After a long year-plus of working remotely, many employees are heading back to the office.
But it won’t be the same office they left back in March of 2020.
The COVID-19 pandemic completely altered not only how we work but attitudes about where work happens. Companies that were once skeptical about remote or distributed work are now planning for a future that allows at least some of their employees to work from home. On the worker side, many people have come to enjoy working from home — and plenty of them don’t want to go back.
As a result, many predict a significant post-pandemic increase in hybrid or mixed work arrangements — that is, companies that allow employees to work from the office or from some remote location (such as work-from-home). One variation of this prediction is “work-from-anywhere” (“WFA”). In a WFA setup, employees are free to choose where they work and when. A work-from-anywhere approach makes office location irrelevant.
It replaces the dated concept of “the workplace” with the workspace.
As previously detailed, hybrid or distributed work arrangements — whatever form they take — are harder than you think. MURAL has worked with (and employed) distributed teams since the company’s founding in 2011, and we have learned a few things about how to make work-from-anywhere collaboration work.
There are 5 key principles to consider when approaching a hybrid working environment, which we refer to as the 5Ps of hybrid collaboration:
People: The strategic considerations around your hiring, management, and culture that will complement a hybrid work structure.
Policy: The parameters and logistics that define your hybrid work structure.
Place: The thoughtful design of your workspace to foster safe, inclusive, and successful collaboration.
Products: The digital collaboration platforms and technologies you leverage for success.
Processes: The formalized digital processes put in place to help people and teams support and engage with one another in a hybrid world.
Having a view of each of the 5Ps — and the key questions to ask to solidify each of them — will help you, your team members, and your organization transform the way you work in a hybrid working world.
The 5Ps of Successful Hybrid Collaboration
Thoughtfully consider each of the 5Ps below. Workshop answers to the suggested questions. At the same time, make space for flexibility. Just as the abrupt shift to remote work required organizations and teams to adapt, reintroducing the office will require rethinking traditional concepts about what an office is for — and how to get the most out of it for your teams.
When you think of the things a company might need in order to enable a hybrid workforce, our minds tend to jump to video conferencing tools (like Microsoft Surface Hubs) and collaboration software (MURAL). However, effective hybrid or WFA collaboration is more about people than tech.
That’s not to say that technology isn’t important — in fact, it’s critical (more on that when we get to the fourth P). But so is knowing how to work together, how to communicate clearly so as to drive connection and trust, and what the rules and expectations are in a hybrid/WFA environment.
The strategic considerations around your hiring, management, and culture will help your organization and your team move toward a hybrid work environment in the smoothest way possible. Since early 2020 the majority of knowledge workers have experienced a fully remote work environment and all the increase in flexibility that this entails. On the flip side, there were new challenges. For example, there was also the inability to “turn off” for many workers, and burnout is on the rise as a result.
Keep in mind that how leadership approaches hybrid work has the most direct impact on expectations. And actions speak louder than words. If company leaders are always in the office, employees will likely be reluctant to work from home. But if members of the leadership team demonstrate their commitment to flexibility when it comes to where work happens — i.e. by doing it themselves — they’ll be setting the standard for the entire organization.
Defining what hybrid success looks like for your company means answering some tough strategic questions now about what you want your company culture to be, and then taking actionable steps to achieve those outcomes.
How does your organization benefit from hiring a new and more diverse talent?
How will managers model effective, flexible, and supportive behavior in a hybrid environment?
How can you create a culture where hybrid collaboration is the norm?
What can you do to ensure that your people are engaged and healthy and not at risk of digital burnout?
One important way you can lay the foundation for hybridization is to create explicit rules of engagement. These can take the form of a team agreement, a WFA contract, a living document, a mural, etc. The format is up to you. But it needs to be written out and shared with the entire company.
And of course, as “rules of engagement” relate directly to company policy, by creating rules of engagement with your team first, you can lay the foundation for other important elements of your hybrid work policies.
These are the parameters and logistics that define what is and isn’t allowed on a team. Without clarity and alignment on these basic rules, your employees will feel uncertain or even hesitant about choosing where to work. When writing out your rules of engagement for a hybrid approach, consider the following questions regarding policies:
Can all employees work from anywhere, anytime, or is time split between the office and WFA (three days in office, two days remote, for instance)?
What level of flexibility will we have with work hours for remote and hybrid employees?
Does the team have core hours, and if so, what are they?
What’s the expected response time to asynchronous communications?
Are certain roles required to be based out of a physical office?
What policies do we need to have to keep our employees safe?
How will we keep our networks and information secure in a hybrid environment?
The set of policies that you put in place will need to consider a wide range of topics, from looking at how you onboard new employees to determining when and how to allow visitors into your office.
Understanding these elements of the new hybrid world and reconciling them with your former/current work policies will enable managers to provide clarity and demonstrate to your people that you are supporting them in this new way of working.
Nothing is static in a hybrid or WFA work environment. In fact, that’s the point: people have the freedom to move in and out of different spaces and team shapes. But that means that on some days, only a handful of people may be in the office. On others, just about everyone may be there.
That means your in-person space must be ready for these ebbs and flows. As we move to a hybrid model, location is a key factor in how we structure our teams and our work. In some ways, workers want two very different things: the flexibility and freedom of working from home with the ability to also have a central, sociable place to meet regularly in order to ideate and problem solve.
Deciding what a useful, innovative office looks like in this new hybrid world means asking strategic questions around just what hybrid collaboration will enable you to do.
How will hybrid collaboration allow you to be more inclusive regardless of location?
How will hybrid collaboration allow you to keep employees safer in the office?
How will hybrid collaboration allow you to keep your team more productive while at home?
The answers to these questions will help inform how you design your physical workspaces, both at home and in the office. It’s essential that you design your office space and plan your meetings with the people not-in-the-room in mind in order to maintain inclusiveness. When it comes to the layout of your office, the ability to allow for proper space, ventilation, and even tracking who is in the office and when will allow you to keep your employees safe. When it comes to productivity at home, you’ll need to provide the same care and consideration for your employees’ home workspaces as you do their office spaces.
Making hybrid sustainable will require thinking about how you enable your people both in the office and at home and will pay off with more engaged teams, better retention, and will attract more talent.
Product, like place, plays a massive role in hybrid ways of working. Digital collaboration tools and software platforms play a massive part in connecting distributed teams and helping people develop a strong sense of belonging and purpose at work. When considering how to put together a workspace that supports hybrid or WFA, ask yourself these strategic questions around the products you leverage for successful hybrid collaboration:
What do we need to perform seamlessly across all hybrid work settings?
What do we need in order to bring hybrid teams together effectively?
How can we get the most out of our partners?
When it comes to the products and technology you leverage for hybrid collaboration, things fall into three main categories: software, hardware, and environment.
Any hybrid or WFA team needs software tools that can enable them to do the following:
Share, store, and archive content. Examples include shared drives, intranets, and knowledge bases.
Communicate in real time. Slack and other instant messaging tools are popular choices, as are video conferencing solutions like Zoom.
Communicate asynchronously. Email is the traditional big one here but instant messaging software serves this purpose, too.
Plan and track work. To manage workflows and view progress, you’ll need a tool like JIRA, Basecamp, Asana, etc.
Think and plan visually. Visual collaboration software like MURAL is ideal for this.
The hardware side of things includes the physical devices your team members need to do their jobs. Will you have shared devices, like touchscreen displays and digital whiteboards, in-office? Each of these cases requires you to think through your teams’ needs and the logistics of security and maintenance.
Finally, your environment — meeting spaces, desk layouts, etc. — should be configured to enable both digital and in-person collaboration. Bringing team members back into office will also require your layout to meet social distancing recommendations (desks being six feet apart, no congregating of large groups, etc.).
When you ask yourself the strategic questions for Place, you may need to evolve your space to better fit your employees’ in-office patterns. For instance, you might find that you don’t really need individual offices anymore, as employees do most of their independent work from home. Instead, you may find you need many more meeting rooms as the primary purpose of working in the company office is to do synchronous, collaborative work with others.
Organizations need to entirely rethink their digital processes. As we moved to remote work in response to the pandemic, many people continued with their pre-pandemic ways of working with added digital hacks and patches. Now is the time to formalize digital processes and ensure that these processes play to the strengths of hybrid working.
Repeat after me: If it isn’t digital, then it didn’t happen. This goes beyond the tools and solutions outlined above — it’s about attitudes and habits. Every employee in a WFA or hybrid workplace — and especially the decision-makers — must practice digital discipline.
In an in-person environment, information is often shared before or after meetings, at the watercooler or coffeemaker, or during casual hallway chats. That leaves your remote colleagues out of the conversation. To collaborate effectively, each team member must have access to the same resources. Capturing ideas, decisions, comments, and feedback digitally solves this problem. Every employee, no matter where they are, is on a level playing field.
Ask these strategic questions to help you determine what processes you need to update, put in place, or change in order to be successful in the hybrid world:
How can we embrace a balance of synchronous and asynchronous collaboration?
What processes need to be put in place to transform our digital workflows?
How can we be more transparent as an organization?
One of the biggest challenges employees face today is unproductive meetings. Create solid processes now to encourage asynchronous and real-time collaboration that is engaging, inclusive, and will provide employees with the flexibility they have come to expect.
Some of these new processes might require training for your workforce as they move away from the digital hacks they leaned on during the pandemic and instead learn to leverage technology to become more efficient and productive. A lot of these new digital processes will mean developing new habits and rituals for individuals and teams that support and engage them in a hybrid world.
Look to digital collaboration for answers
As place and time shift for modern teams, look to digital collaboration for consistency and continuity. Make the digitally defined-workplace your team’s shared workspace — the “HQ” where teams come together in a fluid way to work.
The prize for creating hybrid collaboration that works is that once it’s achieved, teams no longer have to worry about where work happens — they can, instead, focus all their energy and effort on doing the work itself.
Navigating the new world of hybrid collaboration may not be easy, but success means boosting employee satisfaction, recruiting and retaining top talent, and increasing productivity from anywhere. Don’t think of hybrid challenges as burdens to overcome. Instead see it as a way to lay a solid foundation for long-term team success for teams to do their best work.
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About the author
About the authors
Jim Kalbach is a noted author, speaker, and instructor in customer experience, experience design, digital transformation, and strategy.