiety, and asynchronous schedules. Your ultimate goal should be figuring out what it takes to make sure that, despite the chaos, your employees can feel creative, happy, stimulated, and motivated. How? Think about some of the following.
Physical work spaces. Some employees work well at home; some don't. What can you do to your office space to give employees who want or need to get out of the house a productive space to work? Think about location, facilities, amenities, availability. Are there clusters of employees who could work together in a co-working space? Are there non-traditional workspaces you could take advantage of?
Collaboration. Working remotely can be isolating, especially when other in-person interactions are limited. Help your team find opportunities for collaboration. What tools do you need? What spaces (online or in-person) can you create for teams to gather? What skills can you practice to be sure your new ways of collaborating are successful?
Flow. How can you make space for deep thinking? It's important for both productivity and creativity for employees to get into a flow state. How do you help your employees find those longer blocks of time? How can you help clear interruptions?
Communication. You'll need to be intentional about communication. Be clear about where employees can find information and how they connect with their teammates. Consider synchronous and asynchronous communication channels.
Meetings. What meetings do you need to have, and on what schedule? When do you need to have in-person meetings, vs video calls or audio-only calls? Are there meetings you could remove from everyone's schedule or have less often? Meetings can be a good opportunity to connect with your team, to talk through problems or projects. But they can also be a waste of time, and they're difficult for some employees to attend from home.
Work tasks. There may be some work projects or responsibilities that some employees simply can't tackle now. How can you ensure the work that needs to be done is done, and that employees have work they can do? You may need to reassign employees to new roles, or adjust the responsibilities of other roles. Can employees reduce their hours or change their schedules? What about deadlines?
Time off. What do you need to do to your PTO and sick time policies? If you have rigid rules about notice periods or the amount of time an employee can take, consider relaxing those, at least for now. Be clear about expectations.
Perks and benefits. Are there changes you can make to your team's benefits? Think about adding benefits that support the changes we're all dealing with - like on-demand childcare, dogwalking services, grocery delivery stipends, noise-cancelling headphones, etc... If gyms are closed in your area, maybe you can reallocate those gym membership stipends.
Individual needs. Everyone has experienced this pandemic differently, and the ping pong effect will impact each person in unique ways. Your employees with kids will have different needs than your employees who live on their own. Your senior employees will have different needs than your newer employees. Sales people will have different needs than software developers. This is where you'll need to get really creative - how can you create policies that treat everyone uniquely but fairly?
Becoming ping pong proof will require a complex and nuanced approach to updating your work environment. But at least the past 500 days has probably given you some idea about what works and what doesn't. And talk to your team about their ideas - they're bound to have lots of great suggestions, as well.
As you figure these things out, I'd love to hear what works for your team. Keep me posted!