How should organizations handle the switch to a hybrid work environment?
Expect uncertainty, respond with flexibility, be very, very patient
For several weeks, employees at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston have been settling into our new “hybrid work environment.” That term gets about a million results in a Google search today, but most Bank employees had no idea what it was 24 months ago.
Since then, making a hybrid work environment real at the Boston Fed has been a big part of my job as the Bank’s chief information officer. Designing workplaces where employees can meet, collaborate, and get their jobs done, whether in-office or remote, isn’t easy, even if it seems like everyone is doing it.
We’ve started strong, and I’d love to say the hard part is over. But I’ve learned that’s not how this works. It reminds me of when my wife and I were expecting our first daughter. We took lots of advice, read up on things like cribs and changing tables, and got ready any way we could. Then my daughter arrived, we brought her home, and I thought, “Oh my God, I have no idea what I’m doing.”
The truth is that, like my wife and I then, the Bank is really quite prepared. Workplaces everywhere are moving toward hybrid models, and expectations have changed. We see it in our own people and in the labor markets where we look for new talent, and we know technology must keep up. Still, it’s unsettling to realize how much can’t be known about life in a hybrid work environment until you’re in it. But our approach at the Bank has been about patience, experimentation, and flexibility. I think it’s equipped us to better handle what we don’t know is coming.
IT has already made radical change happen
The good news is many IT pros got recent experience with radical workplace change when most employees went remote two years ago. We managed change under heavy pressure and quickly incorporated new tools and procedures. Now, the job is to build on capabilities we’ve already delivered as we work the office back into the mix.
One challenge is that the quality of home networks has altered employee expectations. For instance, people have gotten used to carrying laptops from kitchens to bedrooms during a video meeting, but buildings like the Boston Fed weren’t necessarily designed for that kind of user mobility. We fixed that by adding numerous wireless access points, enhancing network capacity, and upgrading the network connection to the Federal Reserve System’s national IT infrastructure.
We’ve also prioritized enabling and enhancing the often-powerful in-person interactions that can’t happen at home. We’re not doing it just for the sake of organizational creativity. It’s also because the more people are in the office, the quicker we’ll learn what works or doesn’t in a hybrid environment.
The Bank’s new “Collab Lab” is one way we’re trying to enhance the office experience. It features sound-dampened meeting areas, “phone booth”-style workstations when privacy is needed, and a larger collaboration area with an 85-inch interactive digital whiteboard. We hope people use the lab to test ways tech can enhance collaboration, then share successful practices around the Bank.
So, now we’ve built it – better connectivity and collaboration areas. But “Will they come?”
This time, IT can afford to be patient
It turns out IT’s work to help people adjust to the new hybrid environment is more about the people than the tech. The tech part is almost easy because we know it will eventually work. It’s much harder to get people over a massive learning and adoption curve in a completely new environment.
That’s why the Boston Fed was smart to establish a 90-day acclimation period (which started Feb. 28) so employees can ramp up gradually and get used to new schedules, new procedures, and new tech capabilities. It’s the opposite of the massive, overnight change to remote environments that the pandemic forced on everyone. This time, we can afford to be patient.
We know things are going to develop in unexpected ways. We’ll let that happen. In 12 to 18 months, we’ll look at data, let folks’ interactions in the Bank guide us, and make our biggest tech investments wisely.
While we’re practicing patience, we’ve asked employees to be open and patient with us. The goal of the hybrid work environment is to seamlessly merge the remote and office experience. But let’s face it, nothing’s going to be seamless in the hybrid work environment until we’re all in the metaverse. Until then, IT needs to remain ambitious, humble, and committed to a new way of working that we’re just starting to get the chance to understand.