Leadership Matters

Perspectives on the key issues impacting senior leaders and their organizations
April 16, 2021

Is Your Company Ready for the Future of Hybrid Work?

Where are you reading this right now? While you may have previously scanned this post on your commute into your office building, it is highly likely that you are currently reading this in your home office with your dog at your feet. Will you be at home forever? Probably not. Will you go back into a physical office every day? Probably not. Our conversations with leaders across industries indicate that most organizations will adopt a hybrid or “blended” way of working, as Optus CEO Kelly Bayer Rosmarin and her team are calling it, in which some business is conducted face-to-face and other work is done remotely. Though this is perceived as a “best of both worlds” solution by many, it comes with its own specific challenges.

Equity, psychological safety and inclusion

In a hybrid model, it can be difficult to address behaviors that are typically easier to observe — and address — in person. In some organizational cultures, remote team members feel that colleagues who are in the office receive preferential treatment. Cliques or subgroups can also form, often manifesting as in-office team members leaving remote colleagues out of discussions. Many leaders we interviewed for our upcoming book talked about managing the challenges of a hybrid model.

“The risk is the hybrid environment where you lose the real benefits of being together and create a two-class system in the meeting where people on screen aren’t really participating as fully,” said Jane Datta, CHRO of NASA. To manage these issues, leaders should role model working from home part of the time to send the message that remote work is considered just as valuable as in-person work. Additionally, HR leaders should track promotion rates and examine whether there’s a disparity between remote and in-office employees. Psychological safety is also integral to creating an equitable culture. In a hybrid setting, leaders need to be more deliberate about ensuring people feel safe speaking up, raising issues and making mistakes. Setting up “virtual office hours” is one way to empower employees to share both their concerns and ideas.


Since working virtually, 40 percent of respondents in our survey of global leaders say their stress level has increased. In a hybrid model, burnout remains a risk. With the addition of remote work, many people are working longer hours, suffering from video fatigue and taking less vacation time, all while worried about their job security. According to our survey, CEOs in particular report more stress and burnout from the hybrid model. Chief executives are finding themselves focusing on over-communicating to employees during this time of ambiguity, which translates into even more meetings and townhalls. A major omnichannel retail CEO has experienced this phenomenon. He argued that organization-wide, people are spending far too much time talking to each other through computer screens in a way that is not sustainable.

It’s no coincidence that we’re seeing more research on well-being at work. In a world that often treats being busy and stressed as a status symbol, leaders are charged with modeling healthier behavior themselves to bring about real culture change. Take time off and actually disconnect to encourage your teams to do the same. Give people autonomy to design their schedules, whether it’s to fit in a midday workout or a later start time to accommodate family responsibilities. Some companies we’ve talked to have already instituted wellness-boosting practices. For example, Starbucks has changed meeting durations to 20 and 50 minutes from 30 and 60 minutes, respectively, to build in a buffer between calls. Others have established Zoom-free Fridays to battle video fatigue, scheduled meeting-free time for focused work and used tools like Slack for informal coffee chats and personal interactions.


More than one-third of our survey respondents say innovation has been negatively impacted by the shift to remote work. Gone are the days of gathering around a white board for a brainstorm session. However, this environment has forced others to be more creative. At Discovery Communications, producers have shot more than 1,500 hours of programming on iPhones and Go Pros at a fraction of what they ordinarily spend to produce content. “One has been nominated for an Emmy,” says CEO David Zaslav. “We’ve had kids of our talent shooting on iPhones.” Hybrid work is an opportunity to question “how it’s always been done.” Now is a good time to establish a learning culture that fosters innovation. Many studies have shown that virtual collaboration has the capacity to foster innovation, due in part to increased anonymity and the use of technology to brainstorm.

Remote onboarding

The single factor most negatively impacted by virtual work according to our respondents is onboarding. As Amgen CHRO Lori Johnson said in late 2020, “We saw a dip in satisfaction in our onboarding over the last nine months, so we’ve shifted our processes and have learned to use technology to allow us to use breakouts, dynamic whiteboards and smaller group interactions, which have helped our onboarding experiences.” Even companies with remote workforces frequently opted to do their onboarding in-person before the pandemic. Until more in-person work is resumed, this is a shift that most organizations need to make.

Because virtual onboarding is likely new to everyone, it is important to prepare for a remote onboarding process before the new hire’s first day. Identify a dedicated onboarding liaison, someone who is not the new person’s direct manager, so that the individual feels comfortable asking questions. Some organizations create a sense of welcoming and connection before Day One by sending a care package and necessary technology to the home of new employees. Rosie Allen, senior director of organizational development at FINRA, recalls how their organization created “FINRA in a Box,” which gets physically delivered to a new employee’s residence prior to their first day. It includes “essential items as a laptop, onboarding instructions, introductory materials, a little branded merch — and even a few pieces of candy to sweeten their first day,” she said. “Not only is it logistically beneficial, but culturally as well. People post about the delivery on social media, and it helps build camaraderie and showcase values.” It’s also important to communicate with your new hire even more than you might in person, formally and informally. (You can find more virtual onboarding tips here.)


Hybrid or blended work is likely going to become the norm for many organizations. Companies that try to “go back to normal” will not succeed. Organizations that are less receptive to increased flexibility and employee well-being will have a hard time attracting and retaining top talent. This hybrid world may also require companies to reconceptualize the employee experience, from onboarding to performance management to leadership development. We’ve found that leaders who lean on “soft” skills like empathy and creativity are best prepared to navigate the potential pitfalls of this model — and turn them into positives. Perhaps most importantly, organizations need to be sure that leaders are prepared to navigate the hybrid model. Lucy Helms, former CHRO of Starbucks, summarizes this idea perfectly: “Leading hybrid teams is harder, and the HR team’s next important task is equipping managers to meet that challenge.”