Hybrid work is no longer a one-off phrase used to describe the possibility of what work could look like. Instead, it has become a reality — a model for employers that decided to make permanent at least some of the adjustments they made in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Though not nearly feasible for all occupations — let alone the majority of jobs in the U.S. — flexible work models, including hybrid work, are catching on at a rapid pace. A May survey by consulting firm Mercer found that, of a group of 510 employers that had a flexible work plan in place, 70% planned to adopt hybrid work.
However, the disruption caused by the movement to more flexible workflows has added onto existing workloads. Some in the HR space are even catching onto the idea that hybrid work could encompass its own job.
"Hybrid work is going to involve a lot of experimentation," said Alexia Cambon, research director at consulting firm Gartner. "As a result of all that experimentation, it makes sense to have a dedicated source."
Adjusting to new workflows will also require education, support and nurturing of employees, said Lars Schmidt, founder of Amplify Talent, meaning that employers cannot simply rely on the same strategies that helped them survive in 2020. "The companies committed to that are going to be bringing on someone like this who can handle that work," he added.
Enter: the chief hybrid work officer. Software company GitLab Inc. has a Head of Remote and Facebook hired Annie Dean as its director of remote work at the end of last year, Human Resource Executive reported.
But most organizations are "still in the early days" when it comes to hybrid work, said Schmidt, even though he noted that he expects more employers to create similar positions in the future. "Frankly a lot of companies are putting this on their HR team," he said. "That's a risk … most people in HR are pretty tapped out right now."
Still, employers may be able to identify a list of skills and characteristics to identify a good fit for someone who can lead the transition into hybrid work or more flexible work generally.
Communication and transparency
Asked what skill set employers might look for in a chief hybrid work officer, Cambon first listed communication skills. Specifically, the candidate would need to be comfortable communicating between different types of teams as well as stakeholders. The role itself is "something of a manager across business units," Cambon said, coordinating both between and within teams to ensure that members continue to collaborate.
One particularly important lift for those in charge of hybrid work is ensuring that teams participate in both synchronous and asynchronous communication, Schmidt said.
During the pandemic, employers shifted synchronous activities, such as team meetings, to virtual formats such as video conferencing. These activities will continue in hybrid workplaces, Schmidt explained, but a hybrid work manager also will be tasked with shifting organizational processes and optimizing them for asynchronous time, so that team members can complete certain work on their own schedule. "That piece is going to take some time," Schmidt said.
Transparency also will be a key focus, especially as it becomes more challenging for team members to understand each other's work patterns, Cambon said. If a given project could benefit from in-person collaboration, a chief hybrid work officer can help teams coordinate, she added.
A candidate will need to be somewhat tech-savvy, Schmidt said, given that a lot of hybrid and asynchronous work is supported by both hardware and software tools; "They have to not be scared of that."
Along those lines, a hybrid work manager would need to ensure that employees have access to high-quality internet service and bandwidth while working off-site, as well as a budget that either permits them to create a home office or work in a separate space, Cambon said.
The candidate also needs to be able to communicate to employees the value of in-person experiences in a hybrid environment, Cambon said. In essence, the candidate will need to answer the question, "why is this worth my commute?"
A generalist's perspective
Because flexible work affects all aspects of HR operations, a top candidate is more likely to be a generalist than a specialist, Schmidt said; "A pure specialist who has always done 'x' would probably struggle a little bit more."
Employers also will need to determine the reporting path for the position. Cambon said she has seen hybrid work managers who operate both outside of and within HR departments, while Schmidt said that, in most organizations, a manager would likely report to the CHRO or chief people officer. "But I don't think they should be a buffer between them and the C-suite," he noted.
Still, chief hybrid work officers should have regular interactions with executives to ensure the success of the transition. "For remote and hybrid work to be successful, a lot of those principles have to be supported from the leadership down," Schmidt said.
There may be pitfalls to avoid as well. Schmidt said managers will need to orient organizational processes around remote work, even if some employees remain on-site full-time. "That way you're not having two classes of employees," he said.
Candidates will need to ensure that their organizations aren't just seeking to recreate what they lost in the past year, Cambon said. Leadership may be uncomfortable embracing a new paradigm or may have a problem envisioning how different ways of working could be shared among team members.
"Anyone in that role is essentially asked to shed the assumptions of the past and rethink work altogether," she said. "Anyone who takes on the chief hybrid work officer role is going to need to be quite brave and courageous."