We need to talk about hybrid: The unique challenges of hybrid work

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Another day, another video call with a handful of your comrades dialing in to a full conference room with a mic from a 1986 McDonald’s drive-through! Who will save us from this calamity? It’s remote! It’s in-office! It’s . . . both? It’s hybrid work!

According to a special report from The Economist, hybrid work has resulted in “People working longer hours but reporting higher levels of happiness and productivity.” A recent CNBC survey found that working out of the office is as good as an 8% pay raise for many workers. And as the survey concludes, people simply don’t want to go back to being in an office all the time.

But implementing a hybrid-work strategy is more complicated than just arranging schedules. To do it right, you have to understand the old problems it brings with it, the new questions it raises, and how to make it work for you.

The best of both worlds? Or the worst?

Hybrid work poses its own set of unique challenges from remote and in-office work.

Hybrid is the coexistence of both remote and in-person workers simultaneously in one organization. A worker is remote or in-office, but the organization is hybrid.

How can you get the best out of your workforce when people are both in the office and elsewhere? The key is to create an optimal experience for all groups. Start by identifying the context in which a task might best be done. Long collaborative meeting? Bring everyone together. Need to pull a project across a finish line? That might be best done solo. Everyone and their brother seems to have a recommendation about how best to do this.

The bottom line is to identify a spectrum of tasks from most collaborative to most in need of heads-down concentration, and then note the time and space where each task would be accomplished in a way that creates the most value. Sounds simple, right? It’s great in a vacuum, but what happens when you have to factor in more than one person’s schedule?

The right tools (and location) for the job

One of the major changes that hybrid work introduces is a level playing field. Liri Andersson is a management consultant and a guest lecturer at INSEAD. She has been at the forefront of organizational digitalization for decades. Now she focuses on teaching new leaders and helping businesses to hone their digital approach. She says working in a hybrid context allows people to bring their different strengths to the fore, whereas being in-office all the time really suits extroverted personalities and verbal communicators best. Andersson says we have our priorities out of order. “The problem is that we are paying people for time. We're not paying people for results. And if we continue to think like that then, quite frankly, a monkey could go to work.”

This presents a challenge for the extroverts and an opportunity for those who need longer processing times. Asking one group to leave their comfort zone and the other to let go of its adaptations might cause difficulties. But Andersson says it’s important to embrace these moments as opportunities. “We have facilitated the extroverts of the world. The personalities that win in a physical world are not the ones that excel in a virtual world; the personality traits are very different. So the stars of the office are not the stars of the virtual work.”

There are, of course, going to be some times when the task, the time, and the team are not optimal. Someone, somewhere is going to get stuck on a video call with a crowded conference room. The important thing is to understand how to make sure that those who will be joining remotely can stay involved and engaged.

Andersson says one great way to do this is to simply make use of the way your digital platform allows you to engage with those with different behavioral and learning styles.

“I believe that hybrid work is giving a voice to certain people that may not have always had that voice because their personality isn't the kind of personality to excel in work in a physical environment.”

Growing pains? Step back: Start with the 5 C’s.

Martine Haas is the Lauder Chair Professor and Professor of Management at the Wharton School, and the Anthony L. Davis Director of the Joseph H. Lauder Institute for Management and International Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. She’s been studying the question of how hybrid work can work best, and the places where it might present difficulties, for almost three decades.

Haas points out that global teams have been wrestling with the questions that hybrid work poses for years. Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Haas identifies five places where organizations often find challenges: communication, coordination, connection, creativity, and culture. She says, “Start by understanding the five challenges.” Once you understand them, you can evaluate your organization’s strengths or weaknesses in those areas.

Culture is crucial, so make time and space for it — in person.

It’s important to dedicate time and energy to building team culture. Building these bonds is some of the work that is hardest to do remotely and is most effectively done in person. But thinking flexibly about how to do this best is important. It’s not going to just be a half-day in-office meeting.

Andersson cites one example she thinks is very effective. An organization wanted to encourage people to bond long-term and collaborate organically. They needed to capture the serendipity of casual conversation. Their solution was simple. They asked their employees to simply have lunch with each other, and the company would pay.

“Was every minute of the conversation that took place about work? No, of course not. But did they keep in touch with their colleagues? Yes, they did.”

Start with understanding you

So how do you go about finding the best approach to a hybrid work schedule for your organization? Andersson says it's pretty simple: You have to ask people what they want. Starting with a questionnaire that focuses on how and where people feel like they accomplish tasks best will go a long way to identifying the types of workers you have in your organization.

From an individual perspective, spend time thinking about what tasks you do best and when you do them. Think critically and analytically about what your daily energy trade-offs are. Being mindful of this information and creating an environment where you feel like you can share it with your colleagues will help you build an approach to hybrid work. You might just discover that you’re the hero of your next poorly mic’d conference call!