The events of the past year have accelerated massive societal change. Ecommerce has grown by orders of magnitude. Touchless services like curbside pickup and virtual interactions in healthcare and banking are not just accepted but now preferred by many. Employees’ needs and preferences also have fundamentally shifted. As organizations look into the future, they must be able to engage the “everywhere talent” and “everywhere customer.” That means accessing new and diverse talent pools and converging traditional commerce with ecommerce. At the center of all this is an evolving hybrid work model.

Hybrid Workplace Models Come in All Shapes and Sizes

When we polled C-Suite executives earlier this year, two-thirds expected to have hybrid work models in place by summer’s end. We’re hearing more about how companies are approaching these models — or at least the initial iteration — and there’s a lot of divergence. Some companies are offering a great deal of flexibility while others are establishing specific guardrails.

Several trends already are clear. First, there is no uniform blueprint. Every organization must design an approach tailored to its strategy, customers and employees. Further, the transition to a hybrid work model is not a tactical, one-and-done exercise. It is a long-term transformational change in the way work is structured. Hybrid work is very different than both fully on-site work and the fully remote work we experienced during the pandemic. The key to success will be finding the right balance.

Hybrid work models present many challenges for executive leaders. But these models also come with great opportunities to redesign work to drive retention, productivity and market strength. In fact, we see this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rethink our workplaces, work models, and work processes from the ground up.

Two healthcare organizations discussed how they've navigated the journey to a hybrid workplace on a recent webinar we hosted: Horizon Therapeutics and Marathon Health. We explored four opportunities to capitalize on this shift and transform the business for the future.

Horizon Therapeutics delivers medicines and compassionate support for patients with rare autoimmune and severe inflammatory diseases. The pandemic upended its traditional pharmaceutical sales approach of “boots on the ground,” engaging with physicians. With access to physicians limited, the sales team had to adjust to a new model — including employing more virtual tools and focusing on understanding physician preferences in terms of their desired frequency of outreach and the type of engagement desired. These shifts required new skills and significantly different ways of working.

“With the ongoing complexities brought upon by the pandemic, we’re regularly considering the dynamics and striving to solve the new challenges faced by our field teams, our HCP customers, and of course our patients,” said Nick Abruzzo, director of digital field enablement at Horizon Therapeutics. “Navigating change is hard and takes time .... But I’m confident that with our passion for customer-centricity and collaborative culture, we’ll grow our digital maturity and help an increasing number of patients with rare disease each year.”

Marathon Health partners with employers to provide near-site or onsite health centers to deliver a better patient experience by improving the health and quality of life for employees.Prior to the pandemic, the company delivered most of its clinical services at onsite healthcenters. Suddenly, with patients spending far less time at the workplace, the company had to find a way to move to 100% virtual in March 2020. While many employees (known as “ambassadors”) have transitioned back to their health centers in 2021, Marathon Health has continued with hybrid models in centers to meet the needs of employers that are either 100% remote or have some form of a hybrid model. In addition, all business ambassadors (those working in traditional office functions) have fully transitioned to a hybrid model beginning in June 2021. This quiet and fully flexible approach has allowed business ambassadors to determine where they are most productive and help them balance the needs of work and home.

“While the pandemic brought many challenges to HR professionals, one positive outcome was the realization for many organizations that all work does not need to be done in an office setting and has led to numerous opportunities for hybrid work solutions,” said Debby Routt, chief people experience officer at Marathon Health.

Related Article: Are You Ready for the New Hybrid Workplace?

Engaging and Empowering Employees Through Active Listening

Hybrid work design must consider the needs of all constituents — leadership, customers and employees. How well do these align? Perhaps not as well as we would like. A recent Fortune survey found that most CEOs think two to three days in the office per week is optimal, and 39% of CEOs believe four days in the office is optimal. On the other hand, plenty of studies show employees want flexibility in how, where, when and how much they work — and that they’re willing to change jobs to satisfy their needs. For example, in the 2021 Gartner Hybrid Work Employee Survey, 75% of hybrid or remote knowledge workers said their expectations for working flexibly have increased, and four out of 10 employees are at risk of leaving if required to return to an in-person environment. Similarly, Microsoft’s 2021 Work Trend Index predicts that 41% of workers will leave their employer this year. With a war for talent and many sectors already battling labor shortages, companies need to put particular emphasis on employees’ preferences or risk losing talent to more flexible and responsive competitors.

In our Q3 2021 executive poll, 49% of executives cited hiring and retention as the top threat to their business. Their biggest challenge? Not finding people with the right skill set. While there are many open jobs, companies struggle to fill them. Turnover is high. In addition to shoring up talent retention strategy, you may need to think seriously about sourcing people outside of traditional geographic areas in order to secure skills for specific roles. This creates new issues. For example, how will you foster collaboration and relationship building? This is where a strategic approach to hybrid work — including a thoughtful assessment of talent supply and demand and a plan for balancing external recruitment and internal talent development tactics — becomes especially critical.

Another key to engagement is clear and thoughtfully defined employment value proposition — ideally, one centered around purpose. Today’s employees expect their jobs to bring a significant sense of purpose to their lives. People who live their purpose at work are more productive than people who don’t. They are also healthier, more resilient, and more likely to stay at the company. Moreover, when employees feel that their purpose is aligned with the organization’s purpose, the benefits multiply. According to Gallup’s State of the American Workplace Report, organizations with highly engaged employees have 17% higher productivity, 10% higher customer satisfaction metrics, and 21% greater profitability.

We are seeing companies becoming more aggressive about listening to their people. For example, using frequent pulse surveys rather than annual engagement studies. They are also encouraging managers to conduct frequent check-ins to understand sentiment and concerns and using workplace analytics to surface insights around employee well-being and engagement.

To that end, we also see more bottom-up empowerment rather than tactical, top-down hybrid work policy at this point in time. Companies are letting managers determine the right working model based on roles and business needs. For example, Horizon Therapeutics has increasingly empowered sales teams with authority and independence to focus on core customer problems and work at speed to solve them. In doing this, however, it’s important to equip managers with the right systems and reinforcing mechanisms such as performance management, onboarding, collaboration and communication.

Related Article: Digital Workplace Flexibility Is Far From Being a Done Deal

Methods of Preserving and Enhancing Culture

Participants in our Q2 executive poll cited preserving culture as the top challenge. That’s not a surprise: Various studies are reporting that high percentages of workers feel isolated and disconnected following the shift to remote work. Certainly, you can damage the value that culture creates if you are not careful about how to navigate the shift.

One of the key issues will be ensuring equity between people working in the office and others who are remote. Everyone should have equal opportunities to develop, be heard and perform their best, regardless of work location. Will “present” employees be perceived as doing better work, as this Fortune article suggests?

Hybrid work elevates the importance of intentional connectivity, being more purposeful about how you bring people together and not falling back to what was. Leaders must think through interaction experiences before and as they happen to make sure they are engaging equally with those in the room and those dialed in. For example, one of our panelists described a team lunch meeting, with participants in two office locations as well as some dialing in. She planned in advance to make sure the experience was as similar as possible for all, right down to sending Grub Hub certificates to remote participants so everyone could eat together.

Manager effectiveness is also critical to preserving and enhancing culture in a hybrid work model. To enable both productivity and engagement, managers need to become comfortable measuring productivity based on outcomes rather than visual observations. This will require developing new or enhancing skills around meeting design, facilitation, empathy, adaptability, and ability to read and react to data. It will also require managers to work with their teams to develop team-specific norms — such as “no-meeting” days or “focus time” for learning and development and innovation activities.

Learning Opportunities

Finally, don’t lose sight of the need for culture-building time and activities that reinforce connections and collegiality. Make sure everyone can access these, not just those who are in-office. Reinforcing behaviors that demonstrate a culture of trust, inclusion, and accountability and prioritizing mental and physical well-being of all employees will be key in hybrid work.

Related Article: What 2020 Taught Us About Being an Effective Leader

Elevate the Employee Experience Through Technology

As the pandemic set in, companies threw a lot of technology at remote work in order to maintain operations and connections. A hybrid work model, however, requires a more thoughtful technology strategy.

As you refine your collaboration and communication capabilities and prioritize investments, employee experience must be at the center of the design process. We are seeing employee experience platforms gaining traction. Other relevant trends include integration of HR and work technology, increased adoption of cloud applications and low-code platforms for greater agility, increased use of workforce and workplace analytics, and “nudge engines” to help employees manage workloads. And given that use of home networks can expose organizations to cyber threats, security remains a top priority for hybrid work infrastructure. In fact, the No. 2 priority for organizations in our Q3 executive poll, behind talent. Areas of focus should include embracing a zero-trust mindset, adopting a cloud-first posture, securing home networks and devices, fostering a culture where security is everyone’s job within the organization, using multi-factor authentication, and investing in training.

Finally, I cannot emphasize strongly enough the importance of employing change management principles in conjunction with an evolving technology environment in order to maintain high productivity and engagement. For example, Horizon Therapeutics brought on people to oversee field communication and digital training to make sure representatives were prepared to use new tools for connecting with physicians.

Reshape Your Customer/Client Interactions and Business Model

The sales landscape is rapidly evolving from seller-centric to buyer-centric, from analog to automated, and from sales professionals as the primary channel to digital-first. According to Gartner's Trend Insight Report — The Future of Sales in 2025, 80% of business-to-business sales interactions between suppliers and buyers will occur in digital channels, and 33% of all buyers desire a seller-free sales experience.

The shift to hybrid work affects customer interactions, so it’s beneficial to design your hybrid work model and your future customer experience in tandem. Leading CX programs can engage customers through the most convenient channel, whether that is phone, email, SMS, virtual assistant, web chat, social media or in-person. These programs establish a relationship with the customer and are there for them whenever they want a human touch. The key is to strike a balance between physical and virtual customer experiences. Both of our healthcare panelists described how their organizations are taking advantage of the shift to hybrid work to also strengthen customer experiences.

Horizon Therapeutics took steps to understand the journey for the field force, physicians and patients to identify ways to remove friction from the system. For example, given physicians’ digital fatigue and intolerance for inefficiency, Horizon established more options for their field force to engage physicians, and tailor their interactions based on physician preferences. Likewise, it also sought to increase empathy among patients and established digital connection capabilities to allow the patent services team better understand high priority opportunities for outreach, and the tools to do so, using email a SMS text messaging.

Marathon Health has traditionally maintained care centers in locations where its clients’ employees live and work. But with those clients now having more dispersed and virtual workforces, the company needed to create a more flexible model — one where members can receive a combination of virtual and on-site care and one where ambassadors also have hybrid work options. The result is an entirely new business that provides care “anywhere” by leveraging digital channels.

Organizations that are strategic about employee experience are more likely to have happier employees and, in turn, happier customers. One study found a strong statistical link between customer satisfaction and employee well-being reported on Glassdoor. In retail, food service, financial services, health care, and other industries where employees and customers interact closely and frequently, each one-star improvement in Glassdoor company rating suggested a 3.2-point increase in customer satisfaction.

See the Challenges as Opportunities

No question, the move toward hybrid work will present many challenges. But this is also a chance to approach those challenges as opportunities that can position your business for success in the future. So, once your hybrid MVP (minimum viable product) is up and running, it’s time to start tackling those challenges through a longer-term and more strategic lens. My previous column shares a helpful framework for doing so by focusing on five key areas: environment, experience, empowerment, enablement and excellence.

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