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The Problem with the Hybrid Workplace – and How to Fix It

The real challenge of a hybrid workforce is not technological or operational, but cultural. Instead of focusing on logistics, change the corporate mindset.

By Gustavo Razzetti

July 14, 2021

The five mindset shifts to design a thriving hybrid culture, regardless of if your team works remotely, in the office, or both

The mindset that took you here won’t take you into the future of work. Designing a successful hybrid workplace requires bridging the gap between what people want and what leaders demand.

Rather than building on what they learned during the pandemic, most companies are slipping back into old, unhealthy habits.

The backlash that Apple and Google recently faced is anything but an exception –organizations can’t just impose a top-down approach to hybrid work. Employees want more than having a say: they expect to actively design the future of work.

The real challenge in keeping a hybrid workforce motivated is not technological or operational, but cultural. Instead of focusing on the logistics, this is a unique opportunity to reshape why and how people can do their best work.

Start with these five mindset shifts.

The New Social Contract with Work

Most people are worried about going back to work, according to a study by the Limeade Institute. The reasons: fear of being exposed to COVID-19, losing flexibility, or the time and stress of commuting to work.

That’s why leaders are facing backlash for forcing people to return to the office.

The logic is simple: if we could do it in the worst possible conditions, why can’t we do it now that we’ve learned a lot?

The pandemic has reframed people’s relationship with their jobs, creating a new sense of ownership.

There are a lot of conversations about the negative impact of working from home. Increased isolation, Zoom fatigue, and burnout – even a 30% spike in drug overdose deaths. However, as with all crises, a lot of positive things happened, too. Teams are coming out on the other side full of drive and better equipped.

One of the ideas that the pandemic challenged is the paradox of the work/ life balance. Rather than setting limits, we’ve realized the need to integrate both. We are one person who plays different roles – everything we do is part of who we are.

By bringing our kids, homes, and pets to the virtual workplace, people tore down the artificial wall of what being professional used to be.

We spend too many hours at our jobs to draw a line. Our identity and jobs are more connected than we thought.

We no longer work just to earn money. In addition to putting food on the table, we want to be part of something bigger than ourselves. Our jobs are meant to provide purpose, fulfillment, and belonging. What we do not only defines our professional identity, but our whole self.

The great resignation – people quitting jobs in masses – is not driven by money or exhaustion, but the realization that things can be much better.

As Esther Perel wrote in FastCompany, “People used to leave a marriage because they weren’t happy; now they leave because they could be happier. The same shift is happening in corporate America. This means that many of the same questions I ask about relationships can be applied to the future of work.”

Organizations need to craft a new social contract with people. Emotional, physical, and psychological safety should play a crucial role in redefining expectations. Experts recommend that the new contract includes greater work flexibility, mental health care, a more deliberate approach to inclusion, and mental health support.

The new social contract requires more empathetic leaders. Organizations need to treat people as human beings, not human resources. This is not just for employees, but also family members and the community.

Swiss insurance company Chubb uses Slack to keep people connected, wherever they are. This is extended to people’s families, too, in cooking channels and volunteers tutoring employees’ children on challenging topics.

A hybrid workplace requires more than new logistics; it needs a new, empathetic social contract.

A Hybrid Workplace: 5 Mindset Shifts

In the aftermath of the pandemic, people have regained a sense of control.

Teams were able to adapt to external challenges by working together. They witnessed their bosses lose control as corporate best practices became useless. Collaboration and mutual support were crucial for team members to identify the best ways to work remotely.

In a climate of great uncertainty and stress, trust has become the most important currency.

Employees had to rely on their colleagues more than ever. What used to be the manager’s responsibility quickly became everyone’s duty. Many organizations realized that top-down solutions were not working; they had to rely on their employees to find creative ways to adapt.

The pandemic brought perspective to how broken the work model was. Lindsay Lagreid, a senior advisor at Limeade Institute, explains the phenomenon, “People have had 18 months to realize the nature and magnitude of the sacrifices that they had to make, and the consequences of those sacrifices in order to do work the way we used to do it.”

She believes this is a “once-in-a-century opportunity” to rethink how we work.

However, as organizations are designing the going back to work experience, leaders are slipping into old habits. For example, forcing people to go back to the office to protect the culture. Psychologists suggest leaders resist a hybrid work model not because of facts but biases.

People don’t care about meaningless company purposes. Changing the world means nothing if organizations are unwilling to first change the workplace.

Autonomy, purpose, and mastery drive people. Organizations need to adopt a more flexible, adaptive, and collaborative mindset. They must let teams decide how – and when – they want to work.

“Employees are hesitant to let go of autonomy when it comes to their well-being — and rightfully so,” said Dr. Reetu Sandhu, Director of the Limeade Institute. “This moment is an opportunity to ask employees, ‘what do you want work to look like in the future so that you can do your best work and take care of yourself?’ and then really listen and act accordingly. The outcome would be profound, both for people and for businesses.”

These five mindset shifts will help your organization design a thriving hybrid workplace.

1. From impromptu to intentional collaboration

Many leaders believe impromptu encounters are vital to driving collaboration and creativity. But do chance meetings really boost innovation? The benefits of serendipitous encounters at the watercooler are overhyped – there’s no evidence of it.

Culture doesn’t just happen in person. Many leaders confuse culture with climate – they believe that without the ping pong tables, free sushi, or Happy Hours, their culture will suffer.

Working remotely doesn’t prevent you from building a strong culture; many organizations have powerful cultures and have been working 100% remotely. Your company culture isn't just dependent on what you do as a leader, but is the result of what people think, feel, and do – together.  

Many CHROs are concerned about preserving the “how we do things around here,” according to Gallup. Most doubt that bonding and belonging can’t replicate personal relationships. This is a huge misconception – another example of getting stuck in old mindsets.

Water cooler gatherings aren’t necessarily the source of creativity. MIT Research shows that even a wall between two workers or a distance bigger than 10 feet lowers the chance of people having a conversation at all. Actually, in most cases, water cooler gatherings promote unhealthy habits such as meetings after the meeting, gossiping, and backstabbing.

Many companies like Apple and Zappos invested heavily not just in designing beautiful offices, but also in spaces that will promote impromptu encounters. It’s hard for most people to throw away those beliefs – and even the real state – and think about building culture differently.

Offices used to be a place to get work done. Now, they should be redesigned to promote collaboration, innovation, socializing, and coaching.

Dropbox is turning its offices into meeting studios. Other companies are replacing assigned desks with flexible seating zones and a common area for people to leave their personal items. They are thus reducing open space and turning it into collaboration and design thinking-style areas.

For example, at Hive in San Francisco, all employees have an open Google Hangout on their desktop during the workday. These open rooms mimic having office mates around.

Leaders of hybrid teams will have to do what regional and global leaders have always done: work hard to create connections between onsite and remote employees.

Team rituals create unique opportunities to build culture in a hybrid workplace – they allow people to unconsciously learn through observation. Google research recommends hosting team retreats to bring remote teams together at least twice a year.

2. From one-size-fits-all to flexibility

I get a lot of pushback when I tell clients to set a simple company-wide policy and then give teams the freedom to design their own hybrid approach. Organizations are used to having a one-size-fits-all work – they can’t accept the benefits and complexity of flexibility.

One of Apple’s apparent mistakes was to assume that leadership understood what employees wanted. Or, even worse, trying to find a solution that would work for everyone. Messages like, “We know many of you are eager to reconnect in person with your colleagues back in the office” backfired.

Employees often feel not just unheard, but actually ignored. Apple’s assumptions made things worse. People found that the invitation to go back to the office showed a lack of empathy.

Working from home change our relationship with work for good.

As the Apple employees letter reads, “The last year has felt like we have truly been able to do the best work of our lives for the first time, unconstrained by the challenges that daily commutes to offices and in-person co-located offices themselves inevitably impose; all while still being able to take better care of ourselves and the people around us.”

Apple employees didn’t just push back. They provided concrete, actionable solutions – their complaint letter is a smart roadmap for redesigning the future of work. Among other things, they suggested:

- Remote and location-flexible decisions to be autonomous for teams to decide (just like hiring decisions)

- A short survey to promote ongoing feedback on topics affecting hybrid work, including employee churn

- Evaluating the environmental impact of going back to the office

- Everyone can set their own work schedules according to what works best for them

Managing the complexities of scheduling, integrating individual and collective needs, and overseeing people who work from different locations isn't easy. Having a centralized, top-down approach won’t work. Let teams make those decisions.

3. From visibility to real contribution

Many companies still hold on to the idea that physically coming to the office is more productive. Proximity bias leads managers to favor those nearest to them and who they see most often. Many studies show that those who are closer to managers have bigger chances of being promoted.

Proximity bias is the idea that employees with close physical proximity to their team and leaders will be perceived as better workers and get more opportunities. That bias often assumes onsite employees have access to better perks and get more time with executives. In contrast, remote employees may be left out of decision-making, ignored on calls, and even paid less.

Proximity bias is something to watch out for, but using it as an excuse for why people should go back to the office is oversimplifying the issue as this Financial Times article does – it created a lot of controversies and push back (check out the comments).

The question is not if proximity bias is an issue or not, but what can you do about it? Ignoring skills or expertise in favor of location can be damaging. Train managers to become more aware of this bias. Design your hybrid team for equal participation in meetings and the decision-making process.

Level the playing field. Even when you’re in the office, the work itself is still best done with the assumption that everyone is remote. Cloudflare created a video conference village where people can join meetings as solo, remote participants.

Don’t reward presenteeism or working long hours, but the outcome. Evaluate people based on goals and results – not who happens to be in the office or Zoom calls most often.

4. From synchronous to asynchronous work

One of the biggest mistakes most companies made when forced to work remotely was carrying old habits into a new way of working. They continued approaching collaboration as something that needs to happen synchronously – everyone reviewing information, making decisions, or even brainstorming together.

That’s why most teams struggled with too many meetings, Zoom fatigue, and working late hours (even during weekends).

The key to succeeding in a remote/ hybrid environment is to work asynchronously by default. That’s what teams like GitHub have found.

Traditional workplaces are filled with synchronous communications. Meetings require everyone to show up and people are expected to reply to emails immediately regardless of the time.

On the other hand, asynchronous collaboration creates a different set of rules – it’s all about flexibility. It’s more than okay for people to reply later (usually within 24 hours). Employees can share their ideas on a MURAL whiteboard when they want. Teams meet only to have productive conversations and make complex decisions – most of the work is done at each person's own pace.

Amir Salihefendić, CEO of Doist, says the benefits go beyond flexibility: “So people think before they write and it creates a much more calm environment,” he says. People can do deep work without interruptions.

Async communication can be slower. However, better collaboration and work happens when people are doing deep thinking, writing down their ideas, and presenting them—all of which can be done without a meeting.

At Doist, people can set their own work schedules, are not pressured to respond outside of work hours, and have the time and space to think about a topic and come back with more thoughtful responses.

Asynchronous collaboration requires documenting everything. Having a written record of all the information and decisions drives transparency, inclusion, and allows people to find key information on their own – without interrupting others.

Source: Doist

5. From back-to-back meetings to timeboxing

Meetings have become the work unit by default – they set the rhythm of how people work. Rather than considering the type of work we want to do, we let meetings dictate it. We switch from boring and creative meetings to decision-making and status ones without knowing in which we need to either focus or flare.

Timeboxing is a powerful tool for asynchronous-first cultures. It’s about blocking different periods of time to work on different types of work – from deep thinking to more shallow stuff.

As Nir Eyal wrote about the benefits of timeboxing, “If you don’t plan your day in advance—according to your values and your schedule—someone else will plan it for you.”

I block asynchronous time for research and writing every Monday and Wednesday morning. After and before recurring workshops, I block transitional time. When a client wants to schedule time, I give them a Calendly link that includes all the above ‘protected’ time. Not only that, but I set time before and after any future meeting – my system doesn’t allow people to schedule meetings on the same day.

I also cancel emails and Circle or Slack alerts. I set specific times to check those. If there’s an emergency, my team calls me.

You can use this free schedule maker to start testing the benefits of time boxing.

Effective time boxing requires open conversations and negotiations with your colleagues. Align on the most convenient time for everyone to work together to focus on asynchronous activities.

Remember, a calendar never stays empty – either you protect it or others will take it over.

Design the Right Hybrid Workplaces

You cannot approach a hybrid team model with the same mindset you had when everyone was working at the office or fully remotely.

Designing a successful hybrid workplace requires bridging the gap between everyone’s expectations. Complex situations require breaking down problems into smaller chunks – let teams find the solutions that work best for them.

As Lindsey Langreid said, “The irony in the answer is actually pretty simple if you trust your people and give them the freedom and flexibility that they’ve had for the last 18 months to make decisions about when and where and how they do their work. Problem solved.”

There’s no right or wrong approach. Finding the one that works best for your organization will take time and experimentation. Test it out. If you do A/B testing for your own products, why not do it for hybrid work?

What do you think?

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