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Rebranding RTO: Why companies coin names for their hybrid-work plans

Half of workers don’t understand their own organization’s hybrid work plan, according to a survey by professional social network Fishbowl.  (Chris Ratcliffe)
By Matthew Boyle Bloomberg

The big debate over hybrid work is settled: It’s here to stay. But how to brand the policy is a whole other matter. Employers are coming up with a whole new class of catchphrases to promote their flexible-work options, illustrating the various ways companies see the plans shaking out – and how hard it is to get them right.

Some, like “Flex with Purpose” at audit, tax and advisory firm KPMG, try to balance workers’ desire for flexibility with bosses’ need for control. Others, such as 3M’s “Work Your Way,” put the individual at the center. A few, like “Amex Flex” from American Express, play off the company’s well-known brand.

General Motors tells its staff to “Work Appropriately.” Others have loftier aspirations, like the “New Era of Agility” from European automaker Stellantis NV, or Accenture’s “Omni-connected.”

The names may come straight from CEOs, or get crafted by consultants. All of them, though, indicate the challenge of establishing norms in an ever-shifting modern workplace that consistently defies attempts to normalize anything. While 88% of 1,500 executives and board members surveyed recently by Deloitte said finding the right workplace model is key to their success, just 1 in 4 of them said they’re ready to address the issue.

The result: About half of firms rely on informal guidelines, a Mercer survey found, while a third have formal rules and the rest just basically wing it.

Given the variety of approaches, it’s no surprise that the names used are all over the map. But language matters when companies implement change, experts say, as it gives people something to latch on to and identify with. (One phrase that’s rarely used anymore is “Return to Office,” (or its acronym, RTO), with its connotations of harsh mandates.) Names can reduce the historical stigma of “flex work” arrangements, typically associated with mothers and often viewed as a career-limiting move, according to Erin Kelly, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management.

A catchy name can also serve as a recruitment tool in what’s still a tight labor market, and flexible working arrangements are critical to attracting and retaining talent. The risk is that the name becomes just another corporate buzzword, mocked and ignored by the staff.

“We know the problems of flexible work, but we don’t necessarily know the solutions,” said Denise Rousseau, a professor of organizational behavior and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University. “This is an opportunity for organizations to loosen the strictures they had in the past and say, ‘We are a different kind of organization now.’ “

Companies are seizing the opportunity in various ways. One common approach is a policy that provides flexibility, but not free rein. Take KPMG, whose leaders chose “Flex With Purpose” to emphasize that there should be a clear reason behind deciding to work remotely, in the office or at a client site.

“In the past we just got on planes and flew around the world,” said Sandy Torchia, KPMG’s vice chair of talent and culture. “Now we take a step back and say, what is the intention of this interaction?”

Other plans echo this theme, like Dutch recruitment firm Randstad NV’s “Flexibility with Intentionality.” Jennifer Nahrgang, a management professor at the University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business, favors this approach: “When people come into an office, they want a purpose. Time at home has a purpose, too.”

While Bank of America’s program doesn’t have a formal name, Chief Executive Officer Brian Moynihan has spoken about adding “more formality to the flexibility.” The challenge, according to University of Utah industrial and organizational psychology professor Joe Allen, is the tension created when leaders try to put structure on flexibility.

“It’s kind of a dissonant concept,” he said. “There is a worry, especially among leadership, that people will take advantage. The reality is, some will, but most won’t.”

Other approaches to hybrid work put employees more in the driver’s seat. Examples include Spotify’s “Your Work Mode” and financial-services firm TIAA’s “Work for My Day.” The upside to such names is they “create a sense of empowerment so employees feel they have some control and autonomy,” according to Robyn Bachochin, a partner and senior communication consultant at Mercer, who works with companies on hybrid plans.

At 3M, about 75% of non-manufacturing workers have chosen some type of hybrid arrangement under the “Work Your Way” policy, according to Kathryn Coleman, the company’s senior vice president for talent, learning and insights. The model, rolled out in 2021, calls for employees to sit down with managers and determine how often they should be on-site or remote.

“It’s employee led, but if anything changes you have to have a different conversation,” Coleman said. Managers have the discretion to bring teams in from time to time for “moments that matter,” where in-person collaboration is key.

Not all of 3M’s 90,000 workers gets to work their way, though – those on production lines must make do with a more limited set of flex-work options. And these individualized plans will only succeed if employees can have candid discussions with their managers about how they work best, and bosses need training on how to conduct these negotiations, which can change over time, Rousseau said. Those lessons could be harder to deliver as firms like, Twitter and others pare human-resources jobs.

Workers and bosses aren’t the only groups that matter when redefining work. Clients count, too. That’s partly why professional-services giant Accenture calls its plan “Omni-connected.” The common definition of hybrid “was not working for us or our clients,” said Ellyn Shook, chief leadership and human resources officer. They also wanted to avoid the word flexibility, as its meaning can vary widely. So the firm surveyed clients, employees and jobseekers, and CEO Julie Sweet distilled the findings into one all-encompassing word.

Amid all this branding, some companies prefer to play it straight. At Cisco Systems, Indeed and other companies, hybrid work is just called hybrid work.

“I am a big fan of calling it what it is,” said Mercer’s Bochochin. “Employees can be cynical, so when you name it, they might think it’s just the flavor of the day.”