As we reach the end of the pandemic and social distancing guidelines begin to relax, many companies are turning to hybrid work arrangements that mix work from home and work at the office. That's the wrong approach, says Meghan Reibstein, vice president of project management and flexible work at real estate marketplace Zillow. Instead, the company has a flexible work policy that allows employees to come into the office or work remotely as they prefer. It allows employees to move if they want. It's given them better work-life balance. And, she said, it's led to a huge increase in job applications. 

Zillow's been in the news lately for shutting down Zillow Offers, its A.I.-driven service that purchased homes from sellers and then sold them to buyers. But before that happened, back at the beginning of the pandemic, Zillow adopted what it calls flexible work, Reibstein explained to GeekWire co-founder Todd Bishop in last week's episode of the GeekWire Podcast

What's the difference between hybrid and flexible? "I think hybrid was an easy go-to because it represented this in-between state," Reibstein said. "Hybrid is kind of 'faux flexible' in our minds. It's this old-school way of thinking about it, where you've got to be in sometimes and you can be out sometimes. Flexible is just meant to represent that this is about what you need as an employee. And we are going to build a culture that is flexible for your needs."

One Zoom, All Zoom

Hybrid meetings, in which some participants are at the office and others join remotely, are an ongoing challenge for remote employees and their managers. Inevitably, those who join remotely miss some of the interaction and have a harder time participating in the discussion. So Zillow adopted a policy called One Zoom, All Zoom, or OZAZ. "It's kind of a silly name, but the spirit of it is, 'Let's not go back to a two-class system,'" Reibstein said. More recently, the company has been experimenting with variations on this approach, for instance having a meeting in person if there is only one remote participant, with someone at the in-person meeting advocating for the remote participant to make sure their thoughts are heard.

Zillow is also accommodating remote employees--and all employees--by setting what it calls core collaboration hours of 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Pacific Time. The company encourages employees to hold all or most of their group meetings during those hours, leaving the rest of the time for people to either work on their own or meet one-on-one. "It doesn't work out perfectly," Reibstein said. "We've got things happening outside those hours. But the spirit of it was to empower people to take ownership of their schedules and to try different ways of working."

The company also committed to allowing employees to move out of the area if they want, and early in the pandemic it announced that--unlike Facebook and Google--Zillow will not adjust employees' salaries if they relocate from an expensive urban area (such as its base in Seattle) to a less expensive location. "There's a little wiggle room in that. It's really a two-zone-type approach," Reibstein said. Though she didn't go into detail, she noted that employees who move are not penalized with lower salaries. In fact, she herself is a beneficiary of the policy, having relocated from Seattle to Asheville, North Carolina, to be closer to family.

"Applications skyrocketed"

As you might expect, Zillow's flexible work is highly appealing to many job candidates, according to Reibstein. "We're not only hearing this from recruiters, we're hearing it from the applicant numbers," she said.

With the company taking a very public stance that it would allow employees to work wherever they wanted, "overall applications skyrocketed," she said. She added that the number of women applying for positions at Zillow went up nearly 50 percent. "It was like, 'Whoa, people are reaching out to us. They've gotten the message and they're interested.'"

Now that the pandemic is starting to ease, some remote employees are choosing to return to the office--but only for specific purposes, Reibstein said. "We are seeing the energy around this thing we introduced called a Z Retreat, people coming back together for these informal gatherings: 'Hey, why don't we meet in the office for a day?'" she said. "But we're not seeing them go back to 9-to-5." People come in to the office to meet a colleague in person for the first time, or to discuss a difficult issue, she said.

These types of gatherings are "less frequent but more impactful," and employees are enthusiastic about them, she added. "People are energized to gather. We haven't been able to do that even in our personal lives for a long time."