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Sonata Notes: Hybrid Work: Best or Worst of Both Worlds?

While they differ on when and how often people should return to the office, most employers and employees agree that the future of work will be “hybrid”, with some people on-site and others at home, depending on the day.  A Vergesense survey found 74% of organizations intend to adopt some kind of hybrid model long-term.  

In theory, hybrid work promises the flexibility of virtual plus the social benefits of co-location.  Yet, in practice, it is difficult for workers, managers, and administrators to navigate two parallel systems.  And hybrid introduces new challenges for equity and inclusion, with remote employees suffering from negative perceptions of their productivity and fewer opportunities to network.  

But, given most of the world seems headed for hybrid, is there any way organizations can have their remote cake and eat it, too?  

There are no perfect solutions, but a few suggestions include:  

  • Consider putting everyone on the same schedule.  Flexibility is the main attraction of hybrid work.  However, flexibility can create inequity long term, with remote workers facing “proximity bias” in work assignments, performance evaluations and promotions.

    While training managers to counter proximity bias is important, a quicker fix is to have everyone work on-site the same days, or at least the same number of days per week (surveys by McKinsey and PwC found 3 days of remote per week to be most people’s preference).   

    Granted, this doesn’t help distributed workers and penalizes those who need to work remotely for practical reasons (e.g., workers with disabilities or family care obligations), but it does mitigate the long-term career impacts for some. 

  • Tell senior executives to stay home.  Some organizations have found that having executives work virtually reduces proximity bias and eliminates the incentive for people to come in just to buddy up to the boss.  At the very least, leaders should vary their work schedule in situations where different people are on-site on different days of the week.

    While some might question the impact of virtual work on executives’ own performance, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg actually finds it beneficial, saying “I’ve found that working remotely has given me more space for long-term thinking… which has made me happier and more productive.”

    Dana Canedy of Simon and Schuster agrees: “We’re all grown-ups and we have adapted to these new work realities… I’m getting my work done, and so are my colleagues. I don’t have an issue with it.” 

  • Make virtual meetings more social.  Anyone who has worked in a healthy, functional office environment knows that the minutes before and after a meeting are often the times when colleagues bond socially and chat about whatever challenges or ideas they’ve had recently.  However, this type of interaction often gets lost in virtual meetings.

    Recognizing this, McKinsey & Company recommends including a few minutes of unstructured time in virtual meeting agendas, to afford remote and in-office colleagues the chance to engage in spontaneous, casual conversations about work and social matters.  

  • Make on-site meetings more virtual.  Consider having “always on” video conferences for your on-site meeting rooms.  Paid Zoom accounts allow meetings to stay open for up to 30 hours, so scheduling an indefinitely recurring meeting for each physical room and having an admin connect the cameras each morning can make it easy for remote workers to drop in early and hang out with on-site peers (or stick around after the meeting is done).

  • Emphasize equity and inclusion.  Managers and teams should be trained to recognize unfair double standards for remote versus on-site staff. For example, it is acceptable at many workplaces for people to slip quietly into an on-site meeting a few minutes late. However, remote workers who fail to connect early are often viewed as delinquent.  Meanwhile, bosses might take remote workers’ after-hours availability for granted in ways they never would with employees who commute. 

    For inclusion, transparency is key.  Most conversations about virtual work talk about on-site managers’ inability to see remote employees working.  However, a bigger issue is virtual team members’ inability to hear on-site colleagues talking.  Setting an expectation that important hallway conversations should be summarized in online chats and that important decisions should not be made outside scheduled meetings ensures remote workers don’t get cut out of the loop.

In today’s economy, the decision most organizations face is not between remote work and in-office work, but between purely remote work and hybrid work.  As long as you go into hybrid work expecting it to take twice – rather than half – the effort of a 100% virtual team, it is possible to make these arrangements work.

If your organization is interested in strategic advice and training on remote/hybrid work, contact Sonata Learning for a consultation.

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Emil Heidkamp is the founder and senior learning strategist at Sonata Learning.  He works with NGOs, corporations and government agencies to implement training and knowledge management initiatives impacting thousands of learners in over 50 countries.