When the pandemic started, it took a surprisingly short time for most workers to get familiar with working remotely. But the subsequent return to the office is proving to be a bit different. One objective topmost in the minds of many business leaders is how to preserve the productivity dividend that widely occured. Workers, given fewer interruptions and more control over their work environment, were consistently more productive in most cases.
But for other IT, HR, and business executives that I’ve spoken with over the last several months, the focus now is much more on how to bridge the divide that is taking place. The divide between those that go back and those that remain remote. The concern is strategic: How to maintain a distinct culture of properly engaged workers. It’s also tactical: How to ensure a much more distributed workforce remains effective while also being equitably treated.
One of the most consistent laments I hear is the worry that many new hires over the last couple of years have never been in the office or never met their coworkers. While this might actually become an outmoded notion soon, the reality is that even the world of advanced technology has not yet figured out a way yet to replace face-to-face human connection.
Until that happens, organizations and their workers will have to go out of their way to ensure a more decentralized model for working can sustain close teamwork. One that doesn’t just attract and retain the best workers, but fully engages them and realizes their potential, wherever they are. A naysayer might say that lower engagement and retention of remote workers is just inevitable, but in my research, that doesn’t have to be the case, and it’s certainly not a fair and equitable model for employment post-pandemic.
Putting Office and Remote Workers On Equal Footing
The other approach is to do the best — and it will never be perfect — to ensure remote workers are generally on the same footing in terms of access, enablement, and empowerment with in-office workers with easier access to shared physical space. While it’s easy to set this as a reasonable bar, it also takes real effort to achieve. Yet I also believe workplaces that wish to be attractive to the best talent will put in the trouble to do so, and this is where the discussion of hybrid work begins in earnest.
At its core, the function of businesses is to bring workers together to collaborate to achieve business goals. Collaboration is the core means through which organizations can successfully tackle large objectives or serve millions of customers. Over time, collaboration has become increasingly aided and augmented by technology, first to collapse time and space, and now to do so many other things.
But in hybrid organizations, which I’ll loosely define as organizations which have significant cohorts of workers both in the office and working remotely, collaboration become more splintered between venues (virtual or in-office.) Silos have long been the bane of effective collaboration, and hybrid work adds a major verge between the two cohorts. However, not really a new one, just one that is much more prominent than before.
So what is the prescription then, for better and improved hybrid work? How do we bridge the divide, creating equal access, usability, and enablement for both groups of workers? There are two ways to answer these questions. One is analytically, and that is certainly the place most organizations will start in 2022. The second is to find out what organizations are actually doing to enable hybrid work that’s working and capture what they are doing, and then incorporate that directly into their digital employee experiences.
Make Mixed Venues the Default for Collaboration
The short analytical answer in my research is that organizations can focus on making one simple change to ensure more collaboration is done in a hybrid work-friendly way. Namely, make it as seamless and automatic for as much teamwork and communication as possible to happen in a mixed venue (see diagram above), meaning one that tries to seamlessly bring together in-person venues such as offices and meeting rooms with virtual ones like Zoom calls or Teams sessions. The key is to make it as painless and frictionless as possible.
This is a delicate bridge to enable however. it my many discussions about the experiences of connecting in-office with remote workers, I have frequently been regaled with tales of experiments to try to do this, where a virtual meeting was set up for every in-person one, but people at one end of the conference room could not be heard. Or every in-person participant was required to also jump into a virtual call, producing countless echoes in the virtual meeting.
The reality is that these early frictional issues are more the inevitable outcome of initial baby steps and growing pains, and not significant shortfalls that should dissuade us from better hybrid collaboration. The tech will get better at bridging these audiences and establishing a connection between them. Our techniques and collaboration behaviors for hybrid work will get better too. The key, even if it’s sometimes rough in the short term, is to be fair and equitable to workers and the tasks at hand, and not perpetuate or enforce (even unintentionally), the divide between them.
For as I’ve been regularly advised by in my conversations with digital workplace and employee experience leads from some of the world’s leading organizations: Businesses have discovered that highly talented workers can be sourced from anywhere now, especially remotely. And with today’s digital tools and collaboration practices, we now know that we can bring them into our organizations from wherever they are as full productive individuals. We can not only make them effective, but help them become some of our best contributors. But not by making them second class citizens in the new hybrid work regime.
(It won’t be bad for in-office workers either, who will be now able to engage much more effectively with the rest of the workforce.)
Uncovering the best approach to hybrid work
The second way is to actively seek out the best new paths forward in hybrid work — which will inevitably reveal many marvelous new techniques, technologies, and hopefully some genuine breakthroughs — to really find out what other means exist that the business world is hitting upon as they find their own way through the trend. To that end, I’ll be surveying my advisory board of top digital workplace teams from around the world over the next year to find out what’s working and what’s not. As always, open collaboration enables us to learn deeply from each other, and that’s the goal here.
Ultimately, the shift to hybrid work is a major one-time opportunity to transform our workplaces. It’s also one that we cannot be sure that we’ll get again for quite some time. Our organizations will undergo one of the greatest shifts ever (since the early days of the pandemic, anyway) over the next year as some workers go back to the office and the rest of us figure out how to work effectively with them. I’ll hope you’ll help me in capturing and sharing this knowledge.
Note: If you’d like to participate in my new hybrid work research study as an organization, and agree to be surveyed anonymously, please send a request for to be included here. You’ll get early returns on the data. Your confidentiality is guaranteed. I’ll publish the results here and elsewhere.