Leaders who offer hybrid work must do what they preach

When the Covid-19 pandemic forced us to close our offices in March 2020, I always thought it would be temporary. Although it had a relatively small group of 40 people at the time, our San Francisco office was a collaborative shelter – a place where I could consistently go for insight, inspiration, and connection.

Almost two years later, telecommuting due to pandemics continued, but over the same time period, our team grew by 800% in size. Powered by the lights of the mental health pandemic, our business escalated rapidly, leading to over 4 times customer growth, over 10 times customer service and over 8 times ARR shrinkage. These statistics alone show that remote work has not had an impact on our productivity and, anecdotally, I have heard countless comments from my team expressing gratitude for the flexibility, autonomy and personal peace that accompanied the remote model.

As the pandemic began to improve, with widespread vaccination and increased herd immunity, we were faced with the same decision that so many leaders continue to struggle with: are we bringing our employees back to office? To answer this, we looked at some data points, in particular our team productivity versus corporate goals and our employees’ preferences about where to work. Seeing continued productivity through the pandemic and clear employee support for a remote culture, we decided to adopt a distance strategy at Modern Health.

Creating Options

Creating opportunities for departments and the company as a whole to connect personally is also important in enhancing the corporate culture. We have implemented quarterly off-site sites that are specific to the group, allowing those who collaborate regularly, in some cases, to meet for the first time. In addition, we host a semi-annual offsite throughout the company that focuses specifically on connectivity and cohesion.

Virtual employees who want to work remotely also want the opportunity to shake hands and get to know their colleagues on a more personal level. To strengthen this connection, leaders need to make sure that these on-site experiences are both enjoyable and rewarding. Thoughtful agendas, relevant planning and plenty of time for social connection are essential. We have also implemented twice a week all hands-on meetings where management and employees can virtually connect to talk about what’s going on in the company.

By creating options for both personal and distance collaboration, you recognize by action that no two employees are the same, while also providing real autonomy, where they have the power to make decisions based on what suits them best.

Discuss the differences directly

Most leaders know by now that remote and hybrid work choices have become table bets for today’s employees. Recently research found that 97.6% of remote workers would like to work remotely for the rest of their career and another recent survey it was found that flexibility is even more important than salary. Most leaders have recognized how important it is to their employees, but few have embraced distance work themselves.

If leaders and managers prefer to work in an office, they should feel free to do so, but it is important to establish a direct and open dialogue with their teams. Ask your remote employees how they feel about physical separation from management, using secure, anonymous methods such as surveys. More importantly, be available to discuss potential employee concerns. Listen to understand without judgment and separate your personal preferences from the standards of the company. And when possible, address those concerns, whether they are more flexible options or benefits to make work at home (or in the office) easier.

Be transparent

We are all navigating a new world with the widespread adoption of remote work and I have found it important not only to be open to comment, but also to be transparent about my own remote experience. A few months after we became a remote company, I decided to take the opportunity to leave the Bay Area and return to my hometown of Boston to be closer to family. I was transparent with the team about this and in doing so, I believe it encouraged people to also pursue their ideal living arrangement.

I also shared my own struggles with remote work, especially how I missed seeing colleagues and feeling the energy that personal work can bring. Living in Boston also means traveling much more often for work, which, while at times exhausting, has provided opportunities to enhance the personal interactions I was missing. As I travel more, I try to organize dinners with team members who are locals so that we can all experience the connection we crave. As leaders, transparency with the challenges and benefits of remote work encourages others to do the same.

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Importance of intention and trust

If a word includes a successful remote priority or hybrid strategy, that’s the point. Building relationships, sharing perspectives, and building professional and personal intimacy is often much easier in face-to-face environments. Creating, cultivating, and managing a distributed workforce requires a tremendous amount of thought, planning, attention to detail, and execution.

The foundation requires a culture of trust. When employees feel confident, they do the best they can, but building a culture of trust requires giving up some control. If your instinct is to control and monitor the productivity of your employees, remote work will fail in your organization. Today’s employees not only deserve trust, but also recognition. I was amazed at the resilience of our workforce, as they have embraced the ever-evolving journey, even though it is sometimes highly ambiguous.

It is also important for leaders to recognize that strategies and policies are likely to change. A distance strategy does not mean that leaders should reject the traditional workbook. Instead, companies should plan to replicate and evolve as employee needs inevitably change over time.

Remote work is not easy at all, but many employees have made it clear that they want the option. Instead of listening to the old ways of working, leaders should practice what they preach and embrace the idea wholeheartedly – whether it means working remotely or creating an inclusive, deliberate, trusting work environment.

The views expressed here by Inc.com columnists are theirs and not those of Inc.com.

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