Posted: 17 Aug. 2021 10 min. read

The hybrid work environment and the future of work

What role will hybrid work play in return to office strategy?

Returning to the Office Isn’t Business as Usual

As businesses consider a return to physical offices, leaders have an opportunity to reimagine the future of work.

This article originally appeared in the Risk and Compliance Journal in the WSJ on June 30, 2021.

After months of remote work, many workers may be trading videoconference calls and quality time with pets for a commute to the office and in-person meetings with coworkers. By the end of the calendar year, 89% of organizations polled plan to return to the physical workplace in some capacity, according to a recent Deloitte survey.

Although the return to in-person workplaces is imminent at most companies, if not already here, many organizations won’t pick up exactly where they left off at the onset of the pandemic. In fact, two-thirds of businesses say they will be implementing some sort of hybrid model that combines in-person and remote configurations, according to Deloitte’s survey.

“The key will be balance—harmonizing the need for connection and collaboration with flexibility and accommodation,” said Stacy Janiak, managing partner and chief growth officer of Deloitte US. “Organizations are pursuing a number of different models, and the reality is that we are not returning to the workplace of the past, but instead using this as an opportunity to truly reimagine all facets of how and where work gets done.”

Janiak spoke with Steve Hatfield, a principal and global leader of Future of Work for Deloitte Consulting LLP, about the results of Deloitte’s return-to-work survey and how business leaders are navigating the new environment.

Janiak: What differences are you seeing in return-to-work plans based on industry, business size, and other factors?

Hatfield: Before the pandemic, major multinational corporations were already moderately good at dealing with a large, distributed workforce. They were connecting virtually, but maybe not as effectively. Now that videoconferencing has become so commonplace, it has leveled the playing field among remote and in-person workers and made it even easier for large organizations to adapt to hybrid work. Many smaller organizations, by contrast, tended to have most employees in the office before the pandemic and hadn’t necessarily figured out how to make a hybrid model work because they hadn’t needed to. The leaders of these organizations tend to want a return to the office.

As for industry differences, we saw tech companies making some of the first moves, both at the outset of the crisis and now. Several major tech companies have announced they’re going to move forward with a hybrid environment, with perhaps one or two days a week in the office. Many science-based businesses, engineering firms, biotechs, and pharma companies have followed suit.

Financial services companies have been a bit more “wait and see” until recently, when some well-known companies have announced they want everyone back as soon as possible. That said, there are still some organizations across sectors and industries making moves to a hybrid model, as that is what workers tend to say they want; they would prefer a hybrid experience.

Customer experience is such an important piece of the puzzle. As businesses consider the needs of all stakeholders in their return-to-work plans, how does customer experience fit in?

Most organizations are grappling with the fact that their customers are now accustomed to interacting in a virtual world and may be looking for more of that. When COVID-19 first arose, many businesses reconfigured the way they work to serve people virtually. For example, sales teams developed webinars to share information on products, and tech companies began offering more self-service options.

In the future, as businesses maintain virtual operations in cases where it makes sense, the nature of customer interactions may permanently change, and that shift will likely ripple into business models. For example, businesses that had organized their salesforces by territory may now adopt new groupings that align to other business priorities. Meanwhile, other organizations, in particular within the financial services industry and retail, are shifting away from branches and stores at an accelerated pace.

The shift to hybrid work brings multiple considerations when it comes to safety, culture, and business travel. What factors are C-suite leaders taking into account?

Going forward, health and safety will continue to be paramount for organizations. Our survey shows that 89% of businesses will require social distancing in the workplace, while 67% will enhance health and safety protocols. Leaders are also recognizing the need to think carefully about human performance, productivity, and wellness, with the understanding that many people struggled to balance work and life during the pandemic.

The survey shows that employers are also concerned about maintaining culture in their workplaces. For companies that don’t go back to business as usual, the hybrid environment allows people to get together more intentionally, based on the work (for example, when launching a new project or doing long-term planning). Leaders have an opportunity to become more intentional about choosing in-person interactions and scheduling business travel to create not just a better work outcome, but a better experience overall.

As you pointed out, leaders have a chance to reimagine the future of work. Looking at this particular moment, what trends do you think will persist?

The pandemic highlighted the value of digitization, and the market for virtual collaboration tools has blossomed. In a separate Deloitte survey, 85% of chief executives say the pandemic significantly accelerated their digital transformations. Many organizations are looking for ways to augment their workforces with machines that can take over the more rote elements of work, freeing people up to do more complicated and valuable tasks. Even as tech innovations offer efficiencies, leaders recognize that employees are central to the way work gets done, and the pandemic has elevated the importance of humans. Already, organizations are looking beyond the workplace to include employees, partners, vendors, and gig workers in their talent pools. This ecosystem approach allows employers to access talent wherever and whenever they need it and creates opportunities for workers to customize their careers to include a portfolio of activities they’re passionate about. It may sound lofty now, but these shifts are already in motion; it’s simply a matter of pushing the right trends forward to create the future we want.

This article originally appeared in the Risk and Compliance Journal in the WSJ on June 30, 2021.


Jennifer Fisher, Deloitte Insights for CMOs