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Two Principles to Succeed in a Hybrid Workplace – And Why It's So Difficult

Discipline is the glue that holds flexible employees together.

By Gustavo Razzetti

June 28, 2022

The hybrid work paradox: you must be relentlessly flexible and disciplined

"What's the secret to thrive in a hybrid workplace?" I often get that question when being interviewed about my new book, Remote, Not Distant. People are looking for a silver bullet. Unfortunately, there's no such thing, as I explain in my book. Succeeding in a hybrid work environment requires rethinking (almost) everything about your culture.

The answer to that question is not simple. To see my full response, you can check some recent podcast interviews or editorial reviews here and here.

However, for this piece, I'll pick two principles: flexibility and discipline – the paradox that summarizes the secret to thrive in a hybrid workplace.  

As a whole, hybrid is difficult to do right. It requires a lot of experimentation and adjustments to avoid becoming the worst of both worlds (remote and in-person). Many companies approach hybrid as a temporary Band-Aid. They focus on tactical aspects, such as how many days people should be in the office, rather than intentionally revisiting how they operate.

In this post, I will explain why flexibility and discipline are vital to thriving in a hybrid workplace. Moreover, you'll learn why you can't have one without the other.

The Paradox of a Hybrid Workplace

Flexibility is the biggest gain of a hybrid workplace.

Research shows that people expect flexibility not only in terms of where they work from but also in their schedule. This is more than just a perk for employees. 72% of workers who are unhappy with their current level of flexibility are likely to look for a new job.

With freedom comes accountability. Giving people autonomy to make decisions increases a sense of ownership, thereby increasing responsibility and accountability. That's why flexibility matters.

For many leaders, this feels counterintuitive. They think freedom will encourage people to abuse the system, driving irresponsibility and chaos. However, real-life examples prove them wrong. When companies provide freedom, people pay them back with dividends.

A few years ago, Netflix got rid of its traditional travel policy. It no longer told people how much money to spend, which airline class to book, or which hotel type to choose. Instead, it encouraged employees to "Act in Netflix's best interest." This abbreviated norm encourages employees to make better choices. As a result, people's good judgment has significantly reduced Netflix's travel costs.

Similar to freedom, many leaders equal flexibility to chaos. They think that giving people the freedom to choose when and where to work from will be difficult to manage. This is based on a lack of trust, ignorance, or both.

Research for my book Remote, Not Distant uncovered that successful remote-first organizations operate under high-trust cultures, providing people the freedom to make choices. They are also obsessed with intentionally defining how they work. A culture of freedom is balanced with extreme discipline.

Amid the disruption caused by the pandemic, GoTo, the company behind tools such as GoToMeeting and RescueAssist, realized that their employees' needs and expectations were inconsistent. For example, those with school children prefer to book their early mornings off to be with them and start work later, while people working alone prefer to start earlier and go to the office as much as possible.

The findings drove the company to adopt a flexible approach by prioritizing each group's personal needs. Employees can choose to work on the schedule that best suits them.

For many, this might look like a recipe for chaos. However, GoTo is currently experiencing its strongest culture and business growth.

So, how did it achieve that?

A successful hybrid workplace requires obsessive coordination and collaboration – integrating both what's good for the individual and what's good for the team.

Flexibility doesn't mean permission to do whatever people want. Instead, it's encouraging them to make personal choices in the team's best interest. Rather than dictating a one-size-fits-all standard, let people choose what's more effective for them. It's an invitation to rethink how they can do their best work.

Choosing when, where, and how to work helps people be more effective – all while having a deeper sense of ownership. It's a win-win for both the organization and employees.

On the one hand, flexibility alone could lower the bar or encourage carelessness without context. On the other hand, without proper discipline working anytime could quickly become working all the time.

Discipline is the glue that holds flexible employees together. When team members have different arrangements, this inherently requires better coordination, communication, and documentation. That's where discipline comes in handy.

A hybrid workplace necessitates that companies are more intentional and disciplined about their culture. Clear, well-defined team agreements avoid turning flexibility into chaos.

Managing the complexities of integrating individual and collective needs, scheduling, and overseeing people who work from different locations isn't easy. A centralized, top-down approach is not the solution. Flexibility and discipline go hand in hand.

For example, collaboration time – an agreed daily block in which everyone should be available for meetings or calls – makes collaboration easier when people have flexible schedules. Also, not dictating specific days at the office encourages teams to be more disciplined about when and where to get together.  

How to Balance Freedom and Discipline in a Hybrid Workplace

Are you still operating under principles and norms created before the pandemic? A culture of freedom and discipline requires a new approach. Here are some ideas to get you started.

Institute flexible scheduling

Discuss what flexibility means when it comes to scheduling. Must it be a company-wide approach or can team members design their own?

At Microsoft Europe, people can design their own work schedules. As Michel Bouman, EMEA Partner Technical Lead for Microsoft Teams Rooms, told me: "My workday starts at nine. My early morning is for my family. Then I stop at four p.m. to spend more time with my family and resume work in the evening. People enjoy being around their families more, to walk their children to school, have lunch together, or go for a walk."

Define collaboration time

App developer Project Imagine, named one of the best companies for remote workers, realized that the shift toward working from home required reconfiguring the workday.  Their redesigned remote workday defines a specific collaboration time: between ten a.m. and noon and between two p.m. and six p.m. All other times are out of bounds.

Provide an even experience for all employees

An overly rigid approach can create inequality in the workplace. Be intentional about creating an even experience for every employee, including equal access to leaders, career opportunities, learning and development, and belonging.

When GitLab implemented "Async Weeks," an invitation for employees to clear their agendas and block time for deep work, they didn't anticipate the resistance from some groups. Client-facing employees such as sales and customer service don't have that freedom as they need to take care of external stakeholders. As GitLab's culture team explores solutions for this challenge, it has encouraged sales and customer service employees to eliminate internal meetings.

Establish a response frequency protocol

In most teams, people are expected to respond to communications immediately. Little effort is made to protect one's ability to focus and unclear expectations create unnecessary tensions.

Align your team on the expected response frequency per medium. What's an acceptable response time for an email? Or for Slack messages? Response time and frequency depends on the type of work and the role each member plays—customer service, for example, needs to be more responsive than other departments.

Obsess over documentation

Documentation is the foundation of successful remote teams, building more robust, informed, trusting, and connected collaboration. When you're working remotely, you don't have the luxury of visiting someone's desk to ask a question or joining in a conversation. Documentation is an efficient way to find answers without needing human help.

GitLab recommends a "handbook-first" approach, meaning they document everything in their handbook before it's even implemented. Although this requires an up-front investment in terms of time and effort, it pays off by reducing time, mistakes, and friction in the long run.

Documentation provides clarity and consistency, creating a single source of truth. Rather than interrupting your colleagues for information, you can go directly to the single source of truth. Similarly, if there's a conflict, people can direct colleagues to an already-documented agreement instead of relying on personal opinions.

Assume low context

Be considerate of the people you are communicating with. Don't assume they have all the same background or that they can read your mind. If you have a request, be specific about:

  • When you need it (a specific time, whether it's urgent, etc.)
  • Why you are asking for something
  • Action required: "Feedback needed," "Approval Required," "FYI," or "No response needed"

Before hitting "send," ask yourself: Is it clear? Am I providing enough context? Will the other person understand what I need?

Hire for remote culture fitness

Hiring people with remote-first experience will help you build a culture of flexibility. People who are autonomous, good communicators, and obsessive about documentation will help strengthen your muscle.

Automattic, a fully-remote company of several hundred employees, interviews developers over text-based chat only. This helps identify candidates who are good communicators – they are clear, use the right tone, and are to the point – while also helping to reduce bias in the hiring process. "We are definitely a writing-first company," CEO Matt Mullenweg told me. "Whether that's influenced me or whether I influenced it, it's probably been too long to tell."

Make a Slack agreement

Messaging tools are powerful for remote teams. However, the lack of a clear protocol can turn them into a nightmare, bringing the worst of synchronous and asynchronous communication together.

Awell Health has a Slack agreement to clarify when to use the app and when not to:

Slack is great for:

• Social conversations, interesting links, chit-chat

• Urgent questions and requests that need a quick response

• Real-time conversations with people who are available on Slack

• Conversations that can be had asynchronously

• Sharing need-to-knows and FYIs

• Celebrations and praise

• Sharing interesting reads/links

• Monitoring and logging (through third-party software)

Avoid Slack for:

• Discussions that require a lot of context

• Making major decisions (create a decision page)

• Sharing ways of working/processes

• Giving in-depth feedback – do this in a private meeting

Closing: Always Assume Positive Intent

Misunderstandings can happen more often in a hybrid workplace. Confusions about scheduling, tensions between those who have more flexibility than others, or perceived unfair workloads can quickly escalate. If you're not careful, issues can get blown out of proportion because we make assumptions rather than try to understand what's going on.

Help Scout, a provider of helpdesk software, encourages employees to "assume miscommunication over malice." This principle protects people from feeling attacked by others. The notion is shared with new hires on their first day.

Look for ways that you can create the same – or, at least, a similar – experience for everyone. Fairness doesn't mean giving everyone what they want but treating them equally. And if there's confusion or doubt, ask questions before reaching a conclusion. Always assume positive intent.

Above all, be relentlessly flexible and disciplined.

Thrive in a hybrid workplace, get your copy of Remote, Not Distant.

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