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March 03, 2021
The Fluid Office – Rise of the Hybrid Work Environment
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    The percentage of workers permanently working from home is expected to double in 2021. However, very few of these employees will never visit a company office again. In reality, the future for many millions of workers is a transition to some form of a hybrid work environment, in which most employees split their time between working in the office and working remotely. Some employees in a hybrid workplace — but not all — may also work remotely full-time.

    Many major enterprises have announced plans to follow this path, including Google. In addition to delaying an office return to September of this year, the company is envisioning a system where employees will work from the office only three days a week. 

    Sundar Pichai, chief executive of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, told employees via email: “We are testing a hypothesis that a flexible work model will lead to greater productivity, collaboration, and well-being… No company at our scale has ever created a fully hybrid workforce model.”

    Common, a company in the Norwest Venture Partners portfolio, will be taking a look at a “geography split” between NYC, Atlanta as well as remote scenarios.  

    Dropbox announced they’re going “Virtual First.” From now on, a remote working culture will be “the primary experience for all employees and the day-to-day default for individual work.” Salesforce also recently shared plans to let employees work remotely on a permanent basis and declared that “the 9-to-5 workweek is dead.” 

    Evolving Office Models

    A shift toward hybrid workplaces will massively impact the way founders build companies going forward. At Norwest, we wanted to delve deeper, and explore the future of the hybrid work environment to help our portfolio companies understand how to design a model that works for everyone in this new normal. We also thought it was important to analyze employee sentiments towards various workplace models after nearly a year of working from home. 

    Norwest conducts an annual benchmark survey with our portfolio companies and we typically receive 100+ responses. This year’s survey, conducted in Q4, primarily focused on how remote working policies have changed due to the pandemic. We learned that most of our companies are adopting a flexible remote working model, at least for 2021. In addition, approximately 70% of our respondents plan to increase their remote workforce long term, though only 8% plan to shift entirely to remote working. In the near term, most of our companies will adopt a hybrid approach. 

    In December of 2020, we took our research a step further and surveyed an additional 1,000 full-time employees who are currently working from home. Our goal was to better understand their perspectives on this new era of hybrid workplaces, at a time when many companies are actively building and adjusting their 2021/2022 workplace strategies. The results produced four key insights:

    1. Most employees like the flexibility of a hybrid workplace, but believe that their companies may not be ready

    90% of the respondents believe that post-pandemic, a hybrid workplace model will be standard for most businesses. A majority of respondents (54%) strongly want to continue working remotely if given the chance, and of those whose companies have already announced plans to go hybrid, a majority (56%) want to visit the office two days a week or less.

    While most companies are still determining their “return-to-work” plans and policies, 54% of employees report that they think their organizations plan to adopt a hybrid work environment after the pandemic. Only 23% percent of employees believe their companies are planning a full-time return to their office spaces.

    In short, employees clearly want to be able to utilize the flexibility of a hybrid workplace and don’t expect to return to the office full-time after the pandemic. Wise organizations should adjust, or risk losing potential talent to other, more flexible companies.

    90% of the respondents believe that post-pandemic, a hybrid workplace model will be standard for most businesses.

    2. Office spaces still serve a great purpose, even in a remote-work-friendly arrangement

    Although most employees are enjoying the benefits of WFH, very few employees are willing to fully forgo the company office. A mere 4% of respondents feel that a full-time, pure remote working culture or environment is for them. 36% of employees still want an office to spend the majority of their working hours in. An additional 30% think offices are important as collaboration spaces.

    Our evidence suggests that employees want the freedom to choose when and how often they utilize their office space. They don’t want to abandon a dedicated space for socializing and collaborating purposes. 

    The takeaway? In a hybrid workplace era, organizations might want to rethink their strategy on how they utilize their office spaces. They might not need a dedicated area for every single employee; but they can still leverage the square footage they have for meeting spaces, private phone booths, or creative uses.

    3. Remote employees still crave connectivity and well-being-focused support

    Of the employees that have shifted to temporarily working from home because of COVID-19, 89% say they are satisfied with their current work experience. 51% are “very satisfied.”

    However, as companies look ahead to adopting a hybrid work environment, they should bear its potential limitations in mind. Among other issues with remote working, leaving the office behind risks a rise in loneliness. In our survey, 23% of employees cited feeling isolated or alone in their WFH environment, and 19% miss participation in company culture. Another 18% find it difficult to collaborate and brainstorm with their colleagues remotely.

    Many companies have worked hard to support remote employees and make sure they are well-equipped from an equipment and technology perspective. 39% of respondents say their employers have had office equipment shipped to their homes. 36% say their companies have invested in new software to facilitate remote collaboration. 

    However, our data shows that employees also need subtler forms of support that prevent them from feeling disconnected. Only 34% percent of employees report that they have received training or education on work from home best practices. A suggestion: virtual training and professional development sessions that go beyond the occasional Zoom call. We’ve also seen portfolio companies offer their employees subscriptions to online therapy platforms such as Talkspace and meditation apps like Calm. 

    89% of employees say they are satisfied with their current work from home experience.

    4. In a hybrid work environment, collaboration requires extra effort

    Transitioning to a hybrid workplace model appears to make collaboration more challenging than in a classic, in-person office setting. Over two-thirds of respondents (68%) believe collaboration within a hybrid work environment may prove more difficult compared to an all-remote environment. 

    Two of the top-cited pain points were difficulties in participating in meetings (both being heard and just understanding what is being discussed) and the feeling of being left out of the office culture.

    How can companies empower employees to collaborate more effectively in a hybrid workplace? In our survey, respondents say they would value the following:

    • Making video (rather than solely voice) mandatory during collaborative sessions (cited by 58% of respondents)
    • Providing equipment with better camera and audio quality (cited by 36% of respondents)
    • Adopting smart cameras that identify the speakers’ faces (cited by 32% of respondents)

    The hybrid work environment is here to stay. To thrive in this new working landscape, companies need to be keenly aware of how arrangements are impacting employees, both positively and negatively. They need to take steps to address the issues with remote working while recognizing that there is much about a hybrid setting that employees truly value. 

    Happy and motivated employees make for successful companies. As we enter a new, hybrid world, savvy companies will want to optimize their operations so that their staff experiences the best possible hybrid workplace. Hopefully, our survey helps companies thrive, through 2021 and beyond!

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