The workplace is undergoing a giant reset. As company leaders discuss how and when to bring more people back to the office, many envision a future with flexible work arrangements that blend on-site and remote-work options. But how can you pull that off successfully?

"Agility is going to be important as we move forward," said Lauren Mason, a workplace expert with Mercer, a consulting firm whose research shows that one in three companies expect to have half of their workforce or more working remotely post-COVID.

"Organizations are looking for that test-and-learn mentality of: 'Let's see how it goes. Let's respond and adapt,' " Mason said. "But at the same time, they need to give expectations to employees about what's expected."

The way forward requires a shift that puts much more emphasis on employees' concerns than has been done in the past, said Lynda Gratton, a professor at the London Business School and author of a recent Harvard Business Review article on successful hybrid models. The type of job, the expected workflow and employees' preferences all play a role in setting standards, Gratton argues, as does ensuring that rules are applied equitably.

But for all its expected benefits, the hybrid model is complicated and potentially disruptive, so leaders must be clear-eyed about upsides, downsides and the inevitable trade-offs, workplace experts said.

"It's a balancing act getting to that sweet spot that is going to make your employees happy, engaged and productive," Mason said, "but also making sure you're not negatively impacting your business outcomes."

Coming back to the office

At Allianz Life's North American headquarters in Golden Valley, the return of its 1,800 employees will happen in stages. Most will be encouraged to work on-site at least two or three days a week, tailoring schedules across teams and divisions.

"It depends on the role, it depends on the manager, it depends on the responsibilities of employees," said Jenny

Guldseth, chief human resources officer at Allianz Life. "What's most important is flexibility."

The first wave of workers will return to the Allianz campus in mid-July, with a full return of employees expected in September. About 10% have worked on site throughout the pandemic.

"Iterative," is how Guldseth sees adoption of the hybrid work model unfolding at Allianz.

"What we think today will change a month from now, and that will change two months from now," she said. "We're really using employee feedback as the guidepost to help us with that journey."

At smaller companies, such as architectural contractor MG McGrath, an informal return to work among office workers began last summer.

The Maplewood-based company makes facades for commercial buildings such as stadiums, museums, hospitals and offices. Manufacturing operations continued during the past 15 months, while office staff began working from home.

By September about half of the workforce had trickled back to the office, where desks already were separated by glass partitions and there was room to spread out, said Allison Gladkowski, a marketing specialist at McGrath. These days, nearly everyone is back at least some of the time.

"There were people saying 'I'm still fine coming into the office as long as we still have the partitions and there are guidelines in place,' and some others who said 'I'm not comfortable coming into work,' whether they're immune compromised or had children staying home from school they needed to attend to," Gladkowski said. "Any person who wanted to stay home was — and is — allowed to stay home."

Hybrid guidelines

The company, with about 250 workers, already was "extremely flexible" with scheduling, Gladkowski said. The COVID-19 threat accelerated the need to provide technology and other support so the broader workforce could work effectively away from the office.

For most companies, ad hoc arrangements will need to give way to more formal guidelines and policies to succeed long term, experts say.

"A lot of what we saw prior to COVID with flexibility was that it tended to be more manager-driven. One manager was open to it while another manager who oversaw similar types of roles wasn't," said Mason, the workplace consultant. "So that created this dynamic of haves and have-nots across teams. Putting guardrails in place is really important for that consistent employee experience across the organization, but with flexibility for managers to do what works best for their team."

There's no consensus on the optimal balance of workdays at home vs. in the office, and comments by high-profile managers suggest a monumental gap between what workers and managers want.

About 55% of employees surveyed by PwC would prefer to be remote at least three days a week once concerns recede, while nearly seven in 10 executives say a typical employee should be in the office at least three days a week to maintain company culture.

Citigroup expects workers on site for three days, Google is calling for three days at the office and two others "wherever they work best." Goldman CEO David Solomon, meanwhile, considers remote working an "aberration" not conducive to productivity and expects everyone back.

Feelings among workers differ as well. Research from Stanford University found that about 30% of workers don't ever want to go back to the office, while 25% don't want to spend another day working from home.

And there are generational differences. Gen Z employees only want to work from home one day a week, according to one global work survey from Workplace Evolutionaries, while older workers and those with more tenure preferred two or three days a week. Younger workers seek mentorship and social connections found at the office, and are less likely to have the space they need to work effectively from home.

Allianz Life's Guldseth is mindful of the pitfalls and believes the key will be continuing to listen to employees.

"Just like life, that schedule will be iterative, too," she said. "With small kids you might want more flexibility and more time at home. But maybe if the kids are out of the house, you don't need that and you'd rather be in this space here in the community and culture that you're comfortable with."

Work space will change

Allianz Life hasn't made major changes to its space, but is working with an architectural firm on layout and design changes in the next year. Workers will return to their old desks — likely with their 2020 calendars stuck on March, Guldseth noted with a chuckle.

"We want them to reground themselves," she said. "We want to make sure that it is comfortable coming back, to know where you are, here's your team, to create that connection with so many employees and teammates you just haven't seen other than a Webex screen or Zoom call."

Guldseth said a hybrid model offers an opportunity to put the focus on what she calls "the outputs" of the job, in a way that works for employees' lives by eliminating some of the wasted commute time and allowing for flexibility to manage the homefront.

"It's a huge opportunity," she said. "Do I think there will be challenges or policies or things that we'll have to work through? Certainly. Frankly, it's always been an evolution and hybrid work will be part of that."

Questions to ask

As companies put together back-to-office plans, they should consider the following, according to articles by Harvard Business Review and Tribune News Service.

When are you reopening? Remember that employees' schedules have been upended in many ways during the pandemic. Plans for child care, pet care and commuting must be redone. Communicate well in advance when the office is opening. Include safety plans, whether employees need an extra layer of communication with managers, and information such as what amenities are open and what transportation is available.

What is the back-to-office strategy? Will the company be completely back to on-site work or will there be a hybrid strategy? Gartner's 2021 Hybrid Work Employee Survey of more than 2,400 knowledge workers found that 54% of employees agreed that their employer's approach to flexibility will affect whether they'll stay at their organization. Desire for hybrid work is higher among Generation Z and also could help retain women. Some companies or departments will require certain days or a certain number of days be on site. But what are the hours on those days?

Communication policy? Part of making hybrid work successful is figuring out what daily communication is required — and how it is preferred — and figuring out how to hold meetings. Does the office have the technology for remote meetings in conference rooms, if in-person attendance is not mandatory? Which of the meetings require in-person interaction? How do remote or hybrid workers communicate progress on workload or what's the best way to contact a manager? All of these policies should be spelled out in a policy.

What does flexibility look like? For some companies, flexibility means working from home one or two days a week. For others, it means setting your own hours and choosing your work venue based on your tasks for the day. Employees should be clear on a company's and manager's expectations. Also, if certain meetings are mandatory in person or projects are expected to be done on site, this should be communicated well in advance.