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How to make a hybrid work model work

Table of Contents
I.What is a hybrid work model?
1. 1.What are the benefits of adopting a hybrid work model?
II.Why the hybrid work model is a risk
2. 0. 1. A company divide is likely to form
2. 0. 2. You'll have trouble attracting (the best) remote talent
2. 0. 3. Hybrid work environments develop bad habits
III.But, is it possible to make it work?
3. 1.Operate as if everyone was remote
3. 2.✅ Some "do's"
3. 3.⛔️ Some "don'ts"
3. 4.Hire a Head of Remote
IV.How to implement a remote-first policy in a hybrid work environment

What is a hybrid work model?

Just like it sounds, a hybrid remote company has a mix of in-office employees and remote employees.
Many companies had hybrid remote work models, in some sense, before the pandemic. Now that lockdowns are coming to a close, many companies are choosing to embrace a hybrid work environment.
A hybrid remote environment should operate like a remote company that has a physical space you can work from as a perk.

What are the benefits of adopting a hybrid work model?

In short, it's the easy way out. At least it seems like it is. 
That might be harsh, but not overly so. The fact is, many companies that weren't remote before the pandemic are still nervous about letting go of the office. This is understandable. While the majority of the startup workforce was thrust into remote work, they missed out on many of its upsides. Most of the benefits of remote work revolve around flexibility. When you aren’t commuting, you have the flexibility to do other more important or enjoyable things. Remote work gives the flexibility to work from wherever you want. The flexibility to live wherever you want.
Because of lockdowns and restrictions, people were robbed of many of these benefits. Sure, people didn’t have to commute, but they also couldn’t spend that time socializing or doing other things they enjoy. People couldn't work in cafes and co-working spaces, leaving them confined to their (lack of) home offices. People couldn't work from wonderful new cities and countries because of travel restrictions. Frankly, many companies failed to embrace remote work in a meaningful way, allowing their cultures and work policies to dissolve into chaos instead.
The result is that many workers and companies didn't have a great remote experience. Those people will be tempted to return to office life. Even if a fraction of your team wants to spend at least part of the week in the office, companies will be tempted to take this option and create a hybrid work environment. After all, many still have leases going! Unfortunately, when you try to accomplish two opposing things simultaneously, you're likely to miss the benefits of either. If you're still unsure whether to build remotely or not, give this article a read.

Why the hybrid work model is a risk

While a hybrid remote work model can be executed successfully, it's surprisingly difficult. Let's outline some cons of a hybrid model.

1. A company divide is likely to form

People are social creatures who naturally tend to form communities. This is great if your entire company exists as a tight-knit community. When a community split happens, however, problems arise. People start subconsciously playing favorites. Politics surface more quickly. People feel mistreated. It's possible to keep the community as one, but it's much harder than if everyone is remote.

2. You'll have trouble attracting (the best) remote talent

One might assume that having an option to work from an office or remotely would be a benefit when attracting talent. Unfortunately, you'll turn off the people who want to go remote. That means you are turning off the majority of the talent pool.
The problem is that remote employees want to work for a truly remote company. They don't want to feel like a second-class citizen of your team. Remote workers know how hard it is to pull off a hybrid work model. That means they're likely to count this as a point against, not for your company.

3. Hybrid work environments develop bad habits

The natural tendency for a hybrid remote work environment will be to base things off of "HQ" standards. That means communication, policies and cultural norms will develop in sync with the office world. This is never good, but it's even worse if you have remote employees. Non-remote practices will bring the whole company to a halt.

But, is it possible to make it work?

Now that a substantial argument has been made against choosing a hybrid work model, let’s address companies that might not have a choice in the matter.
We recognize that there are scenarios that do in fact require a physical space. Perhaps the company has a hardware component that forces some members to physically be in the same space. Maybe your board, investors or even leadership team are forcing you to keep an office (yikes, we send our condolences).
There are multiple hybrid work model examples you could adopt, but we are ignoring almost all of them. If you must have a hybrid work model, the only way to successfully pull it off is to still have remote-first practices and policies. You need a remote-first culture.

Operate as if everyone was remote

Treat everyone on the same playing field, and make that playing field a remote one. No extra points to those that show up to the office. No buying lunch for the office folks. DEFINITELY no salary difference between office and remote.
Why? Because there is no downside. In a hybrid work environment, you can't treat a remote employee like an office worker, but you can easily treat an office worker as a remote employee.

✅ Some "do's"

  1. Document your remote first policies and values. This will include everything from communication norms to policies and timezone expectations.
  2. Stay as async as possible. Not all remote companies have to be async and you don't have to opt for a fully asynchronous way of working, but it does make it easier to develop remote-first policies.
  3. Focus on outputs, not inputs. That means consciously ignoring vanity metrics like time spent in the office, and time seen "online" on things like Slack.
  4. Setup remote infrastructure. Consider using a tool like Teamflow so that everyone can have a communal virtual space.
  5. Plan in-person team gatherings, so that everyone gets to know each other face to face.
  6. Ask for frequent feedback from everyone on what's going well, and what can be improved.
  7. Be charitable with interpretation when it comes to communication.

⛔️ Some "don'ts"

  1. Have the leadership team work from the ‘HQ’ office. At least not as the norm. 
  2. Change salaries/benefits based on location (i.e. an employee working in San Francisco receiving more than one working in Mexico).
  3. Actively (or passively) discriminate against remote team members.
  4. Pressure people into working in the office, or play favorites to those who do.
  5. Try to apply the office culture to the remote world.
Many of these things sound easy to do (or not do) but in reality, it will be almost impossible if the leadership team is working from an office. It's human nature to favor those you see face to face every day. This will give a false perception, and create a deep political divide in the company.

Hire a Head of Remote

This is a new solution that is worth mentioning. Many are now recommending companies to hire a Head of Remote, especially if your company is adopting a hybrid work model. 
It's vastly more important for a hybrid remote work company to have a Head of Remote than a remote-only company. In fact, if you hire correctly, this is perhaps the easiest way to nail a successful hybrid work model from the start. You'll now have someone who is constantly focusing on this. In an environment where it could be easy to forget about remote employees, this role is devoted to making sure everyone is working on the same playing field.
What would a Head of Remote do for your company?
  1. Draft remote-first policies
  2. Ensure the company is following their remote-first policies
  3. Deal with inevitable issues that arise
  4. Help the team with their productivity, no matter where they are located
  5. Hiring the top location-independent talent.

How to implement a remote-first policy in a hybrid work environment

Examine all policies your company has. This could include everything from communication norms to benefits and values. Look to each and ask, is this a remote-first policy? 
Some examples: 
❌ “Employees are expected to spend x days of the week in the office.” ✅ “Employees are free to use the working space whenever they’d like.” ❌ “Leadership team calling in from a conference room together.” ✅ “Everyone logging onto a call individually, no matter where they are located.”
❌ “Free lunch provided to everyone who is in the office.” ✅ “Lunch budget that is the same for everyone.”
As you go through each component of your company policies, norms and handbooks, document the red flags you see that could create inequity.
Talk to your team to see what they think. They are likely to notice these flags before you are. Specifically, talk to your remote team. If your team is big enough, send out an anonymous ask for feedback. 
But truly, if your desire is to make an equitable workplace where everyone thrives, the best thing you can do is take an objective look at your own policies and practices to make sure everyone is comfortable and confident it’s a healthy environment. 
If your company still has a lot of office practices, it might be a hard pill to swallow to give up on all of that and let it die. After all, many companies claim the reason they want to go back to the office is to maintain their culture. THIS WILL NOT WORK. The office cannot be the hub of culture for a hybrid remote work company. Every decision you make will feel like you are stuck.
If you chose a remote-first culture, you’ll know exactly what to do with every hybrid decision – even if it’s a hard one. 

About the author

Sam Claassen

Head of Growth
SafetyWing
Sam Claassen is the Head of Growth at SafetyWing and a serial advocate for remote work. A longtime nomad himself, he has been to 65 countries while doing growth and remote work consulting for startups and accelerators. Through his work at SafetyWing, he is working with a team to create BuildingRemotely.com – a podcast, online resource and soon to be book on building a thriving remote company.