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How many days each week is your company asking you to be back in the office? That’s become a polarizing question, and the answer is seen as a marker of whether the company or employees come first. Apple, for instance, says it wants workers in the office on Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays starting in September—a plan that sparked an employee backlash. Citigroup has also asked employees to be in the office three days a week. Some companies, like Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan Chase, hope to revert to an everyone-on-site model. Bank of America wants all vaccinated employees in office this September. Ford Motor, Salesforce.com and Twitter say they will extend work-from-home indefinitely.

While plans vary widely, most firms are contemplating a hybrid arrangement like Apple’s—a set schedule of remote days and office days. But one-size-fits-all policies for all employees are a mistake. Leaders should make more nuanced choices that reflect the needs of both employees and company. It’s more complex than simply picking one scheme for the whole firm, yet the payoff for that complexity will be well worth it.

Think of this model as ‘strategically hybrid’, a schedule that reflects the specific ways individuals and teams interact to create value. Optimizing a company in this manner can help sharpen its competitive position. It can increase productivity and speed in some areas, while doubling down on creativity, collaboration and the full human experience in others. Together, these choices will be hard to replicate and can form the basis of a durable advantage.

The following questions should drive these choices: Where do we want to prioritize efficiency, speed and coordination, recognizing that the answer often points toward remote work? Where do we want to prioritize creativity, spontaneity and complex problem solving, which are more likely to happen in person? For culture-building activities, what is the right mix of in-person and virtual interactions? If employees in different jobs or roles have their own preferred location for work, how much flexibility will we offer? Are we prepared to lose people if we can’t accommodate their preferences?

Consider the return-to-work choices of two hypothetical firms. Trendy Store and ClassicClothes.com are retailers. Each sells casual clothing. Trendy Store’s competitive strategy is to be store-centric and fashion-forward. ClassicClothes.com’s strategy is to sell a curated collection of established brands online. The different strategies driving their return-to-work plans can be seen department-wise. In finance, Trendy performs routine activities and its productivity rose while working remotely. Post-covid, the staff will continue to work remotely, coming to office two days a month for work reviews. ClassicClothes.com adjusts online prices dynamically, for which its finance group consults the merchandising division hour-to-hour, and so this team will return to office. For procurement, Trendy’s designers will return to the office every day to collaborate on a process that can’t adequately be replicated online. ClassicClothes.com sources its goods from regular brands, so its merchandisers will work from home. For sales/customer service, Trendy needs staff to come in and serve customers in-person, but this is not so for ClassicClothes.com.

Across every function, each company’s choices are guided by its overall corporate strategy. These choices could be even more fine-grained. In Harvard Business Review, Lynda Gratton argues that managers should make return-to-work decisions not only by function or department, but also on a person-by-person basis, factoring in variables such as the length of an employee’s commute, space availability at home, etc.

There are significant potential downsides to the strategic hybrid approach. Building a cohesive corporate culture will be harder in such a workplace. Organizations must ensure that their diversity and inclusion goals are not inadvertently set back in this process. Allowing some people to continue working from home and requiring others to return to the office risks fostering jealousy, resentment and complaints about fairness. The strategic reasons for those decisions must be communicated clearly and firmly.

Providing every employee with their ideal arrangement can’t be a primary concern. Yes, some people may leave for another job if presented with a return-to-work policy that doesn’t suit them. But that risk will probably shrink over time. It’s going to be a rare company that declares: “Work wherever you want, whenever you want—you choose!" Going strategically hybrid requires recognizing the kinds of in-person collaboration that create value while balancing the concerns of stakeholders to enhance the firm’s competitive advantage. Success is a key part of job satisfaction, ultimately, and making intelligent trade-offs is the essence of leadership.

Nitin Nohria is a professor and former dean of Harvard Business School.

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