HR Insights -9 min

How to Develop a Successful Hybrid Workforce

February 18, 2021

If you’ve had employees working remotely out of necessity during the COVID-19 pandemic, how will remote work fit into the picture when you reopen your offices? Just because organizations will have the option to bring everyone back to the office at some point doesn’t mean that they have to. Remote work helps businesses stay flexible and productive while reducing costs, so a hybrid workforce may very well be the next step in your organization’s workplace evolution.

But how should you do so in a way that ensures success for both employees and the business? The answer is to develop the right hybrid workforce model that fits your organization. Keep reading to learn more.

What Is a Hybrid Workforce Model?

It may sound like an awful buzzword, but unlike many new additions to our business vocabulary, “hybrid workforce model” actually makes sense: it’s a flexible, or hybrid, work arrangement that incorporates employees who work in a single, central location (e.g., an office, store, or warehouse), employees who work remotely, and employees who alternate between in-office and remote work.

Again, that might just sound like a fancy way to refer to what’s happened as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic: companies shifting to a remote work format whenever and wherever possible. However, a hybrid workforce model is more deliberate than the emergency measures taken by many as a result of the pandemic—instead of reacting to an outside-imposed need for remote work, it’s a proactive plan driven by a combination of factors, including employee wellbeing and business performance.

As George Penn, VP of Gartner explains, “Employers, managers, and employees…share ownership of hybrid work decisions…. Where, and when, work gets done will be determined by what makes the most sense to drive the highest levels of productivity and engagement.”

Moving to a hybrid workforce model has to be a strategic decision because it will affect every dynamic and relationship across your business. Doing it well involves much more than simply drawing a line down the middle of the calendar or dividing up job roles and splitting them between remote and in-person work; it takes assessing the costs, benefits, and desired outcomes for your people and your business, and then creating a plan that minimizes the costs, maximizes the benefits, and achieves the result you want.

What Are the Top Benefits of a Hybrid Workforce?

Additional Flexibility Can Lead to Satisfied Employees

While employees might not have a choice about their working arrangements right now, many want the possibility of working remotely at least some of the time. But that’s not just a trend brought on by the pandemic. In a pre-pandemic survey by Indeed, 40 percent of employees said they’d consider a pay cut in exchange for the option to work remotely.

Certainly, remote work during the pandemic has its challenges: employees may be juggling distractions, like child care and limited privacy, or feeling lonely due to social distancing. But despite all that, employees have gotten a taste of the independence and flexibility that remote work offers and they want to keep it. Among working adults with jobs that can be done remotely, more than half want to keep working from home after the pandemic.

Another survey by LiveCareer puts a finer point on this: 29 percent of respondents said they’ll quit their jobs if they can’t continue working remotely. With that in mind, you could consider the idea of adopting a hybrid workforce strategy as a way to avoid turnover or, in a more positive light, to improve employee satisfaction at your organization.

Hybrid Workforces Help Save Money and Increase Productivity

Besides employee satisfaction, remote work offers tangible savings for organizations and measurable increases in productivity. Harvard Business School professor Prithwiraj Choudhury and fellow researchers looked at the outcomes of flexible work arrangements at the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). Over the 24-month transition period when patent examiners began to work from anywhere, Choudhury found that productivity increased by 4.4 percent, which represents up to 1.3 billion dollars of annual value added to the U.S. economy.

Additionally, this increase in productivity and flexibility led to:

  • Increased revenue
  • Lower in-office costs
  • Lower hiring costs
  • Higher employee real incomes (since they were able to move to places with lower living costs)
  • Reduced emissions

So looking at these findings, you might be thinking all remote, all the time is the way to go rather than a hybrid workforce model. But Choudhury clarifies that this “work from anywhere” model won’t work for everyone since not every job can be done entirely independently (which was the case for these examiners).

Instead, Choudhury makes the following recommendations for getting the most out of flexible work arrangements:

  • In-office work provides a strong foundation of success for remote work programs. For workers in this study, that meant getting a few years experience before going fully remote, but in hybrid workforces, that can mean splitting time between in-person and remote work to get both support and independence.
  • Transition to remote options gradually so teams have the time to adjust their processes and work out the kinks.
  • Use technology to help teams work collaboratively.

What Are the Main Challenges of Managing a Hybrid Workforce?

Differing Home Situations Create Inequalities Employers Need to Address

While remote work has a lot of advantages, work-from-home environments are not created equal. According to a survey by the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research (SIEPR), not every employee can work remotely and not every job will be a good fit for remote work:

  • About half of respondents were able to work from home at 80 percent efficiency or above.
  • 30 percent of respondents were not able to work from home at all.
  • More educated, higher-earning employees were more likely to work from home.

So giving employees the option to work remotely is only part of the equation. As you consider a hybrid workforce model, think about how your business can offer tools or resources to help smooth out any socioeconomic inequalities and help your hybrid workforce be successful remote workers. Additional support could include:

  • Renting (or compensating for) coworking spaces. While some employees might thrive remotely, their home may not be the best place for them to work.
  • Paying for remote workers’ high speed internet. SIEPR identifies this as part of the “ticking inequality time bomb” between those who have been able to work remotely during the pandemic and those who haven’t—as the economy recovers, those without access to the digital economy will continue to be left behind.
  • Providing adequate communication, project management, and other software. Productivity can’t happen without the right tools.
  • Allowing remote employees to work outside the normal 9 AM to 5 PM schedule. It takes coordination to make sure employees have overlapping schedules when they need to collaborate and an emphasis on balance to avoid an “always-on” culture. But fully embracing the flexibility of a hybrid model can help employees shape their work schedules around demanding personal or family schedules.
  • Adjusting compensation and benefits across all positions, especially taking into account the impact on employees who won’t be able to work remotely (we’ll discuss this in more depth later in this post).
“At the heart of a hybrid workforce model are the ideas of shared ownership and trust, which helps organizations break down long-held beliefs and potential myths about where and how work gets done most effectively.” – Gartner

It Won’t Work Unless Employers Commit to Both Employee Experiences

Sid Sijbrandij, cofounder and CEO of GitLab, a fully remote company, is a vocal critic of the hybrid workforce model, in part because it requires companies to equally manage two entirely different employee experiences. But instead of committing fully to the hybrid model, Sijbrandij finds that leadership will often default to the in-office experience as the primary and preferred measuring stick. This not only creates issues in how employees feel about the organization but also in the way it encourages the entire organization to perceive remote and in-person employees as intrinsically different.

He warns, “Those who do hybrid, if not intentional about making systemic changes and treating every employee as if they are remote (whether in-office or not), will see their most effective remote people leave.” In his view, if remote workers in hybrid workforces end up disgruntled or looking less productive, it’s not because they’re out of the office; it’s more likely because they’ve been left out of the loop and measured against outdated, irrelevant in-office standards.

As we’ve discussed, research shows that remote workers are often more productive than their in-office counterparts. Yet, in many newly-hybridized organizations, it’s not uncommon for leadership to give more credit to in-office employees since they’re more visible. Not only is that a potentially damaging perception, it’s a sign that the shift to a hybrid workforce has been superficial rather than a strategic, cultural, and operational shift.

Both Sijbrandji and consulting firm McKinsey make the same recommendation for combatting a superficial shift: make leadership walk the walk. Here are suggestions for how leaders and managers can help everyone commit to the hybrid model:

  • Create new ways to engage informally with your employees. As McKinsey explains, “By defining and embracing new behaviors that are observable to all, and by deliberately making space for virtual employees to engage in informal interactions—leaders can facilitate social cohesion and trust-building in their teams.”
  • Model the hybrid workforce. If leaders and managers are always in the office, then that’s where all decisions will be made, signaling to employees that HQ is still the center of authority and being there in person is the way to get ahead. When leaders and managers also work remotely some of the time, they show that everyone can be productive and successful, no matter where they work.
  • Use in-person interactions strategically. Once it’s safe to have them, in-person interactions have the potential to cement teams and organizations together and enrich culture. Even though they’re a fully remote company, GitLab recognizes the value of in-person connections, so they organize an annual company-wide in-person event and subsidize travel to be able to visit other remote teams around the world (though pre-pandemic, they intend to bring these back once it’s safe to do so).
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How Should You Plan for and Develop a Hybrid Workforce?

Reimagine How Work Gets Done

Managing a hybrid workforce is going to take more trust and creative management strategies. “At the heart of a hybrid workforce model,” global research firm Gartner advises, “are the ideas of shared ownership and trust, which helps organizations break down long-held beliefs and potential myths about where and how work gets done most effectively.”

It might sound scary to have more than just a few employees off-site; you can’t easily pop in and check their work if everyone isn’t in the same building. Based on that traditional management thinking, it may be tempting to limit remote work. So how do you determine who gets to work remotely? How do you decide which jobs can be done off site?

You’ll need to reexamine each position with an open mind. As you decide which position will be eligible for remote work at least sometimes, think about the following questions:

  • Does the employee have to be physically present to perform all of their duties? E.g., equipment that can only be used on site, like special machinery, or face-to-face interactions with customers may limit (though not eliminate) the possibility for remote work.
  • Can your organization invest in better equipment or technological tools to make it easier for employees to work remotely? E.g., if you have specific functions that can only be accessed through your in-office computers, investing in web-based applications not only helps employees be more flexible in their work arrangements, but it brings your technological capabilities up to date and up to speed.
  • Does the work being done rely on collaboration or coordination? E.g., while your video team needs to be together and on set to film, most of the pre- and post-production work like script writing and editing can be done off site.
  • How will you go about figuring what hybrid scheduling works best for your employees? There are plenty of possible combinations in a hybrid workplace: fully remote for some employees, remote a few days a weeks, remote on alternating days, remote on alternating weeks, etc. Or you might decide to go on a case by case basis and need to develop some standard for what makes someone a good candidate for remote work. No matter which strategy you choose, you’ll need to coordinate between certain teams and departments that depend on each other.

Consider, too, how you will measure performance and productivity moving forward. Attendance isn’t the only thing that defines a good employee, so instead of defining performance by input, think about what outcomes you want to see from employees and redefine your performance standards accordingly.

Expand Your Definition of “Remote” and Your Communication Strategies

As you plan for a hybrid workforce model, you need to think about how to keep your people connected and communicating. It may be helpful to think about the “remote” in remote work as more than just a physical distance. A Harvard Business Review (HBR) article notes that there are three kinds of distance in remote collaboration:

  1. Physical (place and time)
  2. Operational (team size, bandwidth, and skill levels)
  3. Affinity (values, trust, and interdependency)

According to HBR, “The best way for managers to drive team performance is by focusing on reducing affinity distance.” Building trust, uniting individuals and teams with a shared purpose, and being more intentional in your communication strategies—like using video calls rather than just voice calls, for example—increases the collaborative and cultural ties that help employees trust and value each other.

In other words, your employees don’t have to feel so far away from each other when they’re working remotely.

Here are other helpful communication and team building strategies:

  • Clearly communicate your company’s vision, mission, and values to inspire all employees to do their best and know their work is meaningful.
  • Create a standard process for communicating issues and addressing challenges that happen.
  • Take time zone variations into consideration when setting meetings.
  • Provide remote employees with the right communication and collaboration tools to streamline workflow and minimize errors or delays, such as a unified communications platform, file sharing app, and project management software. (We know we’ve said this before, but it bears repeating as it’s vital to the success of your hybrid workforce!)
  • Include remote employees in any team meetings. Out of sight should not mean out of mind.
  • Hold virtual team-building activities where remote team members can chat with leaders, other employees, and each other.

Be Creative in How You Reward On Site Employees

You might be wondering about those employees who can’t work remotely—maybe they just don’t like working remotely or their job just can’t be done off site. How can you also help them benefit from the hybrid workforce model? How will you make sure that all employees feel like they’re treated fairly? There isn’t going to be a single right answer for every organization, but one way to make things more equitable across positions is to increase flexibility and choice for those who can’t work remotely.

For example, you might decide that your warehouse manager still needs to be there in person every day, which makes sense since it would be hard to oversee shipments, make sure warehouse workers follow safety protocols, or inspect deliveries from a different location. But since your office manager uses cloud-based software to run payroll and manage the office’s schedule, she works from home a few days a week.

In order to keep both people happy, you could offer additional paid time off to your warehouse manager and staff during its “low” season, helping them have more flexibility in their time off schedule. While this isn’t the same as being able to work from home, it’s a way to give those employees more choice in their work schedules without affecting vital business operations.

Other ideas for benefits for in-person workers could include:

  • Paid transportation to and from work
  • Paid lunches
  • Additional paid time off accruals
  • Additional floating holidays
  • Flexible working hours (outside the traditional 8 AM to 5 PM schedule)
  • Paid child care

You can also just ask your in-house employees what they want and what would make it so they have more flexibility in their work. Take advantage of employee surveys and manager one-on-ones to find out how to best support those employees so they also increase in satisfaction and productivity.

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Take Another Look at Your Budget

A hybrid workforce model can save you money, but it’s not quite as simple as getting rid of half your office space. You’ll need to plan for a different set of expenses.

Here are some questions to consider:

  • Do you need to keep some office space for employees who still need to visit your headquarters?
  • Do you need a physical location to serve customers?
  • Will you need to rent space for certain activities or events?
  • Will you offer a home office stipend?
  • Will employees need to share workspaces (as some of them come into the office on days that others work remotely)?
  • What kinds of enhancements will you need to make to your telecommunications, connectivity, and digital security?

In terms of digital security, more virtual work means more exposure and potential vulnerabilities to attacks. Unfortunately, attempted cyber attacks have gone up 400 percent since the beginning of the pandemic, so beefing up your business’s security should be part of your plan.

Shifting Perspectives on the Nature of Work

If you’ve still been wondering whether or not remote work was here to stay, hopefully you see now that the answer is a resounding “yes.” And it’s not just about letting a few employees do it now and again on an ad hoc basis. The hybrid workforce model is a conscious, strategic workplace arrangement that takes planning and an adaptable mindset to find creative, flexible solutions. A hybrid workforce may not completely do away with the traditional workplace, but it does challenge assumptions about what works and what doesn’t. If you’re willing to make the necessary changes to make it work, it can strengthen your workplace.

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Marie-Reine Pugh

Marie-Reine Pugh is focused on making HR simpler for HR professionals and workplaces a better place for everyone. She pulls from her previous experiences as an educator and six years of writing and researching to explore how to create inclusive company cultures that help businesses succeed.