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The COVID-19 pandemic forced businesses everywhere to adopt work-from-home models. As vaccines roll out and offices begin to re-open, we can take the lessons we learned from remote working to ensure employees are happy and productive by implementing new hybrid models.

Before the pandemic, many businesses questioned whether work-from-home (WFH) models could ever be as efficient as in-office work. Then, COVID-19 hit and made WFH the only choice. By force, we had to figure out how to be efficient if we hoped to get through it. In the process, managing our teams remotely also forced us to renegotiate our understanding of employee relations. By implementing new remote tools, methods, and approaches that we had never considered before, our workers were able to be more productive.

Now, as vaccination rollout reduces the threat of in-person interactions, businesses are considering their return to the office. While the WFH model offers great flexibility, the value of passive learning in the office and the benefits of a positive social environment can also prove to enhance employee productivity. The best way forward is through combining those elements we learned during our pandemic experience that allowed for greater WFH productivity with a new understanding of how the office can be incorporated into that flexible dynamic with a hybrid model.

Here are five lessons for merging remote and office work into a productive hybrid model that we learned after working from home during the pandemic.

1. We need the right stuff

It may sound obvious, but to do a job right, you need the right tools. WFH expanded our library of resources simply by forcing us to focus on different priorities. After the pandemic sent everyone home, investing in software, platforms, and quality internet became necessary to keep businesses running. In the end, those investments made things much more efficient.

With everyone working from home, broadband and fiber optics became crucial. We’re only scratching the surface of their full potential, but our WFH experience showed us that to reach that potential, everyone needs equally good access. Even within my company, we discovered how few employees had fiber-fed broadband, so their speed could never keep up with what others who had better connections were capable of doing.

When the pandemic sent everyone to work from home, we ended up finding efficiency holes where we never knew to look and filled them by implementing the newest tools we never knew we needed. Microsoft, for example, had already launched collaborative platforms like OneNote and OneDrive before COVID-19, but few people used them. Now, they’re as colloquial an office term as Zoom.

Make it easier on your employees by making sure they have the right equipment to get the job done, both at home and in the office. Many companies during the pandemic supported their remote staff to equip their home office, and their operations are now already set up to flexibly transition between the office and WFH options as needed. If employees have the same tools to get the job done at either location with the new hybrid model, they can work from both with equal productivity.

2. We can find the best person to do the best job

Hiring the best candidate will also result in greater productivity — another seemingly obvious point that WFH forced us to examine with new eyes. Traditionally, hiring managers search for talent within a drivable radius of the office, but hiring remote workers opens up the talent pool to more qualified candidates. In this post-pandemic world, the default search for the best person to do the job will likely include both options.

In-office collaboration allows both newer and younger employees to absorb the knowledge of those senior to them so the company can grow and mature, but remote work can keep doors open if the right in-person candidate never comes along. If we look at it through the eyes of the new hybrid model, we can have the best of both worlds. With remote flexibility woven into the job, we have access to more candidates than we would if we limited our options to only in-office workers.

Especially for small businesses and entrepreneurs, having access to the best talent, even thousands of miles away, puts you in a competitive position. Before the pandemic, 35% of employees felt that they had more opportunities to find quality employment through remote work. Now, one in two workers doubts they would return to a job without a remote option, so flexibility in this area will become increasingly important. The hybrid model allows you to invite more candidates to the table and increases the odds that you’ll find the right one for the job.

3. We need transparency and an end to hallway meetings

With the available tools making it so easy, WFH was a crash course in transparency. We were nimble in making decisions when faced with the pandemic’s new obstacles, but that’s not what surprised me. The real difference came in how we communicated those decisions with greater transparency because of the remote work model.

Transparency promotes trust and employee loyalty, and workers who want to work for you will do their best job. But, transparency wasn’t always a priority before everything was easily broadcast over a Zoom meeting. In the old office dynamic, decisions may have gotten made on the go while walking through hallways with a handful of people, not always communicated to everyone.

Once we learned the ease of transparent communication with remote tools through our forced WFH experience, we saw the inefficiency of these “hallway meetings” more clearly. With the click of a button, we can share the necessary information with a screen of faces, all hearing the same message and feeling like an integral part of the team. Of course, once back in the office, these hallway meetings are likely to resume, but we now know how to apply better communication skills using remote tools to easily follow up with greater transparency when they do.

4. We need to standardize outcome-based thinking

The fourth lesson our WFH experience taught us is how to apply outcome-based thinking to individuals directly. On a company-wide scale, we always took an outcome-based approach, but within all office dynamics, it can be common for managers to measure individual productivity through the old standard of time. With everyone working from home, however, keeping a physical eye on how much time employees spent being productive became impossible. So, we had to adjust our expectations of individual productivity.

With employees at home, managing their every bathroom break became much less important than making sure they completed the required workload by a given deadline. We learned that we could get greater individual productivity by establishing the goals we expected them to meet and allowing them to self-guide that operation toward the results. When we shifted our mindset of individual productivity from time to outcome, it enabled progress in all areas.

Now, in the transition to a hybrid model, adopting this outcome-based mindset for each individual allows them to be productive in any situation, from any location. For example, instead of scolding employees for telling a customer, “That’s against policy,” think about the outcome the company actually wants. If you expect a better response, take proactive responsibility by establishing standard practices for all situations, including those where a company has no wiggle room. This way, employees can always feel confident making autonomous decisions that reflect an explicit policy, even when situations do indeed go against it.

5. We need an empathetic approach

The fifth way managing a remote team helped us increase productivity is through empathy. When the pandemic hit, we needed to relearn how to operate efficiently, which meant taking everyone’s input into consideration. Across the country, WFH forced businesses to reconstruct using an empathetic approach, listening and responding to employees’ needs as they arose. As a result, in a recent survey, workers reported they would be happier in a company that gave them the option to work from home, and three-quarters said they were the same or more productive when working remotely.

Remote work during the pandemic allowed employees to find moments to destress with a cup of coffee or some gossip with a friend without affecting productivity. But, it was also isolating and sometimes lonely – the new hybrid environment creates a mutual win-win. An empathetic approach back in the office can be as simple as including these breaks in the schedule to recognize their importance on employee well-being. Encouraging a healthy work-life balance is an easy way to show employees you care.

Even the remote tools WFH forced us to learn taught us how easy taking an empathetic approach could be and how much employees appreciate it. Now, under a hybrid model, we know that “being there” for someone is only a click away, no matter where you actually are. A quick inter-office Teams message, for example, can get you in touch with someone available to help you solve problems faster. With the ease of remote tools to respond to others’ needs, I can easily help their productivity without hindering mine, which facilitates greater overall productivity even when some employees are working from home.

By Cheri BeranekCheri Beranek Clearfield, Inc. President and CEO

A founding member of Clearfield, Inc., Cheri Beranek is considered a communications visionary. Her extensive leadership experience and unique management style combined deliver outstanding corporate performance.

Under her direction, Clearfield has recorded 10 consecutive years of profitability and posted historic gains in both the market capitalization and shareholder equity. Today, Clearfield is a multinational business with more than 250 employees and over 700 customers.