I walked out of my office and headed around the corner to the conference room for my staff meeting. I wasn’t sure who exactly would be there, but, as always, I was excited to meet with my team.

There were five or six of us in the room, and my assistant had already dialed in the others. We kicked it off with our standard meeting agenda item -“Slow down and inspire” – and then went into the rest of the agenda, solving problems like were were actors in a made-up Marvel series, Guardians of the Workplace.

Oh wait. I should probably back up here a bit.

The year was 2016, and the Coronavirus was something you might only associate with the illness you got after spending a week in Daytona on spring break.

But almost all of my ~1,000 employees and contracted team members were partially office based, partially remote, i.e. “hybrid workers.” (Yeah, “Back to the Future” kinda stuff)

It wasn’t a result of me being a visionary or ultra-progressive. Our hybrid workforce was the result of our parent company doing some real estate gymnastics several years earlier. Essentially, they consolidated our headquarters from two offices to one. And, well, the math didn’t quite work out.

Much like the pandemic is doing for many other companies today, we found ourselves quickly adapting to, and accepting of, this concept of flexibility in where our employees worked and where we hired our new talent as well.

And now here we sit, essentially everyone in the same, worldwide conundrum, trying to understand how companies are handling return to work. And as I talk to many business leaders, many of whom are still wrestling with exactly how they should handle their return to work strategy, I can’t help but reflect on the lessons we learned when we were in a similar situation five(ish) years ago.

You see, while it of course presented some complexities, we actually did more than okay working in a hybrid environment. In fact, in the three years I was leading our company, we tripled earnings and employee engagement scores went up 12 percentage points. And I want you to know that you can be “more than okay” too.

Here are the top 3 lessons I learned when leading my (mostly) hybrid team.

1. Decentralize schedule decision making.

While the natural, gravitational pull is to ensure things are fair and consistent, the reality is that each of your teams likely have their own nuances.

When we first realized that most teams in our company had different policies regarding their WFH schedules, we quickly went into “Manage Mode” and came up with a consistent policy. But it didn’t take long to realize that this centrally-developed-policy didn’t work.

In the end, we decided to provide general guidelines, but leave it to the department leaders to craft a policy and plan that worked best for them. For example, our claims management team needed to ensure they had a certain number of managers in the office every day. For our account management team, it was more important they had flexibility to be in the office on the days when they had big customer meetings.

2. Continue providing flexibility for employees that deserve it.

If you’re reading this, it’s likely that you just survived a massive crisis. Why? Because your employees stuck with you and got it done. To now turn around and operate in a way that gives them limited flexibility with their schedules would be a massive mistake.

Back when I was the CEO of our large, hybrid team, I even worked from home from time to time. When did I do that? Well…when I had a sick kid, or when I had a doctor’s appointment mid-day, and/or when I didn’t have a big-girl meeting in the office. These of course didn’t all happen on a Tuesday or a Friday.

Your employees are no different. The rest of their lives can’t perfectly fit into a box. There will always be things that come up, in both directions (i.e. things at home pop-up they need to attend to AND things at work pop-up they need to attend to).

By limiting their flexibility, it’s a sure-fire way to signal that you don’t trust them…and it’s likely that they’ll seek out a leader or company that will give them the flexibility they need.

3. Encourage (but don’t mandate) video conferences.

I was on the video conference bandwagon well before Zoom became a word more popular than Google. At the time, we used Webex. Yes, Webex has had video capabilities for a looong time.

When I first started pitching the video conferencing thing, people thought I was nuts. It wasn’t so much that I saw the future, it was mostly because I was sick of people complaining that they “never met their boss before” or “didn’t even know what their counterpart looked like.”

Was there quick, widespread adoption? Nope. But slowly and surely, people got more comfortable with using the technology. I’ll never forget the staff meeting I had when one of my team members showed up on video wearing a sweatshirt and baseball hat. These days, that’s no biggie, but in 2017, that was gutsy and inspiring!

Photo credit: Pixabay

But we all now know the fatigue that can come with too many video conferences. As your employees start to head back to the office, even if just in part, I encourage you to continue to make video conferencing part of your culture. And, I also encourage you establish a culture that is largely based on this principle: “You’re a big person, you can ultimately decide.”

At the end of the day, while you may be knee-deep in wondering if other companies are going back to the office and what that might mean for your strategy, it’s important to realize that the success, or lack thereof, of your team and company over the next few years does NOT hinge on where your employees are working. It hinges on where you take your company’s culture. And company culture transcends any cubicle, office, or kitchen table.

Instead, focus on being an authentic leader. Listen and inspire. Adjust often. Build trust and accountability. And before you know it, you’ll forget what life was like back in the boring, homogenous world of circa 2020.