How to Find the Best Hybrid Work Schedule for Your Teams

02/01/2022 8 min read
Shelley Levitt is a consultant on entrepreneurship and branding who works with Fortune 500 companies including Novartis and American Express.

Before the pandemic, about 15% of Synchrony’s 16,500 employees worked remotely. That number swelled to include almost the entire staff during what Ethan Bernstein, PhD, professor of organizational behavior at Harvard Business School, calls “the largest work-from-home experiment in history.”

The so-called experiment was eye-opening, overturning assumptions to reveal that remote, distributed teams can boost productivity and sharpen collaboration. “Working virtually, we became more agile, faster, and more innovative,” Claudine Hoverson, Chief Talent Officer of Fortune 500 financial services company Synchrony, tells Staffing.com.

Job seekers, too, are showing a preference for companies offering hybrid opportunities. “Flexibility is the new currency,” she says, affording smart companies the ability to attract and retain talented employees.

Early in the pandemic, realty company Zillow announced that it would give almost 90% of its employees the option to work from home indefinitely. In March 2021, it announced plans to hire more than 2,000 employees for a mix of in-house and remote positions. “Our work is anchored in a shared mission, not a shared location,” Meghan Reibstein, Zillow’s Vice President of Organizational Operations, tells Staffing.com. The company saw a 50% increase in applicants over 2019 and now has employees in every state but North Dakota, up from 24 states pre-pandemic.

Moving to a hybrid workforce can also add up to big savings—roughly $11,000 per employee, reports Global Workplace Analytics. For one thing, companies will be able to shrink their office footprints by up to 30%, Jennifer Olson, CEO of Washington, DC real estate consulting firm KGO, tells Staffing.com. According to Synchrony, its reduction in real estate resulted in cost savings of hundreds of millions of dollars in 2021.

Now, as companies around the world transition to a blend of office and remote locations, they’re facing a new challenge: figuring out the best hybrid work schedule.

Potential Roadblocks on the Path to Hybrid

Companies risk “us versus them” tensions when some employees are co-located in an office and others are working remotely, Liane Davey, PhD, author of You First: Inspire Your Team to Grow Up, Get Along, and Get Stuff Done, tells Staffing.com. Research also shows potential pitfalls in communication and resulting delays when employees don’t share the mutual knowledge that comes with a common physical space, she says.

“There’s no one-size-fits-all solution for managing a hybrid workforce,” Bernstein tells Staffing.com. “It’s going to require a lot of customization.” Many companies are not prepared for the task. Emerging from the pandemic, nine out of 10 organizations will combine remote and on-site working, according to a McKinsey & Company survey, but more than two-thirds of these organizations haven’t formulated a detailed plan for managing this mix of remote and in-office employees.

That leaves many companies relying on arrangements that were improvised while the pandemic raged. “We’re building the plane after we’ve already jumped off the cliff, and that rarely ends up with a good product,” Joe Mullings, Chairman and CEO of The Mullings Group–which advises Fortune 500 companies, including Google, Johnson & Johnson, and Siemens, on hiring strategies–tells Staffing.com.

During the accelerated shift to remote over the past couple of years, executives have gleaned the following insights:

Ask Questions and Choose the Right Decision-makers

Polling employees on the kind of flexibility they value is a good starting point in developing a hybrid workplace strategy. When Synchrony surveyed its employees, 85% said they wanted some form of work-from-home, a finding that aligns with global trends.

Zillow’s spring 2021 survey asked employees what would lead them to use an office. According to Reibstein, two-thirds of respondents said the main reason they’d go into an office would be for social connection and team-building activities, and 60% would seek in-person collaboration. Only 18% cited focused, individualized work as a reason to make the commute.

With this input, Bernstein says the next question to ask is “How do we turn individual preferences into collective productivity?” The best people in the company to tackle that question are team leaders.

Robert Pozen, a senior lecturer at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, former vice chairman of Fidelity Investments, and co-author of Remote, Inc.: How to Thrive at Work … Wherever You Are, agrees. “In the end, the team leader is the one who has to fulfill the objectives of the organization and make sure the team functions in sync with those objectives,” he tells Staffing.com. “Taking into account the preferences of the team members to the maximum amount feasible, team leaders should be the ones to decide on the structure and schedule of hybrid work.”

Find the Right Balance

Companies should strive to develop what Pozen and co-author Alexandra Samuel, PhD, call a “Goldilocks plan”: just the right blend of remote and in-office work. To discover this sweet spot, Pozen and Samuel suggest analyzing five factors they refer to as FLOCS.

Function: What are the job requirements? Teams that spend many hours collaborating and brainstorming will need more time together in a workplace or hub. If team members are engaged in extended concentrated work, that’s better suited to days spent at home.

Location: Are team members located around one metropolitan area? If so, it’s easy to get together in a nearby office several times a week. If they’re scattered, it might make more sense for employees to gather at monthly or quarterly intervals, or at critical milestones in a project.

Organization: A flatter hierarchy may help facilitate virtual work because employees won’t feel separated from decision-makers. Likewise, an organization that’s oriented toward solo projects rather than group work will make productivity easier to maintain with a remote schedule.

Culture: Collaborative organizations that value social bonding could benefit from more face time among team members. Conversely, companies that have more individualistic cultures might find that schedules heavy on remote work better align with workplace preferences.

Scheduling: This is where preferences meet logistics. If, for example, a company has downsized its space, does it have enough room for different teams to rotate on-site several days a week? Pozen and Samuel suggest “punctuated collaboration,” where teams get together at the beginning of a project and then periodically to check on goals, clear bottlenecks, and draw on each other’s expertise and ideas.

Be Selective and Purposeful With In-person Hours

“We want to make sure that when we ask people to come into the office, it’s for an activity that’s lively and rewarding, not just for work,” Andres Angelani, CEO of Softvision, the software product engineering arm of Fortune 500 company Cognizant, tells Staffing.com.

Angelani is leading the effort to create a new proprietary app called Studio eXPerience, which will enable teams to schedule where and how they work. As the team develops Studio eXPerience, Softvision’s designers are categorizing work into “heads-up” and “heads-down” activities. Heads-down activities include work like coding, where, Angelani says, “people might put on a pair of headphones and isolate themselves from the world even if they’re right next to other employees.” This type of work can be done remotely and asynchronously.

Heads-up activities include planning and ideation sessions, client meetings, and hackathons, where it’s essential for people to gather and pay attention to each other, whether that’s done virtually or in person, Angelani says.

He offers an example of how a hybrid schedule would work for a developer in the Android community: “If it’s Sunday evening and they know that on Monday they have to hit a project deadline and they need some quiet headspace, with no interruptions and without spending too much time commuting to the studio, they can choose to work from home.

“But if it's a Tuesday and they have a retrospective session with the entire project team to review that sprint or the past six months, that’s an activity that is much more productive with a face-to-face, in-person meeting,” he says. In this case, the developer can choose to work from the studio or in one of the company’s office spaces that has been redesigned for this activity. They might also plan for other activities that require in-person interaction, such as signing or reviewing confidential papers, mentoring, holding sensitive feedback sessions, or having lunch with colleagues.

“In a nutshell, their schedule is entirely up to them,” Angelani says, as long as staff understand that specific tasks require their presence in the studio.

Zillow is finding ways to foster virtual collaboration. To optimize teamwork when employees are apart, Zillow is implementing “core collaboration hours”—a four-hour block each weekday when employees work together in real time. Outside of those common hours, work is asynchronous, aided by tools like Slack. Davey sees an advantage to this initiative: It might prompt more participation from introverts who “prefer to ponder, shape, and edit their collaborations” rather than share their ideas spontaneously in meetings.

Evaluate Often and Prepare to Pivot

One ineffective method for setting a hybrid work schedule is to announce that all employees are expected to be back at their desks for three full days per week. “A blanket policy without any data or strategy behind it isn’t good enough,” Christopher Dwyer, Senior Vice President of Research at advisory firm Ardent Partners and Managing Director of the Future of Work Exchange, tells Staffing.com. “Businesses will never again have the opportunity to experiment freely like they can now. They really have the ability to figure out what works best for every function within their organization.”

Synchrony’s Hybrid Approach

Synchrony launched several pilot programs over the summer of 2021 as the company welcomed back 200 fully vaccinated employees across four locations. Now, based on feedback, the company has implemented what Hoverson calls “flexibility for all.”

“We know schedules look different for every role, every team, and every person,” she says. “For some employees who need to work set hours, such as contact center associates, we are introducing new ways to provide flexibility.”

One pilot program allows employees to work split shifts either at home or in the office, dividing their workdays into two parts. For example, Hoverson says, an employee could work four hours in the morning, take a two- to three-hour break to pick up their children from school, have dinner, and then continue with their second four-hour shift.

“Dynamic scheduling,” another pilot program, allows employees to choose working hours that may change from week to week, as long as they meet the company’s business needs. Stephen Jenkins, one of Synchrony’s customer service managers based in Altamonte Springs, Florida, says that employees in this pilot program submit their preferred monthly schedules, selecting a start time between 9 AM and noon for the first two weeks of every month, when the company is busiest, and he does his best to accommodate them. During the last two weeks, they can opt to start later in the day. All customer service employees also have the option to work from home full time or part time.

To develop the best hybrid work schedule, Mullings suggests that companies assess their policies every 90 days—measuring meaningful metrics like revenue, customer satisfaction, and time to market—and be prepared to pivot if the data shows declines. “If we allow ourselves to be wrong and then make corrections, we’ll be in a much better place than if we set policies in stone,” he says.

Ongoing, active assessment won’t mire businesses in a perpetual cycle of experimentation, Dwyer says. “Over the next few months,” he predicts, “organizations are going to know the exact hybrid model that works best for them.”

Shelley Levitt is a consultant on entrepreneurship and branding who works with Fortune 500 companies including Novartis and American Express.