Flexible and Effective: Leadership Strategies for the Hybrid Workplace

A presenter at MIT SMR’s symposium on the future of work answers attendees’ questions about how to effectively build an organization with both in-person and offsite employees.

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Work/23: The Big Shift

An MIT SMR symposium explored how organizations are acting on changes brought on by the pandemic.
More in this series

Many leaders don’t know how to manage work based on outcomes versus the proverbial “bums in seats” — tracking who is at the office and for how long. But it’s possible to have a high-performing, healthy workplace culture in a hybrid workplace, with flexibility in when and where people work. It just needs to be managed differently.

That was the message of Future Forum’s Brian Elliott, who presented on a panel with N. Sharon Hill of the George Washington University School of Business and Julie Dervin of Atlassian during Work/23, an MIT Sloan Management Review symposium held in May 2023.

Elliott said that 93% of the 10,243 knowledge workers his company polled said they want flexibility in when they work. Those who were given some choice, he said, had productivity scores 39% higher than those who were not. Those with some flexibility about where they work also scored higher (8%).

Finding an equilibrium between employees’ desire for flexibility and an organization’s strategic goals requires a reexamination of the kinds of work that need to be done in person. It also may require different work configurations for different groups within the same organization, and it certainly requires different ways of benchmarking the work employees accomplish.

Attendees had more questions for the presenters than there was time for, and Elliott agreed to answer some after the event. (Questions and answers have been lightly edited for clarity.)

How do you measure productivity? Most workers say they are more productive working from home and on their own schedule, but are they really?

Here’s a heretical take: We need to stop trying to measure productivity in knowledge work and focus all that time and energy on measuring outcomes.

Productivity metrics take outputs (emails sent, cases closed) and divide them by inputs (hours active), and the better ones adjust for quality (cases reopened). That can work, somewhat, for rote, routine tasks, which are what get automated over time. But also, those metrics can be gamed, and people will game them — up to and including buying mouse jigglers. As Dominic Price of Atlassian has written, “Productivity has always been a good way to measure the impact of machines and capital. It’s just never been a good way to measure the impact of humans.”

At Future Forum, we’ve ventured into this; we compared populations with and without flexibility to see that those with location flexibility report higher productivity scores, and those with schedule flexibility have an even bigger advantage. There are also academic studies by Stanford’s Nick Bloom, HBS’s Raj Choudhury, and others that show the same thing.

But it’s an odd question in that we didn’t ask it when people were in the office. We simply assumed that because people were present, they were doing something productive. We all know that’s not accurate.

Instead, let’s skip the whole mess and take the time to get clear on our organization’s objectives and key results (OKRs), and do it in a way that those can cascade down by business unit and function, and to the team level. From the team level, much can be taken to the individual level to find the individual’s impact both in terms of what they did and how they were as a teammate.

Assessing people on the impact they have on a team’s goals is harder but will take us a lot further than installing more productivity metrics that measure their inputs and outputs.

Random collisions seem to be key in driving innovation. How do you promote serendipity in terms of making connections across teams?

Connections are an essential part of employee engagement and retention, but the connection to innovation is at best spurious. Study after study has shown that what really enables innovation is psychological safety.

In research we conducted in 2021, Future Forum found that location (whether fully onsite, hybrid, or fully remote) had little to no correlation to team innovation. Instead, what did matter were factors like whether people felt they could ask questions and whether teams were willing to take risks — that is, whether they felt psychological safety.

Building connections is important, but we should do it intentionally in organizations instead of relying on random chance. Here are three ways you can do this:

1. Intentional cross-team connections. Programs like open brown-bag lunches where a rotating cast of internal experts present or host an “ask me anything session,” bringing leaders from other functions into your quarterly planning cycles, and creating public channels in Slack or Teams for sharing insights based on topics (like AI) can go a long way.

2. Leverage tools to build connections. Products like Donut, an app for Slack or Teams that pairs up individuals across teams programmatically, help ensure that everyone gets connected, not just those who work on the same floor or in the same building.

3. Help new employees build a network. One of the big challenges of the past few years is that too many companies hired people without rethinking how they build connections and get to understand the culture. One of my favorite tips comes from Genpact in Europe, where new employees are given six people to meet outside their team, either in person or at a virtual coffee, and each of those is supposed to provide two to three more contacts.

Investing in new tools and processes can also be a big boost. Think about processes like brainwriting before a brainstorming session: Allowing people the heads-down space to think about some research results or a problem, write out their thoughts ahead of time, and then share with the group at the same time brings out more new ideas. It also lowers the odds of groupthink.

How can you communicate an expectation that people should come into the office one or two days a week in a way that is inspiring and inclusive, and not forceful and dictatory?

The last two years are littered with companies that declared that three days a week in person is the answer and saw 1.5 days a week as an average. This hides the fact that there’s typically a more junior group of employees coming in two or three days a week, while more senior employees are coming in less often.

Repeating the policy doesn’t work, and threatening to fire people who don’t come in more often is unrealistic and breeds resentment. Leadership knows that it’s some of the more experienced, critical talent that’s coming in less often. The junior staff knows this too.

Instead, what we’ve seen work is focusing on helping teams figure out their own rhythms through team-level agreements. The needs of a sales team and an engineering team, for instance, are different. The sales team might end up mandating two days a week that are default days in the office, and stacking those days with specific activities that are more “heads-up” than heads-down, such as training sessions, mentoring hours, and one-on-ones. The engineering team, on the other hand, might end up with one week of the month in person for planning, lunches together, and demo days.

Encouraging senior staff to come in at least one day a week for mentoring sessions, to be available for training, and for coffee with junior staff goes a lot further than simply telling them to show up.

The other critical element is that coming to the office can’t be consistently worse than working at home. People don’t want free lunch all the time, they want a place for team meetings, the ability to find a quiet spot for customer calls, and Wi-Fi that works. For a large number of companies, that requires redesigning the workspace.

What should managers do to avoid having flexible work perpetuate or even exaggerate existing biases in the workplace? Being “out of sight, out of mind” is a real concern.

Proximity bias and the chances of presenteeism leading to better opportunities as well as rewards is a real risk. We need to create a level playing field, and that starts with training managers and leaders to assess team and individual performance on the outcomes they generate, not the inputs (hours in the office, speed of response, being always-on). Leaders and their people partners need to look not only at the promotion and rewards cycle but also at their talent development pipeline and who’s getting the new, shiny projects.

Working with the Slack executive team, we set a rule that all of the senior executives’ regular reviews — such as the CMO’s weekly review of new project proposals — be done entirely virtually. That helped not only the usual challenges of people not hearing those at the other end of the room but also the pressure to be “in the room where it happens” for those meetings, which more junior staff might attend only once or twice a year.

Many companies and industries outside of tech have a split between knowledge workers and those who need to be present in person to do their job (such as retail and manufacturing). How would you recommend positioning flexibility so as not to create an unfair dual standard?

The differences between desk (office) workers and deskless (or front-line) workers extend far beyond the ability to work remotely: They include pay, benefits, facilities, training, and more.

The talent shortage in deskless workers is a massive challenge for many companies. But I don’t think the answer is to force desk workers back into offices full-time. That doesn’t really solve any issues for deskless workers.

The answer here is investing in the specific needs of deskless workers. According to research by Boston Consulting Group, schedule flexibility and choice are top factors in talent retention. Leaders are investing in programs like the ability to swap shifts and having multiple types of schedules for call center workers. Neiman Marcus Group reduced turnover by 20% by offering sales associates flexibility in choice of stores and departments, as well as hours.

I’m at a startup. In a budding company, management focuses a lot on work culture as they grow. How does a startup, or any enterprise for that matter, build culture while allowing a remote or hybrid model?

I’m a strong believer that culture is built regardless of where you are located, the slogans on the wall, or the quality of the happy hours. Culture gets built based on the everyday experiences your employees have and the decisions you make: what you prioritize as a company, how you treat your customers and employees, what projects you resource, and whom you reward.

Culture is built regardless of where you are located, the slogans on the wall, or the quality of the happy hours.

That said, there are a set of practices that I’ve seen used that really help build a solid foundation. Here are three of them:

First, digital-first doesn’t mean “never in person.” Getting people together, even if widely distributed, is an important part of building culture. For teams, I’d recommend — at least quarterly — a few days focused primarily on team building, socialization, and connection. As a startup grows, this often goes from everyone quarterly to teams quarterly and everyone once a year.

Second, get clarity on how you work together, and share more about yourself. Your team-level agreement shouldn’t just focus on how often people are together, it should also get into how you communicate, how you make decisions, and more. Sharing tools like personal user manuals can also go a long way toward establishing a culture of trust.

And third, create transparency at work. One of the key factors that drive culture is leadership communication, and as a company scales, it’s important to remain transparent while putting in place guardrails. What topics matter to your company and mission most? How do we interact with one another? Scaling internal communications from CEO “ask me anything” sessions to public forums for knowledge sharing takes time and effort; guidelines from others can help.


Work/23: The Big Shift

An MIT SMR symposium explored how organizations are acting on changes brought on by the pandemic.
More in this series

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