Should We Stay or Should We Go – Navigating the New Hybrid Workplace

Should we stay or should we go? Building successful hybrid teams.

In episode 811 of HRB’s Ideacast:Building Successful Hybrid Teams Tsedal Neely, Professor at Harvard Business School discussed how to experiment and succeed with Hybrid On-Site/Remote Teams. Check out the podcast here – it’s a good listen!

We wanted to carry on the discussion and share some of our own learnings from our return to the office. This post discusses:

  • Top takeaways from Neely’s podcast on managing successful remote teams and how to structure a remote workforce and remote sales teams
  • Some of our experiences setting up and experimenting with hybrid teams
  • What we think we did right, and wrong

Remote Work Revolution

Neely’s interview is great, and she has a ton of experience in remote teams. She has recently published a full length book Remote Work Revolution: Succeeding from Anywhere, and an insightful and forward looking HBR article from the beginning of the pandemic “15 Questions about Remote Work, Answered”.

Remote 1.0 and 3.0

We have discovered that Hybrid work is possible. Our fears and concerns that we cannot be effective and productive without co-location have been squashed. Not only is hybrid remote work possible, Neely suggests that now that people have tasted hybrid remote work, the nature of work has changed. We now know its possible to work without commuting, without all the transitions from work and personal life (packing lunch, buying coffee, large work wardrobes), and that we can somewhat blend our work and personal lives to improve both. And there’s no closing this box.

So what’s next? Neely suggests that if we embrace the possibilities and challenges of this environment (“Hybrid 1.0’), we open the door way to “Hybrid 3.0,” which is marked by the integration of machine learning and AI in our work. In this future not only do we collaborate with people in person and remotely, we also collaborate directly with AI and bots. And this marks a major digital transformation in our work environment.

Technology

The shift to work from home in 2020 (Hybrid 1.0) consisted mainly of video and audio conferencing tools layered on top of the same collaboration tools we used on premise. We layered zoom on top of google docs. Neely believes we are over-indexed on video conferencing, and that in order to disrupt ‘face-to-face’ as the gold standard of communication, we need to start to match the digital technologies we use to the problems we need to solve. Not every challenge of Hybrid 1.0 can be solved by a zoom meeting… and attempting to do so is what caused the 2020 trend of ‘Zoom Fatigue’.

Leadership & Management

What impact does remote hybrid work have on how we lead and manage teams?

Neely suggests that we need to think deeply about how we can improve our leaders’ skills and expectations for managing hybrid environments. Managers who are resistant or don’t trust their employees may be left behind, especially since there is a war for talent, and employees are demanding the ability to work from home. Leadership onboarding and development initiatives will also have to be re-developed to include these skills: most of us have thought about zoom etiquette, but have we reflected on how to best support and encourage our teams across multiple locations?

Additionally, now that we know hybrid work is effective, it means that when you bring people into the office it better be for collaboration efforts. It better be for creativity and innovation work and social bonding. Asking people to come in to the office to do what they are doing at home is likely to cause resentment and distrust. And this can erode their commitment to the team.

Hybrid work means that some people might not be in the room with everyone else. Naturally, this can lead to FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out), especially if an employee made the choice to not attend the office, and even longer running fears around employee’s choices around location. Will people hired during the remote wave of 2020 feel left out if they live across the country from the rest of their team? Will they miss opportunities because they are not located in the right place? Managers need to be aware of these fears, and the possibility of proximity bias.

Diversity & Inclusion

Remote work exposed inclusion concerns on a couple vectors. First,
Possibility, not everyone, marginal groups.

Managers should look deeply at people’s tasks and determine if they can do things virtually so that everyone can have an opportunity to take part in Hybrid work, even if it is once a month.

Remote work period has unmasked for marginal groups that being away from the office has been much better for them in the sense that they have experienced much less microaggressions and much less code switching or didn’t have to take ‘psychological commutes’ to work in physical environments. Challenge is on us to find ways to democratize remote work – eg. use zoom even if people are on site for meetings sometimes.

What We Did Right (and Wrong!)

Timing & Safety
Meaningful Interaction

One thing we did well is prioritize meaningful interaction when we are on site. This means, as Neely suggests, not asking people to sit at their computers when they are in the office, or doing work they can do remotely. Instead, we encourage our team members to create personal connections in and across departments, and prioritize creative collaboration when on site.

This prioritization of collaboration is supported by our open office designs and use of shared space over private offices. As We’re becoming increasingly protected against COVID-19, shared spaces, where safe, permit the kind of accidental and occasional interactions that accelerate problem solving.
Shared spaces, however, are not always conducive to ‘deep work’ where extended focus is required. We recommend batching work: work from home on days that are heavy on conference calls or when deep work is at hand, come in to the office when collaboration and problem solving is priority.

To accomplish this, it helps if employees are encouraged to select their own days to work form home and office. The frustration team members feel when they are behind on some deep work projects but are required to be onsite all day can spiral their week.

Technology

We are very proud of how quickly we set up all our employees with work from home. We quickly implemented Zoom and Office 365 for collaboration and instant communication. Hybrid work, however, is a new challenge.

Hybrid work requires not only accommodating, but embracing communication with employees on-and-off site. I’ll be honest: we’ve had several large group meetings with half the team in one room trying to squeeze on a laptop camera in one location, another group on a proper conference camera in another, and several participants at home. This just wasn’t something we needed to accommodate for in the past at this scale.

Ultimately, it’s a workable solution. But it leaves some employees with less (or more…) screen time and recognition. A hybrid solution requires a well-integrated communications system that connects virtual and physical locations. Zoom Rooms + Zoom Meetings + Zoom Phone seems to nail this with a Unified Communication Service.

Conclusion

It’s up to us what directions our workplaces take, and how our hybrid environments shape up. One thing is for sure – I think many of us are relieved and excited to move from 100% remote to at least partial on-site work, insofar as that onsite work includes meaningful interaction and collaboration with others.

We are excited to see how we continue to adapt our tools and technologies to solve the problems we face in Hybrid 1.0 as we realize them. And we are even more excited about the potential for what Neely called Hybrid 3.0 – the long game of digital transformation. If we stay open, and creative, and brave, we can build a future of work that works for us.

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