April 29, 2021

5 Principles for Making Hybrid Collaboration Work

Jim Kalbach

Jim Kalbach is MURAL's Chief Evangelist. A noted author, speaker, and instructor in customer experience, experience design, digital transformation, and strategy, Jim’s book, The Jobs To Be Done Playbook, offers techniques organizations can follow to turn market insight into action.

Five keys for high-impact work-from-anywhere collaboration

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. 

Work-From-Anywhere: A work environment in which employees are free to do their jobs and collaborate with their coworkers from any location, be it their home, the office, a coffee shop, or somewhere else. 


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. 

Let’s take a look at five principles of work-from-anywhere collaboration you can take to your organization to navigate the tricky waters of hybrid teamwork.


The five principles for work-from-anywhere collaboration

It’s true — WFA collaboration ain’t easy, to put it mildly. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth it. Teams that successfully follow these five principles have the potential to reap a number of benefits, including increased productivity, higher employee satisfaction, and decreased overhead costs


1. Make WFA collaboration a people problem first

When you think of the things a company might need in order to enable WFA, our minds tend to jump to video conferencing tools (like Microsoft Surface Hubs) and collaboration software (MURAL). However, effective 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 later). 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. 

Case in point: You can update software at the click of a button, but how hard is it to “update” how your team collaborates?


To lay the foundation for WFA (or hybrid), you need 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. 

WFA rules of engagement should address two key areas: policy and practice.


Policy

These are the parameters and logistics that define what is and isn’t allowed on the WFA 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, you’ll want to answer 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)? 
  • Are certain roles required to be based out of a physical office? 
  • Will proof of vaccination be required to work in-office?
  • Will employees be allowed to use shared equipment (whiteboards, devices, etc.) when in the office? 
  • Does the team have core hours, and if so, what are they?
  • What’s the expected response time to asynchronous communications?


Practice

This refers to the team’s implicit habits and informal methods — how they interact with one another, run and participate in meetings, and engage with company culture. Most likely, you already have some documentation in this area, especially around onboarding, meeting facilitation, etc. However, you’ll need to update it (or rewrite it completely — much has changed in the last year!) to clearly reflect new WFA initiatives, programs, and training. 

Some questions to ask as you tackle this part of your WFA rules of engagement include:

  • Do you plan to initiate programs that will teach employees how to collaborate in hybrid configurations? 
  • What rituals and habits will you put into place to remove barriers to teamwork and make hybrid collaboration easy? 
  • Will you be offering training on how to facilitate hybrid collaboration?
  • What will onboarding for new employees look like in a hybrid world? 
  • How will leaders be trained to manage hybrid teams effectively and fairly? 

Speaking of leaders, keep in mind that how leadership approaches work-from-anywhere 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 WFA by doing it themselves, they’ll be setting the standard for the entire organization.


2. Involve multiple teams in decisions regarding WFA solutions

The success of hybrid collaboration depends on everyone. So, any decision regarding a WFA tool or solution should involve multiple disciplines. 

Let’s say you’re looking to buy interactive touchscreen displays like Microsoft Surface Hubs to have ready for office conference rooms. You could just have your IT manager decide which and how many to buy and where to put them. But consider the following:

  • Will employees know how to use them? 
  • Are they compatible with the tools remote workers have at home? 
  • If there’s one in each conference room, are most of them going unused a significant percentage of the time? 
  • Do these devices have the features that each team needs to collaborate effectively? 
  • How will you keep them secure?

Taking a multidisciplinary approach to these decisions will ensure you’re meeting each group’s needs, as well as those of the entire org. 


3. Design for and track fluid movement

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. If everyone is in-person, are there enough meeting rooms? Desk setups? Coffee mugs? What about when the office is mostly empty? Are the essentials there? When certain teams are in-office, what kind of work are they doing? Whiteboarding? Holding long meetings? 

And these are just a few of the questions to consider! To better allocate your resources, institute a (non-creepy) tracking process for who is in the office and when. Be ready to make adjustments and plan for a range of possibilities.

A successful hybrid workspace is one that works equally well if you're physically in the office or remote.

 

4. Build a digitally-defined workspace

In a WFA environment, everything must have a digital dimension. Instead of thinking “workplace,” think “workspace” — as in, what’s the common space where everyone can come together no matter their physical location. This is because no matter what you’re doing, someone is taking part through digital means. Even aspects of your workspace that don’t seem like they need to be digitally-defined should be. Your conference rooms, for example, need to be equipped with screens and microphones to ensure a high-quality visual and audio experience between home and office. 

A digitally-defined workspace encompasses three key things: software, hardware, and environment. 


Software

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.


Hardware

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.


Environment

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.). Depending on what you learn from Principle #3, 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.


5. Adopt a Digital-First Mindset

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.

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 WFA collaboration that works is that once it’s achieved, teams no longer have to worry about where work happens — they’re left to focus on doing the hard work itself.

Work-from-anywhere offers tons of opportunities to boost employee satisfaction, recruit and retain top talent, and increase productivity. Don’t think of its challenges as burdens to overcome, but as setting the foundation for long-term team success.