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Leaders of organizations large and small are struggling to define return-to-office strategies that reflect an appropriate balance of in-person and virtual interactions. In the absence of data, many leaders are advocating for hybrid models based on intuition. You don’t have to look far to find examples of companies advocating for policies fueled by a desire to get back to “seeing people,” or the blanket belief that engagement or innovation is suffering in virtual settings. But such approaches don’t optimize business performance, innovation, or engagement, because they are blind to the informal networks through which collaborative work happens.
For most organizations, the balance between in-person and virtual interactions will certainly shift as a result of the pandemic. In order to coax back employees who have personally experienced the benefits of fully remote work, leaders will need to offer a compelling rationale for why work models that include some degree of in-person collaboration are not only good for the company but also valuable for employees.
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Organizational network analysis (ONA) — a methodology that maps employees’ working relationships — offers a novel approach for guiding return-to-office decisions. ONA provides an evidence-based lens that can help leaders understand which connections among employees should ideally happen in person and which ones can occur virtually, as well as the benefits that each modality produces for the employee and organization. This method also helps motivate employees to resume some in-person interactions by showing them how hybrid work can improve their own effectiveness.
ONA is uniquely positioned to address three critical questions in a return-to-office strategy:
- Who should be brought back together in a weekly cadence of in-person and virtual interactions?
- What work should be prioritized in the now scarcer in-person time?
- How do leaders manage the transition to a hybrid model with the least resistance?
Which clusters of employees are best brought back together for in-person work at some point in their workweek? An organization-wide ONA survey can assess which collaborations are critical to innovation, execution, and overall business performance. Return-to-office assessments also ask employees to rate the relative importance of virtual versus in-person interaction modalities for each person in their network, identifying whether one modality is much more efficient and effective than the other, somewhat more efficient and effective, or about equal. Aggregating and analyzing this data reveals clusters of employees who most need to work together in person at some point during the workweek.
Take the example of a midsize biotech company that used ONA data to guide its return-to-office strategy. Many employees had expressed their desire to work from home at least part time, but without the ONA data, it would have been difficult to develop a cadence that brought the right people together onsite at different points in the week. The analysis revealed four key clusters where demand for in-person interactions was much higher within clusters than across clusters. (See “Return-to-Office Clusters at a Biotech Organization.”)
These analytics dramatically shaped how leaders thought about bringing employees back for partial weeks. Employees in the purple and green clusters came onsite in person on Mondays and Tuesdays, while those in the orange and yellow groupings were in the office on Thursdays and Fridays. Wednesday became an as-needed day for all teams. This approach was far more effective than what leaders at the company had originally planned based on their intuitive judgments about which roles and positions in the formal hierarchy would require the most in-person interaction. This intuition-led approach would have missed the large number of critical intergroup collaborations that would have been disrupted.
Leaders and companies relying on intuition-based approaches tend to assign too much weight to functional structures and miss the importance of cross-functional interactions. ONA helps to optimize for both within- and between-unit collaborations and can prioritize interactions that consume significant time (as opposed to those that are lighter touches). For this biotech organization, the clusters defined by the ONA enabled 77% of the in-person collaborations that people said they needed. The split workweek cadence that the company rolled out also satisfied 82% of employees’ needs for in-person time with others based on employee preference patterns.
Decisions about specific uses of space within each cluster were, in many ways, also improved, thanks to the improved understanding of network needs. Teams and units that had a strong need to collaborate were co-located in physically proximate spaces. Carefully distributing people who were collaboratively overloaded throughout these spaces ensured that they did not become further overwhelmed and consequently slow the work of those who relied on them. And because anyone hired in the past year had never met their colleagues in person, they paired well-connected and peripheral people in seating arrangements that helped slingshot newcomers into the network.
This evidence-based approach motivated employees by showing them how they would be co-located in space and time with the very people with whom they most needed to have in-person interactions. Leaders in this organization were also surprised by how effectively the network data inspired some reluctant people to want to return: Imagine knowing that half of your network thinks you are more effective in person rather than virtually. This shift in thinking — from solely about what was most efficient for the individual to a true understanding of how others relied on them — had a profound motivating effect on many.
What activities should companies prioritize for in-person work in a hybrid model? In hybrid work, leaders need to provide direction for how employees should optimize the in-person time they spend together. Unfortunately, without focused direction, people have a remarkable tendency to return to previous comfortable interaction patterns. For instance, we have frequently seen organizations move to an open office configuration in the hope of creating a more collaborative environment only to find that the same people clustered in the new context as they previously did in the cubicle farm.
In the context of a hybrid return-to-office strategy, ONA provides unique insights into the types of in-person interactions that leaders must prioritize. (See “In-Person and Virtual Interactions Are Not Equally Effective for Different Purposes.”) Using data from a different organization, we’ve compared the purpose of network interactions with employees’ preferences for in-person versus virtual connections with others, showing which kinds of interactions are best held in person (green spectrum) and which are perfectly fine to maintain virtually (orange spectrum). This reveals disconnects; for example, while managers might default to in-person interactions for project coordination and informational updates, the analytics below make clear that this is not the best use of newly scarce in-person time.
This is not a small issue, particularly in many kinds of engineering and technical work. Leaders often want in-person interactions that provide them with visual cues for assessing things like whether their employees are working effectively and whether they are doing OK from a health and well-being standpoint. In-person work also allows the serendipitous, one-off peer-to-peer connections that are so critical to engagement and innovation. Most leaders have had little success re-creating these interactions in Zoom or Teams, though many have tried virtual happy hours and other open-ended forums that faltered because they became yet another work demand for employees who were already stretched too thin. Despite craving in-person time, most leaders have not put any real thought into how to optimize those interactions differently than in the past.
Many leaders are trained to use meeting and in-person time for things like information sharing, project coordination, and decision-making. Just as employees may feel comfortable falling back into old in-person work habits, managers are often happy to return to running meetings with their trusted flip charts and the dynamism of in-person interactions. But this is exactly the wrong strategy. Rather, they should be using virtual collaboration for these kinds of interactions and finding more creative uses for in-person time to spur interactions that generate energy or developmental growth. For example, leaders could apply this shift in thinking by doing the following:
- Being more open to brainstorming, starting with the “why” of the work before the “what” and the “how,” and diffusing ownership early to generate purpose.1
- Focusing more on developmental feedback that helps people grow when engaged in one-on-ones or group reflective processes such as after-action reviews.
Many employees have become hesitant to incur the personal costs of going to the office if they think they’ll have exactly the same interactions that could have been done virtually. Showing employees that the more precious in-person time will be used only for interactions that really do have more value in person than virtually can make it worthwhile for employees to endure a lengthy commute. Creating more-effective interactions will generate an organic pull where people begin to see the value of coming in, and this message will spread to others and generate a positive grassroots response.
How do leaders manage the transition back to a hybrid model with the least resistance? Leaders can further leverage ONA to facilitate a return to the office that keeps both employee resistance and attrition to a minimum. Our analysis often shows that, after working from home for a year, employees who were most connected through informal collaboration networks are often the most likely to have concluded that there is a better way to live their lives than spending time on long commutes. Leaders run the risk of disenfranchising these central connectors if they are forced back to the office without being given the opportunity to influence how plans are implemented. Running afoul of these hidden influencers can have two negative effects: (1) They may leave and, in the process, disrupt networks around them, or (2) they may stay but be disgruntled and negatively influence many others in their large networks.
Consider how one organization we know has used ONA to manage this process. Many employees who indicated a desire to continue working from home for most of the week had significant influence in the organization. This was evidenced by the many others who sought them out for work-related information and who also found that interactions with these coworkers left them feeling energized and better about themselves. (See “Many Strong Influencers Prefer Working From Home.”) Even though they represented only 4% of employees, almost 18% of the network connected through this group, making them disproportionately important influencers.
Network analytics often reveal things that leaders don’t know. Based on intuition, most leaders can correctly predict who the top few influencers in their organizations are, but after naming the most obvious individuals, leaders often are just guessing. As a result, when enlisting people to champion change efforts, they choose people they know well and like rather than those who actually have the greatest influence in the organization. For the best impact, leaders should involve the people in the upper right-hand quadrant — those who are highly sought out for information and create enthusiasm among their peers — in the design and implementation planning that is critical to the company’s return-to-office strategy. By engaging with these individuals in this way and then asking them to spread the word through their networks, leaders gain valuable insights and also avoid being blindsided by hidden resisters in the transition to hybrid work.
Motivating employees to return has less to do with top-down cajoling and much more to do with finding the influencers who can inspire their peer network to want to return. Knowing that people you respect and admire think there’s value to a hybrid work environment goes a long way toward shifting people from a position of resistance to one of looking forward to being back in the workplace when it really matters.
Network analysis provides an efficient, data-based means to optimize return-to-office strategies through collaborative work configurations that yield innovation, performance, and engagement benefits. At a time when many companies and leaders are wrestling with a mix of challenges related to hybrid work planning, this approach helps employees see the value of in-person collaboration and can be a positive force in shaping their attitudes about returning to the office in a hybrid work environment. Why risk the many negative effects that can come from a poorly thought-out approach, when the data about your employees’ needs can show you the path forward in this transition?
1. R. Cross, A. Edmondson, and W. Murphy, “A Noble Purpose Alone Won’t Transform Your Company,” MIT Sloan Management Review 61, no. 2 (winter 2020): 37-43.