Dave Bortnem is thinking a lot these days about what a return to work will look like.
The chief executive of Direct Benefits, an online insurance marketplace, is planning for a future that will blend the flexibilities of remote work with in-office collaboration whenever it's safe to gather again.
That means creating more open space in the cube-heavy downtown St. Paul office and reassessing expensive perks such as free parking if 48 workers aren't driving into work every day.
But Bortnem also is thinking about how to create a culture of fairness, so that those who are in the office have the same opportunities and support as those who aren't.
"When you're in the office setting, it's easy just to desk-bomb somebody or show up in somebody's cube and have a little chit chat," Bortnem said. "Now you have to plan it, as opposed to having it happen organically. It's a conscious effort."
Face time with bosses, whether in meetings or random hallway conversations, has long been a baked-in essential of company life. Fair or not, it's how employees get noticed, nab plumb assignments, move up the ladder.
But as more companies consider a hybrid working model with both remote and office-based employees, leaders are confronting a new twist on workplace equity.
"Companies are going to need to continue to be creative," said Tina Smith, chief human resources officer at Thrivent. "It always seems to be the person who's front of mind who gets the project. So how do we work on that from a company perspective and make sure that we are equitably distributing work to our workforce? Not just to individuals who are in the office, but also potential remote workers?"
Creating an equitable experience for a hybrid workforce hinges on understanding — and removing — barriers that impede employees regardless of location, advises employee retention consultant Peakon. Leaders may need to adjust hours, offer different software tools, provide more ways for workers to join informal catch-ups.
At Direct Benefits, Bortnem aims to make meetings more inclusive by adding large screens, cameras and microphones so that remote workers can see and hear what's happening on site, and get a sense of body language and mood.
"Pre-pandemic, that was always the worst: to be the person that wasn't in the room," he said. "We've learned a bit about how to have these virtual meetings, so we'll be more conscious about making sure that the remote person is present and included in the meeting, rather than just being the voice in the box."
Direct Benefits also plans to maintain outreach efforts with remote workers with Zoom lunches and frequent manager check-ins to identify isolation, stress or burnout. The essential component, Bortnem said, is to plan and be deliberate.
"You cannot work the old way in the new world," said Prithwiraj Choudhury, an associate professor at Harvard Business School, who has been studying remote work on a global scale. "Companies should treat this as an organizational transformation project. It means that we need different processes for how we mentor, how we onboard, how we communicate."
Choudhury's research on industries as diverse as banking, IT and manufacturing has found that the most successful hybrid models have policies that are both flexible and uniform.
Otherwise, he said, leaders risk creating "two classes of citizens."
"You would have the office workers and the remote workers," he said. "They won't share information with each other and the office people would horde information and the remote folks would feel isolated."
To avoid sliding into old habits and "proximity bias," the policies must also be adopted by everyone from executives to new hires.
"If everyone is remote and the CEO is in the office," Choudhury said, "then middle managers will come to the office to get face time." Choudhury pointed to the global IT services company TCS, which during the pandemic decided to become majority remote by 2025. Everyone will spend 25% of working time in the physical office while the rest can work from anywhere. Each work unit at TCS gets to determine how that time will be proportioned.
Some teams might have workers in the office two days a week. Others might work one full week a month. Still another might work three continuous weeks on site and then go remote for a period of time.
"That's what's so elegant about this model," Choudhury said. "It's uniform and it's flexible. That's what I think a good hybrid model represents."
In many ways, of course, remote work can increase equity rather than hinder it. Spouses no longer have to give up jobs if the other gets a better job in another city. Minnesota companies may no longer need to convince winter-wary job recruits to relocate.
Choudhury found a stark example of this leveling effect at a New York investment bank he studied. A woman who had been an intern there in 2019 reported feeling shut out from mentorship opportunities with an experienced trader.
"The boys were all standing around the trader's terminal all day," Choudhury said.
But last year, with all the operations handled remotely, the trader could share his computer screen over Zoom with this same woman and all the other mentees all day long. "It was completely inclusive," Choudhury said. "It broke the gender barrier in one stroke. And everyone got equal mentorship. It didn't depend on preferences and favorites."
At Minneapolis-based Thrivent, discussions are evolving about how to manage a hybrid workforce, said Smith, the HR manager. Employees at the nonprofit financial-services company aren't expected back at its new downtown headquarters until at least July 1. But when they do return, it's a given that some workers will stay remote at least part of the time.
"We need to go into that situation with eyes wide open with the complexities of continuing to maintain culture and connections, looking at the equities, the economics," Smith said.
During the pandemic, various departments posted "Hello Monday" videos that are seen companywide. They have hosted virtual bingo games, started recipe clubs and formed groups specifically to support family caregivers.
"We've tried a number of things at Thrivent over the past year to keep the sense of community going," Smith said. "We've been highly successful, but it's taken a lot of creativity and work."
Keeping employees engaged, whether they are working remotely or in office, remains an ever-present concern, leaders said. And some observers predict a looming "turnover tsunami" as workers who are hanging on to secure jobs during the pandemic decide to jump ship in the year ahead.
Choudhury said that only underscores the urgency for managers to develop a deliberate remote-work framework.
"It's not a question of whether you should do it," he said, "it's a question of how quickly you do it. In every industry, there are a few companies that are marching along and doing really well. These companies, once they become successful remote organizations, will become magnets for talent."