Why companies are ditching the word ‘hybrid’

For many employees, it’s been 19 months of working from home, either entirely or partly, during the pandemic. But as vaccines have prompted some employees to venture back to the office, many companies are likely now asking themselves: What does the new work environment look like?

So-called hybrid work, where employees split time between in-person and remote, has become a huge buzzword in the past year and a half and has sparked debates over the virtues and disadvantages of both models. But according to Colleen McCreary, the chief people, places, and publicity officer at Credit Karma, companies need to think about their approach a bit differently.

“I think that word ‘hybrid’ is super loaded, and it…locks you in on certain days of the week or a certain way of working,” McCreary said onstage at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit conference in Washington, D.C., on Monday. “The ‘flexible’ word is the word that most of us have embraced or want to embrace as much as possible,” leaning into “letting smaller groups sort of define for themselves how they operate, how they get their work done.”

That flexibility isn’t new. McCreary noted it’s been something that “various industries have been inching towards.”

But what is new is that “we’re sort of freeing up the conversation to ask questions that we never really thought about asking, and pushing…the leaders of companies to think about what is best for the bottom line, for our customers, and for our employees, all at the same time,” McCreary said. Without the “kick in the butt” of the pandemic prodding companies to examine these things, “I don’t necessarily know…if people really would have taken some of the changes,” she added.

Eschewing the buzzword “hybrid” is something Nickle LaMoreaux, senior vice president and chief human resources officer at IBM, is doing at her company, too. “We don’t call it hybrid; we don’t call it flexible,” she said. “We call it being intentionally flexible. This is not ad hoc, ‘I need to work from home today because I have a delivery,’ or ‘I need to leave early to get to my kids’ sporting events.’ This is about people coming together as a team and intentionally deciding what works for them.”

By focusing more on allowing individual teams or business functions to determine flexibility based on their own needs and responsibilities, “we have an opportunity to redefine when we come together, and it will help us build a more inclusive environment,” LaMoreaux said. For example, that could benefit employees who perhaps need to get their children to a school bus in the mornings and can start a shift later, she posited. “This is where I think teams need to develop schedules that say, ‘You come together during these hours…[and] we have collective hours.’” Some big companies are using this process, too, including Amazon, which announced on Monday it was taking a teams-based approach to determining remote work.

‘Always felt excluded’

But that intentional flexibility can’t come at the expense of being engaged, and executives stress it’s important to ensure remote workers aren’t feeling as if they are missing out.

Historically for companies’ remote employees, “there wasn’t necessarily intention behind it, and they have always felt excluded,” said LaFawn Davis, group vice president of environmental, social, and governance at Indeed. “So how do we make decisions that allow that flexibility, that hybrid, whatever it’s called, where we’re intentionally thinking about making sure that we don’t create a space for the haves and the have-nots? Because that’s what the remote workforce has looked like in a largely in-office workforce.”

Creating an engaging space can even include small things like starting meetings “five to seven minutes late, so that we can just catch up,” said Francine Katsoudas, executive vice president and chief people, policy, and purpose officer at Cisco.

But when it comes to figuring out these new workplace dynamics, Katsoudas suggested companies allow teams to “make decisions for 90 days—that’s what we do. And it allows teams to try something, see if it works, and they can evolve it when they’re making their decisions.”

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