The hybrid model of working sounds ideal, right? Everybody gets to work where they want, when they want. It should increase productivity and happiness at work.
Except that’s hardly ever the case.
Hybrid working—some amalgamation of teammates working from home and the office—is likely to be the main way we work for the next year or two. But it’s usually the most problematic of all working models, amplifying existing problems. At best, it’s a logistical nightmare where you are paying for two people to work in an expensive high-rise office one day, and then playing musical chairs on an open floor plan the next. At worst, this split workforce will only serve to increase inequities and divides among your teammates.
As 2021 is going to be a year of transition, we thought we’d look into what that transition would look like, specifically with regard to hybrid work, highlighting the risks of this model and offering ways to improve communication and thus quality of life and work.
WTF is Hybrid Work? What Isn’t It?
Hybrid involves a mix of working remotely and being co-located in an office, but from there it becomes more of a mixed bag than a model or framework.
The hybrid way of working can be a distributed team that has some folks working from the office at least a few days a week, while others work 100% remotely. It could be a series of local hubs or time-shared offices at a coworking chain, so people can co-work with local colleagues a few days a week, while the business cuts infrastructure and utility costs. It could be an office only opening four days a week and forcing everyone to WFH (work from home) on Fridays. It could be organised by teams, where the same people coordinate to work from home and in-office on usually the same days.
Being in an office to do the same work you can at home will be seen by many as a waste of electricity and employee time spent on a commute. But, when used strategically, it can increase collaboration. Some organisations are going mostly remote, only meeting in person a few days a month or year to have hyper-focused creative time. For some, office time will be treated more like a team retreat. This is a long-term practice for many all-remote companies like C4 Media, where in person meetings are used primarily for planning cycles.
Hybrid can also be a fully trust-based model, like Mozilla has always had. In normal times, Mozilla pays for either a desk at a smaller local office or a home office, including high-speed internet. You’re expected to spend roughly three days a week in whichever location they set up for you, but then it’s up to you to plan your schedule.
Hybrid Work Could Make Things Worse—How to Keep That From Happening
When thinking about hybrid working we need to be alert to the possibility that it will be a fast amplifier for existing problems.
2020 saw a small jump in burnout in the tech industry—from 61% in 2019 to 68% according to a Survey from anonymous workplace chat app Blind. But, for most people, it wasn’t even the pandemic directly that was causing this jump—although kids home 24/7 didn’t help. The main driver of increased burnout was that working from home meant never being able to turn off. The industry as a whole has to reckon with its addiction to burnout.
Whether it’s hybrid, all remote, or all co-located, success comes down to psychological safety, transparency and team communication. Do we trust our teammates to do good work? Do we feel we can bring our whole selves to the office? Or do we feel a constant sense of dread and job insecurity that leaves us with an inability to say no?
How we work out loud has to change. By moving to WFH, we’ve become re-obsessed with presenteeism—that need to overstate what we are working on and to compete for who is working the hardest over the longest hours. Always at home has to stop meaning always available. Organisations need to explicitly encourage people to log out of Slack and Jira, and to stop working out of regular hours. (But also what is regular for one person may not be for another. Let your teammates dictate that.)
We need to rethink meetings—including agile rituals like daily standups and biweekly retrospectives—to embrace only (or at least mostly) meeting for problem-solving and brainstorming, as well as the occasional and optional social call. We need to make more decisions offline or in one-to-ones, which are great ways to have real conversations and to check on the whole person, not just their work.
Status updates should be relegated to written, asynchronous communication. Tools can also be used to continuously check in, to acknowledge each other, and to share objectives and key results. This is how the team at Container Solutions uses the 15Five continuous feedback platform.
Famous for his trying to build a world without email, author and podcaster Cal Newport advocates for “reverse meetings”. In Newport’s world, everyone has regular office hours. This can be for social or any work topics. If you want to talk about something with a group of your colleagues, you visit each of them separately during their office hours. It is perhaps somewhat utopian, but most of the time, Newport argues, these one-on-ones are sufficient to make a decision or sufficiently address a topic:
“Consider, for example, a hypothetical scenario where I need to make a decision on a new marketing campaign and need feedback from five of my coworkers. The easy solution is to schedule a meeting to discuss. Let’s say it takes about an hour. This eliminates six people hours — 360 total minutes — of potential attention. In a reverse meeting scenario, by contrast, I might take only 10 minutes from each colleague, taking up 50 minutes total of my time, and 50 minutes total of their time, for an overall demand of 100 minutes of attention, which is 3.6 times less cost.”
Another trend we are seeing in the hybrid world is work-from-home no-meeting days. At Container Solutions, for example, no meetings are held on Wednesdays; outside of a major incident, you just let people get on with their work.
All this comes down to truly leveraging asynchronous communication and tooling. As software engineer Juan Pablo Buriticá writes, the future of work is written. Use something like a team agreement to clarify together how you communicate, in what timezone, and what kinds of communication belong where. As part of this, keep in mind that different team members will have different communication preferences; if you are trying to support a diverse team, then as a manager you need to ensure these needs are accommodated as far as possible. Also remember that things constantly change, so your team has to review your communication agreement at least a couple of times a year.
Put Yourself in the Remote Worker’s... Camera
While videoconferencing tools were essential to moving whole offices and schools online, Zoom fatigue is real. There’s something exhausting about not only having our cameras always on, but on in our personal spaces, our homes.
But, when much of the team is co-located with a small number working remotely, does not doing video calls increase the distance? It’s important that hybrid setups always follow a remote-first model, where everyone acts like they’re working remotely—one person per microphone/camera with emphasised asynchronous communication—even when co-located.
Remote work expert Lisette Sutherland also recommends that you give priority to the most inconvenienced. That means in a hybrid meeting, those dialing in get to speak before those around a shared table. But anyway, it’s best to then break out the headphones and laptops so everyone has the same experience.
Just as someone is often tasked with taking notes, someone should also be the eyes of the remote teammates, helping to move their camera around to point to whoever is speaking at any given time.
You cannot ever forget that the burden on the remote colleagues is real. It will always be more exhausting for them being on an all-day remote call. Timebox hybrid meetings just like you would for remote ones. Or find a way to create the same experience for everyone, no matter where they are.
Remember, any flexible or hybrid working arrangements must be open to whole teams. For so long the ability to work from home was aligned with status. Management—who could often already rely on their work offices instead of distracting open floor plans—would be given this privilege. That only emphasises inequities.
There also has to be an acceptance that people can have a future with a company and not come into the office at all. The idea that you have to “show up to move up” has to die. And remote colleagues have to feel as valued as in-person ones.
If you are offering an opportunity—whether it’s flexible work or a better job—it must be open to everyone.
Don’t know where to begin? Well, at least that part is straightforward. Any hybrid way of working has to start by asking your teammates what they want. Because it may surprise you.
Remote work is here to stay
Unless you work for a company like Goldman-Sachs which wants people back in the office yesterday, everyone is going to expect to work from home—or a cafe or coworking space—at least a couple of days a week. 57% of British office workers want to work from home permanently. 56% of Americans have the capacity to work from home full time. 85% of people expect to work from home at least a couple of days a week. The statistics go on and on.
While there will always be some who will prefer the majority of their time spent in an office, 2020 proved that remote work can work. At least in the Global North where internet connections are solid and devices are prevalent. The tools—and especially the distributed cloud infrastructure—are finally at a level where the majority of us should be able to work from anywhere.
And we can work more effectively, too. According to the Australian Financial Review, more than two thirds of workers say that they are more productive when working at home, and one in three believe the switch to remote work has left them less stressed.
This doesn't mean all organisations are going to embrace it. Many still failed at enacting successful virtual workforces, so it’s actually set back their flexible work plans. However, as the job market opens back up and the competition for new talent is on, access to hybrid work options is going to be a differentiator.
And we have to get used to it. After all, any fast-growing company is going to become inherently distributed eventually.
No matter what hybrid looks like, we don’t want to confuse it with flexible work because many organisations will be dictating top down who goes in, when and where. Microsoft has given the option to permanently work-from-home, however that hinges on manager approval. Similarly Google allows you to WFH 14 days a year, but then you need approval for more. That’s not exactly flexible.
It is important to note that flexible work is one of the most important ways you can increase diversity, equity and inclusion in any setting.
Finally, if we learned something from this pandemic, I hope that it’ll be if you or someone in your household is sick, you absolutely should stay home. In fact, if you don’t feel well, you also should feel safe to take time off work, even if your office is at home and your home is your office.