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Why Hybrid Collaboration Is Harder Than You Think

Written by 
Jim Kalbach
 and 
  —  
June 2, 2022

It’s an exciting time for the workplace. After years of experimentation, it looks like hybrid collaboration is quickly becoming the new normal. According to a recent survey from Microsoft, more employees and managers than ever are now considering transitioning from fully in-person or remote work and embracing the flexibility of hybrid. The only problem? Many companies that are already trying their hand at hybrid collaboration aren’t that great at it.

To be frank, they suck at it. On most hybrid teams, there’s an imbalance between in-person workers and remote ones, with remote employees feeling “left out” from everything from office perks to promotion opportunities. And often, companies aren’t doing nearly enough to address this fundamental issue of mixed/hybrid work.

Truly effective hybrid teamwork requires much more than scheduling virtual team building activities. Instead, it involves a radical rethinking of your entire work environment, from the digital to the physical to the interpersonal.


What is hybrid communication?

Hybrid collaboration refers to when both in-person and remote employees meet, brainstorm, and work together on projects. Chances are, you’ve already experienced this. While this kind of work is not necessarily new, what is new is entire companies making hybrid collaboration their official workplace policy.

This means employees get the freedom to work the way they want. Whether they prefer going into the office and having face-to-face interactions with their colleagues, staying at home to avoid a commute or take care of their family, or embracing some mix of the two, hybrid work collaboration policies promise to give both teams and entire workforces the flexibility to be as productive as possible.

In a hybrid environment, remote team members tend to get the short end of the socialization stick. Companies will need to fix this imbalance.


3 reasons why hybrid collaboration is hard

When done right, hybrid collaboration can help remove a variety of barriers, from geography to gender bias. But establishing a hybrid work policy that achieves this across an entire company can be difficult. To be successful, companies must first consider the following three hybrid work problems.

1. Social Struggles

Recently, we recently surveyed over 400 people on their experiences with remote collaboration. Their biggest frustrations? Missing connection with colleagues, lack of spontaneity, difficult communication, and struggles with creativity (among others).

When collaborating in a hybrid work environment, remote team members tend to get the short end of the socialization stick. 

“Work is not a place. It’s what you accomplish together.” quote from Jim Kalbach
A successful work environment is about more than just a stylish cubicle.


Mitigating the “here and there” mentality

In many hybrid environments (at least pre-pandemic), the “core” employee group works together in the same place. Remote workers, on the other hand, make up a smaller cohort. To make matters more uneven, leadership is usually part of the office group.

This “we’re here, you’re there” mindset creates a number of negative downstream effects. One is an “unintended hierarchy” with on-site workers at the top and their remote colleagues at the bottom. Members of the C-suite run into in-person employees in the hall and see them in meetings, leading to promotions and high-visibility work. At the same time, remote workers can be seen as less reliable, capable, and willing to lead. They also experience reduced access to resources, from in-office snacks to mentorship opportunities.

It’s time to finally level — or even flip — the playing field. How this all shakes out post-pandemic is really anybody’s guess. However, one possibility is a complete reversal of the traditional here-there mentality, with remote being “here” and the office being “there.” Another is the widespread adoption of work-from-anywhere (WFA) policies. In that case, everyone is a potential remote worker, so location becomes completely irrelevant. No more here, no more there — only intentional collaboration.

We recently conducted a survey and found that the majority of respondents missed the social, spontaneous aspects of in-person office work the most.


Capturing camaraderie

Hallway conversations pre- and post-meeting chats happen naturally when in person. It’s not uncommon for people going in and out of meeting rooms to talk about the topic at hand. Sometimes, decisions are even made during those unofficial conversations. In those cases, remote coworkers get left in the dark.

Try adopting a shared space where teams can regularly get together and talk about non-work things. A virtual water cooler is always a good place to start. 

Check out the MURAL team virtual watercooler above for inspiration

2. Technical difficulties

Just about everyone has been forced to use a tool that didn’t really meet their needs. Technical issues on both the hardware and software sides are a major challenge for hybrid teams.

Even the smallest technical difficulties can cause large interpersonal issues within a hybrid team.

Overcoming audio problems

"Can you all hear me? No? Let me try to reconnect.” How many times have you heard that over the past year? During hybrid meetings, there will most likely be an imbalance in audio signal. For folks co-located in the room, distance from the mic may make their voices louder or softer. People who are remote may also be using different mics and devices. The net effect is an unequal audio signal for participants, leading to comprehension and audibility issues. 

To mitigate these real-time issues and save everyone from Zoom fatigue, re-evaluate your meeting frequency. Do you really need to have all those meetings? Instead, take back your calendar and look into how asynchronous collaboration is a much more inclusive alternative to a meeting. 

Even the smallest technical difficulties can cause large interpersonal issues within a hybrid team.


Addressing tool proliferation

Think about your team’s collaboration stack. How many tools do you have at your disposal? We’re guessing the number is pretty high. How many of those do you use every day? That one is probably a lot lower. And which of those do you actually like? Probably even lower …

Some tools might be more valuable for in-person teams, while remote workers may struggle to use them. Also, each group may use a tool differently. As a result, some key pieces of information might live in one place, and others might be somewhere else. Plus, the way in which people can contribute in words or images will differ across the group types. 

We suggest adopting a visual collaboration space (may we suggest MURAL?) so team members are free to express ideas, challenges, and insights in whatever way they feel the most comfortable with. 


3. Collaboration hurdles

Working as a team is hard enough when everyone is in the same room. Add in different time zones, spotty WiFi, and poor audio, and you’ve got a real challenge on your hands. To make collaboration as seamless as possible, you’ll need to manage the unique dynamics of hybrid workspaces.

Consider all your hybrid team's collaboration hurdles so you can maximize productivity and connection.

Ensuring equal participation and inclusivity

The aim of hybrid meetings is to encourage equal participation between remote and co-located attendees. Otherwise, it could lead to in-person dominated conversations and decision-making.

However, conversing and taking turns is much easier when face-to-face. The pace of an in-person conversation can easily overtake the rate at which remote teammates are able to contribute. This might have real consequences on leadership and even promotions.

What’s more, differences in communication patterns may be exaggerated with hybrid collaboration. For instance, extroverted individuals tend to interrupt more frequently than introverted ones.

For remote participants, there may even be a heightened gender bias in the conversation. An introverted woman dialed into a room full of extroverted men may not get a chance to speak. To address this, include intentionally designed activities in your meetings to ensure balanced communication and equal participation.

Keep in mind, however, that one size won’t fit all when it comes to collaboration in hybrid workplaces. Different teams will probably have different needs. And if your workplace is more fluid, allowing employees to move from home to the office and vice-versa, be ready to shift your meeting habits as required.

Learn how to make more tips for building an inclusive hybrid environment with our guide to inclusivity in the workplace

Managing different rules of engagement

During hybrid collaboration sessions, the team needs to deal with two sets of instructions: one for the in-person group and one for the online team. Getting each of the group types to move into breakouts, for instance, requires different coordination and timing. It will take a lot longer for an in-person team to physically move to another location than for the online team to change Zoom rooms. Same in reverse: in-person teams often take longer to reassemble after breakout sessions. Hybrid teams need to anticipate these variations and plan meetings accordingly.

Note that for facilitators, the logistics of a meeting or workshop will be more complicated. You’ll have to direct in-person with a different set of instructions than the remote team. 

How to make hybrid collaboration work for your teams

Okay, we did just list a lot of challenges. But hope is not lost!

While hybrid collaboration comes with its own struggles, we’ve got some tips on building connections across teams:

Maximize together time

Before every hybrid meeting or collaboration session, come up with a list of expectations and a detailed agenda. In other words, get started before you get started in order to make the most of the team’s time together. And keep the momentum going afterward, asynchronously with a digital collaboration tool.  How many times have you ended a great meeting only to forget your action plan? Keep it all in one digital resource for easy access and quick updates.

Re-calibrate your meeting methods

The goal here is to engage both in-person and remote attendees. Structure the sessions to have a mix of individual contributions and read-outs with group discussions. Collaboration activities that don’t give everyone a chance to contribute individually and favor open discussion will naturally exclude people in hybrid contexts.

It’s difficult for one person to facilitate both the in-person and remote cohorts, so we recommend having two co-facilitators (one for each group). You also might want to have two scribes, two time keepers, and two of any other roles you need for the session.

So, yes — the technology and tools you use are important. But without the right methods, and more importantly the right collaboration that goes with them, no amount of hardware or software will solve your challenges. Make getting ready for hybrid collaboration a people problem first. 

Consider all your hybrid team's collaboration hurdles so you can maximize productivity and connection.
How Steelcase embraced a hybrid collaboration: With over 100 years of history and a global workforce of 12,700 employees, Steelcase knew that transitioning to a hybrid work model wouldn’t be straightforward. But they also knew that reaching their full potential meant giving their employees the ability to effectively communicate and collaborate from anywhere. Learn how they used MURAL to make hybrid collaboration and asynchronous work a central part of their company’s future growth.

Ensuring equal participation and inclusivity

The aim of hybrid meetings is to encourage equal participation between remote and co-located attendees. Otherwise, it could lead to in-person dominated conversations and decision-making. 

However, conversing and taking turns is much easier when face-to-face. The pace of an in-person conversation can easily overtake the rate at which remote teammates are able to contribute. This might have real consequences on leadership and even promotions. 

What’s more, differences in communication patterns may be exaggerated with hybrid collaboration. For instance, extroverted individuals tend to interrupt more frequently than introverted ones. 

For remote participants, there may even be a heightened gender bias in the conversation. An introverted woman dialed into a room full of extroverted men may not get a chance to speak. To address this, include intentionally designed activities in your meetings to ensure balanced communication and equal participation. 

Keep in mind, however, that one size won’t fit all when it comes to hybrid collaboration. Different teams will probably have different needs. And if your workplace is more fluid, allowing employees to move from home to the office and vice-versa, be ready to shift your meeting habits as required. 


Managing different rules of engagement

During hybrid collaboration sessions, the team needs to deal with two sets of instructions: one for the in-person group and one for the online team. Getting each of the group types to move into breakouts, for instance, requires different coordination and timing. It will take a lot longer for an in-person team to physically move to another location than for the online team to change Zoom rooms. Same in reverse: in-person teams often take longer to reassemble after breakout sessions. Hybrid teams need to anticipate these variations and plan meetings accordingly.

Note that for facilitators, the logistics of a meeting or workshop will be more complicated. You’ll have to direct in-person with a different set of instructions than the remote team. 

The bottom line: If isn’t digital, it didn’t happen

You’re probably thinking “well, won’t all these problems go away if we just go back to the office?” The answer is, no. While there were many perks to going into the office, they don’t outweigh the  perks of a flexible work environment and you will very quickly see employees headed for the door.

Today’s workers care less about where work gets done and care more about the how. And that’s why all hybrid teams need to adopt a “digital first” mindset and start looking at the viability of their collaboration stack. The default motion should be to have information — input, ideas, decisions, etc. — start out in a digital format. Your decisions are only as good as the people you include, and if your remote teammates are missing out, you’re losing valuable input. That’s why digital discipline is so important. Your team needs to bake “digital first” into everything it does.

But truly effective collaboration doesn’t stop there. To take the next step, learn what high-impact teamwork really takes, then discover how asynchronous collaboration may just be what you need to solve the rest of your meeting problems.

collaboration that works interactive experience


About the author

About the authors

Jim Kalbach

Chief Evangelist
Jim Kalbach is a noted author, speaker, and instructor in customer experience, experience design, digital transformation, and strategy.