Introduction

Epistemic status Thought about hybrid work at length. Confident about my own experience, yet unsure that it generalizes to others. Conducted secondary research.

The past 24 months have offered an incredible learning opportunity for any company in the technology sector, and specifically for the ones who have historically relied heavily on co-location.

In this period, many companies have published playbooks and guides that help operationalize hybrid work at scale. These are great resources for anyone interested in operational guidance.

This guide instead discusses the challenges and opportunities of hybrid work by providing perspectives which are not part of public discourse, with the hope of fostering a conversation and helping the reader develop their own thoughts and approaches to the hybrid workplace.


Hybrid is a spectrum

Let’s start by establishing that there is nothing inherently good or bad about hybrid or traditional work practices. How we work with one another is just a means to an end, and it’s important to remind ourselves that the goal of an organization is the to create an environment in which both employees and customers can thrive.

Organizations and individuals alike should feel empowered to experiment with different hybrid arrangements, and be results-driven instead of metrics-driven. While some of the data published around alternative work practices might feel alarming, metrics around the increase of digital communication (emails, IM) might not have a detrimental impact to the company’s objective - as organizations are highly heterogeneous organisms and heuristic evidence is what counts here.

Now that we have grounded our perspective, let’s continue by defining what hybrid means.

Hybrid work describes a series of practices that are alternative to the traditional 9-5 workflow, which is considered co-located and synchronous.
Hybrid work is a spectrum.

This definition outlines two different characteristics to hybrid work: location and time. These two axis can work independently from one another, or can be coupled with different degrees of proximity, resulting in different kinds of hybrid work practices, which impact how individuals work with one another.

Location

Location is the primary worksite where an individual performs their work duties.

Centralized workers carry out their tasks from the same location their workgroup operates from. This does not have to be the registered address of the business (e.g. its headquarters), but any place of social gathering (e.g. a coffee shop, or someone’s home) where people congregate to do their work.

Distributed workers are individuals who are not working from the same location, but are dispersed across multiple locales (either business or non-business owned). An example of distributed work is when individuals who are part of the same team work from different company offices across the country.

Flexibility in location has given employees the ability to choose where they do their best work. While most of us have been forced to work from home in the past two years, working from home is no longer going to be looked at as health safety requirement moving forward.
With this additional mobility in mind, work location opens to a new set of possibilities, which are no longer synonymous of wfh.

Employers should ask themselves what are the reasons workers might want to find alternative places to work rather than their assigned office desk? While some of the benefits are more difficult to offset than others (e.g. commute), organizations have underutilized the opportunity of learning more about how their own facilities can make people more productive. For example, the rise of open plan offices established a pervasive new layout which almost 70% of every office had adopted by 2010 , following the standards set by Google and Facebook. At the same time, some workers find this architectural arrangement difficult to work in. Those individuals report challenges with focusing on their work that can be attributed to the sensory overload typical of an open floor plan (noise, people walking about, “shoulder taps”). Workers who have specific needs (e.g. neurological, cognitive or mobility related) can also find it difficult to perform in a workplace that is not designed for them.

Architects are aware of these challenges and are working to design office spaces with quiet areas for deep work, but while we wait for this transformation to happen, there might be other solutions that businesses can pursue to help their workers feel more comfortable in the office today. Just as workers have invested in renovating their own home offices in the past two years, companies have a unique opportunity to address the needs of workers by evolving their own facilities. Businesses which have subsidized home office purchases could offer a separate facilities stipend so that workers can create a more suitable work environment in the office as well.
Notes
  1. The History of the Open Plan Office, Creative Review.
  2. Everyone hates open offices. Here’s why they still exist, Fast Company.
  3. Office furniture sales increase in the United States during the coronavirus pandemic, Statista.

Time

Work can happen either at the same time or at non-overlapping times. Although asynchronous work is something that businesses have some historical references to point to, as many companies have been collaborating across the world for quite some time prior to the pandemic, it is still challenging to organize around how people use time throughout their workflows.

On January 7th, 1927 the President of AT&T and the head of the British General Post Office had the first transatlantic phone call. Since then, modern technology allowed people to communicate across the world as if they were in the same room, effectively annulling the distance between them.

Contrary to geographical distance, time difference is a challenge which technology has been able to mitigate only partially. While a shift in work hours has been historically attributed to workers being located in a different time zone, in recent times workers have expressed the desire to have more flexibility around their work hours regardless of their location.

Hybrid work has increased the need for a flexible schedule, as individuals have found themselves juggling more and more every day. With more control over the way people work, workers have opted in for a schedule that fits their needs better and allows them to cater to all of the responsibilities they have in their lives. The opportunity to reclaim time has also been fundamental in personal growth: more and more individuals have picked up new hobbies, or discovered long lost ones and invested in self-development during 2020 than in prior years.

As more teams chose flexible work-hours, the expectation of synchronicity becomes less prevalent amongst workers. This enables morning people to be productive earlier in the day and night owls to be empowered to do their deep work outside of the traditional 9-5, if they prefer to do so.

Many organizations provide 24h access to their facilities for their employers, but do not invest in quality of life services beyond traditional work-hours. The result is a lesser experience for employees who work a different schedule and can effect their choice of working hours. Businesses have an opportunity to support employees with diverse needs by offering the same access to services and benefits around the clock.
Notes
  1. The long lost hobbies people around the world are revisiting during the coronavirus pandemic, CNN.

Hybrid work models

As we consider location and time preferences in concert with one another, we can identify work models which we can use to better understand the needs of the teams we work with.

The first two rows of the table below describe models which are familiar to the traditional workplace. Colocated work happens when both location and timezone are the same for all workers. This is the simplest and longest standing model, where workers are required to reach a single facility to accomplish their tasks. Colocated work has been a staple of productivity since the industrial revolution, and it is still fundamental to a workforce that relies on co-presence with either customers or with specialized machinery (e.g. healthcare or manufacturing). Distributed work (sometimes also referred to as satellite) is an evolution of colocated work, mostly driven by the increasing need of businesses to serve and multiple markets and locations. Distributed work happens when location and timezone coincides for workers at the local level (e.g. a local office, often called a hub), but it is distributed and asynchronous at the company level. A typical example of distributed work is a company with multiple offices across the world, which work independently from one another, but support the same business goals of the company.

Location
Time
Definition
Centralized
Sync
Co-located
Centralized
Async
Distributed hubs
Distributed
Sync
Hybrid
Distributed
Async
Fully remote
Traditional and modern work models definitions through the axis of location and time.

The rows at the bottom of the table describe hybrid workplace models. Hybrid work is exemplified by how companies have adjusted to the pandemic experience. It happens when the location of individual workers is distributed, and collaboration happens mostly synchronously. Workers are primarily working from home or from non-corporate environments, with the ability to use business facilities whenever they deem necessary. In hybrid work scenarios workers are loosely coupled to their office(s), as they usually continue to be located in the same timezone of their original office location.

When location is distributed and work is asynchronous, workers have ultimate flexibility in the way they accomplish their tasks. The fully remote workplace describes the ability of workers to work from anywhere at anytime, and has been embraced by an increasing number of businesses often as a foundational value of the company. This degree of flexibility requires a specific set of operational principles to help employees work together. As we’ll uncover in the following section, time and location have a direct impact on how people work with one another, from the methods and tools that are used amongst teams to stay productive, to how organizations manage and distribute information.

Notes
  1. The 40 Best Remote Companies to Work For, Owl Labs.

Working together

Location and time greatly impact the way teams work together. Depending on where organizations fall on the spectrum of location and time, their processes, tools and working models should be tailored to address the specific needs of their workers.

Working in groups requires to establish team collaboration and personal connections. Collaboration is rooted in the ability to produce an outcome through coordination and team-work. It is task-oriented and outcome-driven, and it generates products and artifacts which companies sell to their customers.

Personal connections are crucial to effective collaboration. It is how individuals emphatize with one another, and how people build social capital and trust with their coworkers.

Task-oriented teamwork

One of the main responsibilities of an organization is to keep their workers productive and motivated. When we think about producing results as a group, there are two main behaviors which are indirectly responsible to delivering outcomes.

The first one is communication: the ability to exchange information effectively with one another is critically important for the success of any team. How we communicate shapes how we think and how information is transferred between individuals.

The second one is collaboration: the ability to participate in results-oriented work by contributing individually to the success of the team by leveraging a specific set of skills and by delivering results which make the whole greater than the sum of the parts.

Communication

At its core, communication is about managing information. Since access to information is crucial for employees to get their job done, knowledge-share is easily one of the most fundamental aspects of any organization.

The way people communicated in the workplace evolved significantly over time. Prior to the digitalization of the workplace, the only way information could be shared was either in person or by consulting a series of resources which were available to only a few individuals at a time, and in specific locations (e.g. instruction manuals). These models had inherit limitations, and traditional working models mostly leveraged in-person communication as a their main distribution channel. When employees are all in the same location at the same time, it’s possible to communicate both one-to-one and one-to-many effectively, in person meetings and all hands being two excellent examples of this practice.

Traditional communication models also apply well to companies that operate as distributed hubs, as those business units are usually self-contained and only require periodic coordination across the different locations.

Unsurprisingly, in-person communication methods are less efficient for hybrid and remote businesses. Companies that operate with remote employees are no longer able to rely on individuals being co-located and tribal knowledge is put to the test when location and time are inconsistent across the workforce.

In 1961, the advent of the first multi-access operating system removed the constraints of printed manuals and expanded access to a single mainframe by multiple workers at the same time. Individuals were now also able to access information from the same repository without having to wait for resources’ availability. This new technology, further amplified by the advent of the personal computer and the cloud, enabled the distributed access to shared resources at scale as we know it today.

Leveraging these new technologies, hybrid and remote businesses developed new practices specifically geared at overcoming the challenges of time and location. The philosophy behind these organizations is centered around access (every worker has access to all information) and autonomy (all workers can access the information in a self-served model). In this context, documentation is an increasingly important practice which can help businesses share information as effectively as possible with their workers.

Collaboration

While communication helps all workers have the same understanding of the problem space, collaboration is where the team comes together to build solutions for their customers.

In a typical product lifecycle, collaboration plays a series of different roles, and each one of them is impacted differently by distributed work.

Not all collaboration types weigh equally in the product building process. While product lifecycles can have recurring moments of expansion, ideation is usually less frequent and the shortest in aggregate among the the types of collaboration described above. For that reason organizations must be able to optimize for the type of collaboration that their team requires.
Notes
  1. Compatible Time-Sharing System, Wikipedia.
  2. Remote Work Evolves Into Hybrid Work And Productivity Rises, The Data Shows, Forbes.

Tribe building

Another crucial aspect of working together is personal connections. Humans are a social species by nature, and we rely on cooperation to achieve our shared goals.

Like many other species, we are neurologically wired to interact with one another and it's important to consider this predisposition when examining workplace scenarios. Neuroscientists have discussed the ability of multiple individuals to simultaneously enter a state of “flow” - one of high productivity and focus, which leads to great outcomes - as part of a team that works under a single rhythm . In further studies, scientists have found that individuals who had an even stronger affinity (e.g. they were romantically involved with one another), went as far as exhibiting similar patterns of brain activity.

This evidence points to the importance of relationships amongst individuals that are working together. In a co-located or in a distributed hub workplace, relationships can be nurtured by spending time with co-workers and sharing experiences together in person. Social interactions that are not work-related can be powerful at creating lasting bonds between individuals, but water cooler or off-topic conversations are not the only tool of relationship building amongst co-workers.

In a professional setting, relationships are primarily rooted in trust. Trust is manifested through a set of demonstrable attributes which signify to others that an individual has the best interest of the group at heart, and that they are acting with integrity. Since trust feeds on actions, the way individuals follow through with their communication becomes of paramount importance. In addition to accountability, empathy and transparency are also a key behavior of a high-trust team. It is important to allow individuals that work together to be authentic with one another and to acknowledge and express each other’s opinions constructively.

Compared with people at low-trust companies, people at high-trust companies report: 74% less stress, 106% more energy at work, 50% higher productivity, 13% fewer sick days, 76% more engagement, 29% more satisfaction with their lives, 40% less burnout.
Paul Zak, “The Neuroscience of Trust” , January 2017 Harvard Business Review.

Remote and hybrid businesses need to be intentional in bringing people together using tools and methodologies which foster interactions amongst individuals.

In order to build trust and create an environment which fosters relationship building within the organization, it’s recommended for companies to develop rituals tailored to bringing people together and to adopt tools which make it simpler to bring teams together. In non-traditional workplaces, interactions require much more intentional strategies as employees are not able to casually congregate in the same areas of the office, or to “bump into one another” while on campus. While this intentionality can be net new value for hybrid workers, it requires additional effort. The fewer interactions between co-workers, the more siloed each individual will be, and the harder will be to collaborate, which in return will impact the ability of delivering impactful work .

In addition to adopting the right sets of tools for individuals to communicate, organizations should lower the barrier of entry of each interaction by creating topical communication channels dedicated to personal interests, and should promote impromptu and casual meet-ups amongst co-workers, across business units.
Notes
  1. The neurobiology of human social behaviour: an important but neglected topic, National Library of Medicine.
  2. How Humans are Hard-Wired for Social Relationships, Dana Foundation.
  3. The Neuroscience of Trust, Harvard Business Review.
  4. The effects of remote work on collaboration among information workers, Microsoft Research.

Hybrid as a choice

In 2022, hybrid is no longer a requirement imposed by health requirements, and has become a choice that organizations and individuals can make to achieve a happier and more productive workforce.

As we are collectively entering a new era of the workplace, experimentation and learning will be key instruments for distributed teams everywhere. In the coming period the focus of organizations should be to gather feedback from the workforce, and to monitor key signals for the health of the teams and the business.

This perspective shift highlights how optionality is a key attribute of the hybrid workplace. We have already discussed how having the ability to choose where and when we work can be empowering to workers in many ways, but there are other important mechanisms which give individuals even more choice than ever before.

Opting in

There are many small choices that companies and individuals are empowered to make in the modern workplace every day. These are a series of opt-in mechanisms which give workers the ability to participate to the rhythm of business of the organization in different ways.

Today hybrid workers have significantly more possibilities for how they represent themselves during online meetings. Choosing to participate with video on or off, using an avatar or only via voice or chat are all options which give workers the flexibility they need to adapt to the context around them.

In particular, using video during meetings has demonstrated to have both positive and detrimental effects on remote collaboration. While it’s reported to increase personal connection between employees and efficiency of communication through non-verbal cues, it is also correlated with greater meeting fatigue . This new level of optionality which didn’t exist before allows each individual to make the best choice for themselves.

Similarly, transitioning in and out of work is much more accessible for individuals who are not working from a traditional office, surfacing the opportunity to take breaks as needed throughout the day. This is an evolution of the quiet hours which promotes safeguarding personal time for individuals and teams , disrupting the expectation that remote work means being always available and online.

It’s personal

While employee experience in traditional work models are by no means homogeneous, businesses and team members need to recognize that hybrid work models broaden this spectrum even further. In a modern work scenarios everyone’s experience can differ substantially from the one of their teammates, and it is impacted by context that each individual lives in.

In conclusion, hybrid work models offer an additional series of opportunities for both businesses and employees, which need to be evaluated on an individual basis. For that reason, providing flexibility and allowing for fast feedback cycles are characteristics which will set apart workplaces which are looking to experiment and learn on how to keep their workforce engaged and productive.

Notes
  1. Research: Cameras On or Off?, Harvard Business Review.
  2. Hybrid Tanked Work-Life Balance. Here’s How Microsoft Is Trying to Fix It., Harvard Business Review.
Generalization This paper focuses on the information technology sector. There are many industries and professions which have been severely impacted by the restriction imposed by remote work. While those challenges are not understood completely by the author, the intention is not to discount the importance of co-location for organizations which require it, but to discuss how distributed work can help businesses and individuals thrive when organizations are able to adjust.