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6 Hard-Learned Lessons For Adapting To A Hybrid Working Model

72% of organizations see themselves adopting a hybrid model of working post-pandemic. That’s astonishing when you consider that most of those companies have shape-shifted in the past two years.

From 30,000 feet, I see this change as positive for the world of work and the people in it. We’ve needed a firm shove out of our industrial era entrenchment into new possibilities for how work can happen and how it makes people feel.

But, on the ground, it’s evident that this shift is hard and some of us (most, if we’re being honest) have no clue what we’re doing. So we’re making mistakes and learning hard lessons. Hopefully, we’re taking notice and thinking about how to iterate, improve, and fully embrace this rare opportunity. 

I’ve learned a few lessons from being part of an organization that went fully remote at the start of the pandemic, and then transitioned into a form of hybrid that made sense for the people and needs of the business. I’ve also heard about hybrid hiccups from other leaders at some of the biggest and brightest organizations out there.

In this article, I’ll share six common problems that I’ve encountered in the past few months and how to approach them. Perhaps you’ll recognize yourself or your company in one or more. Humans aren’t always good at learning from past experiences (look no further than recent events in Ukraine).

In the case of hybrid work, I hope that if we open space for this type of reflective conversation, this shift will take place for good (and we won’t insist on retreating to our former shapes).  

Lesson 1: It’s a totally new way of working

It’s tempting to think that hybrid work is just a mashup of remote and office working. Technically that’s what it is, but in practice we need to consider hybrid as a completely new way of working. It requires intention and consideration. And it’s not a one size fits all. 

In the early days of the pandemic, when most offices went remote overnight, many tried to simply work online as they did in the office. I quickly learned that it’s not an apples-to-apples experience.

Not seeing co-workers for those chatty moments at the coffee station every day was quickly missed and not easily replicated through a video call. Not to mention the culture shock of changing how to do meetings, onboarding new hires, or running a leadership training session.

And then, as the return to the office began, a new set of challenges arrived with a mix of remote and in-person working. Suddenly, the norms of video calls that we’d honed over the past two years didn’t work anymore, new equity and inclusion challenges arrived, and the volume dial of personal work preferences quickly turned up.

In my experience, it’s best to treat hybrid as a completely different way of working. It’s not a proxy for remote and it’s far more complicated than working in person. It requires thoughtful consideration of people, work processes, habits, cultural rituals, and desired outcomes. 

Spoiler alert: This can’t happen in the C-Suite and be imposed on employees. Hybrid work literally needs to be by the people, for the people.  

Key takeaways: 

  • Understand the needs and desires of your people by asking everyone how and where they wish to work. Yes, even in big organizations. You can do this on a team-by-team survey basis and roll up your findings into the overall impression across the business. Regardless of company size, you won’t be able to tailor every aspect of every person’s experience, but your decisions should be broadly informed by your people.
  • Be open to trying new arrangements and testing your beliefs about what’s necessary for work to happen well (yes, it’s possible to do your best work in PJs with cat on lap).
  • Celebrate and embrace the chance to make something new, not recycle the old (this is one of the rare times new can be better for the planet).

Related Read: 10 Best Employee Survey Tools For Employee Feedback In 2022

Lesson 2: Mistakes will be made 

Since there’s no instruction manual for hybrid work, there’s no chance any company is getting hybrid right immediately out of the gates. The bravest companies in this new frontier of work are the ones who admit when they miss the mark and then make positive steps forward based on the learning.

When Amazon declared that they intended to return to an office-centric culture, a sharp backlash from corporate employees resulted in swift softening of the policy. Similarly, Google and Apple changed their plans after substantial internal opposition.

What this shows is how important it is to include your people in the conversation about the shape and form of hybrid work in your company. This doesn’t mean you’ll mistake-proof the outcome, but you’ll certainly benefit from the trust you’ll build along the way to weather the impact of changing and adapting as you go.

In my experience, one of the most difficult obstacles for leaders and organizations when contemplating hybrid work is not having all the answers. It’s hard to embark on a significant strategic direction without having clarity. That’s why it’s even more important to have humility and keep lines of communication open with your people.

Key takeaways: 

  • Be okay with not knowing the best way forward
  • Be flexible and make adaptations as you go 
  • Include your people every step of the way through any feedback mechanism (surveys, focus groups, 1:1 chats, CEO office hours, company intranet etc.) and follow up on what you hear. 

Lesson 3: Write it down

Working in person may have given us all a false sense of confidence. All of our habits and rituals were performed in person, our project delivery contingent on eye contact contracts, and social norms upheld by body language and expressions. Not to mention, we trusted that information and answers were just a tap on the shoulder away. 

The pandemic instantly muted many of the cues we relied on to work productively together. Teams were sent scrambling to figure out how to communicate, share, and deliver online. And now, as we’re evolving into hybrid working, many organizations are a patchwork quilt of old and new ways of doing things.

That’s why it’s critical to document everything. Having clear instructions for everyone on every aspect of working together is not negotiable in hybrid work. The first place to start is documenting what hybrid work really means for your organization. Get down to detail and then put it in writing. That way, everyone understands what the expectations are and helps align every person and every effort. 

Adopting a documentation-first mindset, like an employee handbook or intranet, for example, helps with collaboration, onboarding, knowledge sharing, and efficiency. It’s also the foundation of building trust across the organization. When everyone has clarity on what to do, how to do it, and where to find people and information, they can simply get on with doing great work, regardless of where they’re located. 

Key takeaways: 

  • Write down anything and everything that underpins your rituals, processes, and ways of working, and make it easily available to everyone.
  • Working asynchronously must become your hybrid superpower, but it relies heavily on succinct and up-to-date documentation.
  • Have an open feedback loop and a mechanism to update documentation as you learn and improve.

Lesson 4: Meetings suck even more than before

Just when we thought meetings couldn’t get any worse, along comes hybrid. I think we can all agree that the love child of dazed video calls and the “bored-room” is hardly where anyone wants to spend their time. 

Meetings were already the most despised venue of the modern workplace and for good reason. Unclear intent, lack of focus, time suck, poor presentation, mandatory attendance… just a few of the reasons why employees feel that meetings stink

Then, when the pandemic hit, we subjected everyone to hours of screen time from kitchens and living rooms across the globe—all in the name of productive work. Now, not only are poorly run meetings chipping away at our will to live they’re also not good for us

As we’re learning in hybrid mode, things are getting a whole lot worse. Now meetings have people attending from the office or the coffee shop (or kitchen or airport). We have even less control over the experience of the meeting for all participants, leading to inequity and frustration. And that’s on top of all the worst parts of in-person and online meetings.

I believe meetings are our greatest opportunity to improve the employee experience in hybrid mode. We spend so much time in meetings, why wouldn’t we prioritize making them the best opportunity for people and teams to connect? 

We can start by changing our meeting culture, agreeing on new norms, and investing in technology and attitudes to enhance participation for all

Key takeaways: 

  • Meetings are here to stay, but how we run them and how we make people feel while doing so, can be vastly improved.
  • Be open to change and find new ways to run a hybrid business, including new ways to meet.
  • Changing meeting structure and culture relies on the leadership appetite to unlearn old ways of doing things (see lesson 5). 

Lesson 5: We’re over transacting and under relating

In a recent study with Jostle and Dialectic, I looked at the impact of remote work on inclusion and belonging. An overarching finding was that organizations had shifted into a transactional mode of operating as a result of remote working. Among other things, this resulted in employees feeling alienated because process and productivity were emphasized over emotional support.

Fast forward the movie, and these transactional habits are showing up in hybrid mode too. You don’t have to look too far to see evidence of the great people shuffle that we’re now calling the Great Resignation. People are leaving in droves because they’re sick and tired of being cogs in the machine. They’re choosing (ahem, demanding) new terms of employment where they feel valued, seen, and supported. 

What this comes down to, is a need to recontract the employee experience. And it’s about time. We can’t build the workplace of the future with old technology. 

In this case, that’s outdated thinking about what it means to be at work and the role of work in each of our lives. So the lesson here is that we need to shake ourselves loose of outdated assumptions about business operations, unlearn traditional ways of leading, prioritize psychological safety and overall well-being, and realize that we win through relating not transacting.

Key takeaways: 

  • The biggest shift begins with individual leader awareness and willingness to change. As Frederic Laloux believes: “the general rule seems to be that the level of consciousness of an organization cannot exceed the level of consciousness of its leader”.
  • Look at how you interact and work in your company—do your habits and rituals squeeze the energy out of people or do they boost and lift people up?
  • Understand how every aspect of your organization in the office and online contributes to the experience that people have every day—be honest about what’s not serving you and start making small changes. They’ll add up to a big shift and boost your retention.

Related Read: Employee Retention Statistics And Insights 2022

Lesson 6: Offices need to change too

If you’ve decided to be a hybrid organization, activating the office component isn’t simply a matter of unlocking the doors and dusting away the cobwebs. You’ve got to think about your office in a different way. It’s not the place where people come to do work anymore. 

“Post-pandemic, the office will only secondarily be a place to carry out tasks or engage in routine meetings, especially for knowledge workers. They will be able to do much of that from home, thanks to the growing functionality of information and communication technologies. As a result, employees will increasingly be working in what we call the hybrid office—moving between a home/workspace and a traditional office building. The latter will become primarily a culture space, providing workers with a social anchor, facilitating connections, enabling learning, and fostering unscripted, innovative collaboration.” [Source]

In my own experience, the few times that I returned to work in my office after we decided to become a hybrid organization, socialization trumped work. And it felt good. I didn’t need to sit next to my co-workers to jam away at my keyboard, I could do that at home very well. 

quote of bev attfield

If we start to think of the office as a social anchor, the experience in that space needs to look and feel quite different from the traditional office. Workspaces will become much more fluid, flexible, and transitional.

The majority of the physical space will come to resemble a neighborhood or community meeting place where human connection is emphasized. The sense of importance for the office has also shifted. The office now needs to be viewed as just one part of the cultural artifacts and experience in your organization. 

The myth that your culture can only thrive in the confines of your physical premises has been busted. Those who succeed in doing hybrid well will evolve their offices in tandem with their thinking about what’s really needed to inspire, support, and sustain employees and the work they do.

Key takeaways: 

  • Be critical about the purpose of your office and invest in changes to layout, furniture, decor, and atmosphere.
  • Emphasize equity in your technology investments in your physical space. Are you making it possible for anyone to attend meetings or participate in gatherings in a fair and equal way?
  • Broken record alert: ask your people what they’d like to see in your office and the reasons they’d choose to work and connect there.

Hybrid works, with purpose

It’s clear that there’s no going back to “normal”. Hybrid is here to stay. Personally, I don’t want to return to the in-office 9-to-5, bookended by a commute. Let’s face it, it’s not like that option made anyone exceptionally happy, even with office dogs, free pizza, and ping pong. 

What has the potential to bring joy to every office worker is choice, flexibility, and genuine concern for who they are and what they need. Hybrid is the way for organizations to humanize every aspect of their operations and cultures, but it will take work. 

But, not adapting or changing takes work too. The question is whether you want to do the work creating something incredible, or fixing something that’s bound to fall apart.

The bottom line is that if your company isn’t open to creating a form of hybrid that works for your people, they’ll find a company that is. There’s enough evidence about the changing demands of employees as they reprioritize what they want in their lives to make any leader take notice.

Regardless of the shape and form of hybrid for your organization, it’s worth remembering that it’s your purpose that shapes and drives growth and the employee experience. That’s what needs to shine through every facet of how you work together, whether in person or online. 

As you think about the lessons you’ve learned in your own hybrid journey, ask yourself if things might’ve been different if you’d had a clear purpose to guide you from the start. I’d love to hear your answer and whether you sympathize with my lessons outlined in this article. Let’s relate!

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