Culture / Technology

How to Prepare for the Culture Change of the Hybrid Model

31 Mar 2021 1:25pm, by

First we reflected on the burnout that not only plagued 2020, but seems to be default mode for the tech industry. Then we talked about the plans that many tech orgs are making to head (or not) head back to the office. In this final piece in this trilogy on the future of work, more or less post-pandemic, we talk about the struggle that exists when some people are co-located and some aren’t. What cultural changes have to be made to allow for the hybrid model to work?

So 2021 will continue to be a time of transition. It’s won’t be business as usual — nor should it be — but much of the world will be moving away from stay-at-home orders.

People will be heading back to the office either because they are forced to or because they are lacking something at home, whether companionship or a technical or physical setup. There are those who don’t have stable access to the internet or a quiet place to focus, and those without reliable heating or air conditioning. And, with domestic violence peaking during lockdowns, there are those who look at the ability to come into an office as a potential safe haven.

At least for knowledge workers in France, the UK, and the U.S., most people want to take advantage of a hybrid model, where they get to work from home at least half the week, but can head to the office for optimal collaboration — and a break in routine.

A hybrid team is any combination of people who work from home, in the office or sometimes one and sometimes the other. Beyond the logistical challenges of space and time, it means a mix of people with different roles, schedules and responsibilities — or potentially the same — with a different perspective on how a team communicates.

Certainly being able to decide when and where you work is a strong motivator for productivity, engagement, recruitment and retention. And there’s endless benefit to hiring the best person for the job, no matter where they live.

However, of all ways of office working, the hybrid model is the hardest. Any time you allow for different experiences for different teammates, you run a high risk of increasing inequality and exclusion.

In this final look at the near future of work, we examine the company culture changes necessary for success within a hybrid working model.

Hybrid Working Can Enhance Exclusion

If you talk to anyone who has been the rare remote hire on a mostly co-located team, they all share the same complaints. They may like working from home, but are often shut out of critical conversations or information and they just feel left out sometimes.

According to remote and now hybrid collaboration consultant Lisette Sutherland, some other hybrid team challenges include a lack of team alignment, reduced career opportunities for the remote employees, and a sense of an “us versus them” mentality.

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She also said that there are false perceptions about productivity: “Because we can’t see what our remote colleagues are doing, it can be easy for office workers to think that they’re not getting as much done.”

Sutherland recommends teams follow the remote-first model, which is when, even in co-located teams, if one person is working from home, the rest of the team uses the tools of a remote team. For example, if one person is offsite, everyone puts on headphones during video team meetings. Maybe even encourage teammates to walk around the office or a local park during off-camera calls. We’d certainly be more actively listening instead of doing other work while half-listening.

A remote-first mindset will be essential for the success of any hybrid team.

Maya Middlemiss, future-of-work journalist and author of the Healthy Happy Homeworking book series, says of course hybrid organizations will be the modus operandi for the foreseeable future, but there needs to be consciously thinking about which hybrid structure suits each case.

“Does that mean some people are fully remote and others office-based? Does it mean people spend time in different places, and is that according to their activities or some arbitrary rule?” Middlemiss said.

She warned that how it’s done can risk driving more divisions between colleagues and silos.

“Signs of a real remote-first outlook will include an absence of location hierarchy. Because if all the senior people in an organization are office-based that will clearly signify what career progression means when you work there,” Middlemiss signaled.

As it was, pre-pandemic, flexible work was often treated as a reward that comes with status within a company. Higher-level positions, ironically those that more often have access to the solace of an office, were more likely to have formal and informal access to flexible working arrangements.

Middlemiss said that it’s essential to avoid the burnout and distrust that drove some of the last year. That need to overshare because you are afraid, if you don’t, you’ll lose your job.

She said that “Avoiding remote discrimination and a new kind of ‘presenteeism’ will be a challenge, and new ways of being visible and accountable will be very important — wherever people are doing their work.”

Remote managers are still having trust issues. You could see this as kind of ridiculous when most teams have worked with some contractors, development outsourcing or offshoring for decades now.

As Virtual Collaboration Consultant Nancy Settle-Murphy recently wrote, we must be explicit about who gets to work where, when and why. Transparency in the decision-making process may be the most important part of avoiding divisions.

Hybrid Work Success Comes with Considered Collaboration

There are a lot of studies into both the psychology and logistics of our new ways of working.

MIT’s Sloan Management Review says each team will fall at different spots where the hybrid axes of time and place intersect. It won’t be just where people are working on any given day, but how and when they are expected to be there. It’s often up to management to decide how teams can get the most out of any given combination.

Lynda Gratton writes that “to ensure that a hybrid work arrangement works, leaders have to build a context of place and time that accentuates rather than depletes productivity.”

McKinsey consulting argues a post-pandemic organization will consider restructuring based on three dimensions — who we are, how we operate, and how we grow — intersecting with purpose, value and culture.

There has long been the argument that creative workers like developers are most effective working just six hours a day. But, considering how the tech industry is perpetually burned out, we don’t see that officially changing any time soon. Yet team managers must make a conscious effort to optimize the flow of quality work, not counting hours nor comparing the time logged of co-located versus remote colleagues. And always encourage breaks.

So how do we show you our work? We are all on overload with Teams, Yammer and Slack notifications, but, especially with perceived or actual job insecurity, we feel obligated to appear overly present.

Tobias Kreidl, integration services team lead at Northern Arizona University, argues that information gathering should be more of a pull than a push process, where you retrieve updates on an as-needed basis, instead of people feeling obligated to continuously overshare.

On the other hand, we must make sure successful agile team rituals like mob and pair programming, whiteboarding, kanban boards, and retrospectives are translated into remote-first tooling.

Mobile agency Mobile Jazz used to be hybrid, but the company’s management found only ten percent of what they had in the office could be truly accessible to remote teammates.

Company co-founder Jordi Gimenez Gamez said, “People working remotely are at a disadvantage in this situation [hybrid] because some of the communication happens in an unstructured way: next to the water cooler, lunchtime, etcetera. When we transitioned to 100% remote, eliminating this difference was one of our main motivations.”

When Mobile Jazz went distributed a few years ago, they offered optional “workations” a couple times a year, where the team and their families would rent a big house someplace beautiful to get to work co-located.

No matter how and where you choose to work as a team, it’s important to create a written artifact of that decision. Sutherland recommends drafting a team agreement where you clarify things like the timezone you speak in, the tools you use and how you communicate. It also can be a place for people to self-describe their jobs and how they best work. This is a living document not a contract. That means it has to be revisited often, especially when onboarding new teammates.

Mobile Jazz also has adopted very clear communication guidelines. The company maintains two global team meetings a week and then each tech team has a Friday meeting. The rest of the work is done asynchronously.

This is a key point. Software engineer Juan Pablo Buriticá argues that the future of work is written. He says that fast-growing teams are all eventually distributed in some way. Writing things down, from decision-making frameworks to meeting minutes, creates artifacts with not only the decision but the perspective and reasoning behind it. It bridges the gaps between teammates that aren’t in attendance and could lead to less technical debt.

Buriticá writes, “The ability to send written messages across physical space enabled the expansion of collaboration across the world.”

Plus written word enables better collaboration.

Buriticá also writes that “When we write, we get to freeze ideas: They stop evolving and become accessible to others to establish a consensus or working frame, which later can be collaboratively reshaped.”

But when we do talk, meetings have to become more productive.

The Pointless Meetings Have to Die

According to automated voice transcription service Otter.ai, meetings aren’t a new problem and are the most common distractor and productivity killer employees complain of. Now 15% of all work time is spent at meetings — with that percentage increasing every year since 2008. Middle management spends over a third of their time in meetings, while, for upper management, it’s about half.

A really common struggle is to create productive, inclusive meetings. Add to this problem of too many meetings is that nothing sucks more than the hybrid ones. This is why advocates for distributed teams have long pushed for fewer meetings not hybrid ones.

Remote meeting expert Judy Rees said, “For me, the biggest challenge is that in meetings, most real work happens in small groups. In the room, that happens when people turn to each other to speak. Online, we can simulate it to some extent using breakout rooms. In hybrid meetings, we can’t yet do that easily across the ‘great divide.’”

While we probably can’t avoid the spontaneous meetings and celebrations that come when co-located, hybrid team meetings need a lot of thought. For years, Sutherland has long been advocating for rules such as the remote colleagues always get to speak first.

Online it seems we are more likely to have meandering meetings. Hybrid meetings must have an agenda.

And they must be time-boxed. A welcome trend right now is for people to set half-hour meetings to end really at :25, while hour-long meetings end at :50.

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Another trend is organizations maintaining core hours which act as the only time when meetings should occur, as well as No-Meeting Days. Individual team members, like university professors, can also make some office hours available each week for one-to-ones. Outside of a major incident, no-meeting time must be cherished.

Cal Newport, podcast host and author of “A World Without Email: Reimagining Work in an Age of Communication Overload,” advocates that this should be combined with what he refers to as “reverse meetings.” The thought is that decision making and inclusion is better fostered outside of a larger group setting, so, if a big decision is to be made, it’s better to talk it out individually in ten-minute sessions, gather and share notes, and then, only when unavoidable, have a very agenda-ed meeting to address a targeted set of questions.

As a manager, you may still be spending 50 minutes talking to five colleagues, but they are only dedicating ten minutes each. And they feel heard.

We are still learning how to have what Camunda’s Rin Oliver calls “constructive, equitable, remote meetings.”

In order to structure equitable virtual meetings, Oliver offered the following tips at the company’s DevOpsDays Texas 2021 talk:

  • Send slides in advance, if there are any.
  • Share an asynchronous meeting document where team members can leave feedback and ask questions.
  • Record your meeting, with closed captioning so anyone can either watch, listen to or read it later.
  • Take notes and automate the rotation of this task.
  • Make sure everyone has the opportunity to speak if they want to.
  • Let people communicate in the way they feel most comfortable, which includes not forcing everyone to have their cameras on all the time.

Oliver believes hybrid can work if the team structure and manager has a plan set in place to make sure everyone is empowered.

“Make sure you include your remote employees, who often feel off to the side and vastly ignored,” they warned.

In the hybrid working space, like really any, intentional inclusion and employee empowerment is a crucial part of any strategy.

Feature image by Avi Richards on Unsplash.

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