It’s Not Just a Phase – ISI Champions Hybrid Work Going Forward

by Avery Anderson

Credit: shironosov/Getty Images

When the coronavirus pandemic hit in March 2020, the world quite literally shut down. Panic and lockdowns forced people to retreat into a period of physical isolation. The traditional work environment was completely uprooted as the in-person 9 to 5 was laid to rest. The implications of this shift hit close to home–people’s homes became their workplace.

Two years later, the world has started up again, and so has the in-person office–but not for everyone. Although some companies split ways with a hybrid structure once regulations were lifted, others opted to maintain it over the long term. 

USC’s Information Sciences Institute has stuck with it and has been cited in multiple articles as an ideal model for hybrid work. Earlier this month, Fortune magazine highlighted ISI and its dedication to “promoting physical and mental wellbeing in the workplace.”

In the most recent survey on future work ISI ran in August 2022, the results were clear: ISI employees prefer the new model and believe it is more effective. 

Over 88% of employees said they believe the team led policy is better than a set 3 days a week in-office schedule. Additionally,73% said they were more likely to recommend working at ISI to their peers. When asked how they felt about their current work arrangements, over 93% of employees responded they were satisfied.

Across the board, an overwhelming majority gave positive feedback about the new policies–a great win for ISI and for future work. 

Where it All Began

Last fall, many companies began implementing a set schedule for the return back to the office. Craig Knoblock, Executive Director of ISI, says ISI initially prepared to do the same. 

“I was planning on having our research institute follow the standard path that all the big corporations were following. Apple, Google, and others were announcing plans to have people come back 3 days a week, and I thought that seemed like a good idea.”

It was a talk given by Gleb Tspiurksy, a distinguished consultant on future work, that caught Knoblock’s attention and prompted ISI to consider a new route.

“I saw a video talk that Gleb gave that really changed my mind about this. He highlighted the advantages of hybrid work and why we need to embrace it. One of the things I was impressed by in the video were all these interesting ideas he had on how to make hybrid work, work.” 

Shortly thereafter, Tspiurksy officially joined the ISI team. The organization has since leveraged his expertise and guidance to put this new model into practice. 

Why Hybrid Work?

Companies and managers may have preconceived notions about hybrid work that are misleading. For example, they may assume employees don’t work as hard or are less engaged when working for home.

This is nothing more than a common misconception. In fact, studies show that people are actually happier and more productive when they are able to work from home.

As part of his research, Tspiursky has done extensive benchmarking that shows working from home actually decreases employees’ stress levels and boosts their mental well being. When compared to an internal survey done at ISI, the results were strikingly similar.

“The internal survey coordinated very well with the external survey. People will be more stressed and have worse mental wellbeing if they are forced to go into the office.”

As for productivity, there is a visible increase in work output. Knoblock noted that research publication numbers went up since ISI put the hybrid model in place, and said he believes  “people actually put in more hours, not less hours with this model.”

Helping managers realize that their intuitions and personal experiences about work may be different than their staff proved critical to getting everyone on board with the approach. 

“I’ve heard from research leads that once we’ve started implementing this model, they have found it fits their team’s needs much better. Some team members had moved and relocated far away. Others don’t want to commute,” Tspiursky added.

Hybrid work is now the preferred working style among employees and job candidates, as reported in Gallup’s March 2022 study. Companies that stifle workplace flexibility may struggle with employee retention or lose talent to their competitors. 

Shawn Park, Recruiter at ISI, believes it’s vital that the organization continues to adapt to changes to the traditional workplace if it wants to continue to see success going forward.

“One thing we learned is things will never be the same. Organizations that are not able to pivot and make adjustments will ultimately be like Blockbuster Video or Sears– places that weren’t able to make the change and went under.”

ISI’s Hybrid Model in Practice 

Derek Mikuriya, Director of Human Resources at ISI, says that ISI’s hybrid work model is a differentiating factor in the tech industry when it comes to recruiting talent and retaining employees.

“We go up against a lot of the Silicon Valley firms and they’re offering it, or they’re not offering it. I think it gives us the ability to engage employees more because we do have the flexibility other companies may not.”

ISI grants its staff a generous amount of flexibility and freedom. The organization doesn’t believe in monitoring employees’ online activity or enforcing strict hours. As long as they get their work done, how they do so is beside the point.

Additionally, there are no set days that people have to come into the office. According to Tspiursky, structure is determined on a team by team basis.

“Some people can work full time remotely, some teams can do it more often, and some teams just do it more project based, meaning it’s much more flexible.”

ISI is also outfitting employees’ home offices to streamline the ease of going back and forth between working from home and working in the office. Items such as chairs, desks, monitors and technology are provided for employees at their homes, free of charge.

“This is something that is pretty rare,” Tspiursky added. “At home office support is much more than a salary raise–it’s a signal of commitment, showing that ISI is going to support its employees.” 

The support doesn’t stop there. Rather than a top-down approach, leadership evaluates and adjusts ISI’s policies based on feedback gathered from employee surveys every few months. This way, employees’ voices are heard and considered when changes are made.

Current Challenges

One of the biggest challenges ISI is facing right now is the connection piece of the hybrid model. With remote work there are fewer opportunities for people to interact, whether it be in the hallways, at lunch, or in between meetings. 

Especially with new people, it can be difficult to get them integrated when they aren’t coming into the office frequently. ISI is working creatively to mitigate some of these concerns. 

Leadership is facilitating more activities to promote connectivity and relationship building, Knoblock noted. This includes scheduling retreats both by groups and by division and administering free lunches twice a week for those in office.

ISI also employs a technique coined the “virtual water cooler,” an invention of Tsipursky’s, which consists of having people answer a few questions, such as “How are you?”, “What are you working on?” and various fun facts. This technique mimics the kind of casual conversation that would happen if you ran into a colleague at a water cooler in the break room.

There are also some technical challenges in supporting the hybrid environment, such as integrating meetings between those that are in the office and those joining remotely. Currently the technology needed to make this a more seamless experience is limited, but ISI is testing some promising products out.

“There’s a company called OWL that makes a device that sits in the center of the table.” Knoblock said. “It’s directional,  has a camera and a microphone, and recognizes who’s talking and zooms in on their face.”

What’s Next?

So, employees are enjoying working from home and being productive. Now, how do you get people to want to come into the office from time to time?

In the near future, ISI plans to make upgrades to its headquarters in Marina del Rey to incentivize employees to come in.

“We are looking at remodeling or modernizing portions of our building in Marina del Rey to make it more conducive for sharing and collaboration–getting people excited about coming to the office,” Mikuriya added. 

With the current office space, ISI is looking into a reservation system where people can book offices and see who else reserved one and is going to be on the floor that day. This is yet another way to encourage social interaction and connection in the office. 

ISI doesn’t plan on putting a halt to all of this innovation anytime soon. The institution isn’t treating the hybrid working model as temporary– it’s working  remarkably well for both companies and employees right now.

“We might adapt over time, but I’d say we’re planning to do it for the long run. People have now come to discover a new way of working, and people are quite productive, so I don’t think we’ll ever go back to sort of just saying, “Okay, these are the fixed days,” Knoblock said.

Published on November 4th, 2022

Last updated on November 9th, 2022