20th July 2021
A well-planned remote work model trumps the twin-track hybrid approach for companies and their employees.
Now that the forced work-from-home experiment may be coming to an end, businesses and their employees are considering what to do next. One option that is gathering substantial momentum is hybrid working. Covering the whole spectrum of arrangements that lie between working exclusively in the office and working exclusively remotely, hybrid is being touted as the way forward — but is it?
In this article, we discuss why hybrid working may fall short of expectations and outline how fully remote working can deliver superior benefits for employees and clients when it is done properly.
Hybrid working is not the best of both worlds
Some are hailing hybrid working as a magic wand that will give workers the freedom they have grown to appreciate during the past year while restoring some of the control and collaboration that management feel was lost. However, a partial return to the office is fraught with issues that have not been thought through properly.
First is the question of what hybrid working will entail in each case. Chaos is inevitable if businesses do not devise systems for managing people and processes, and disillusionment is likely once people begin to realise just what they have lost in the shift to a new way of working.
Hybrid working sounds great in theory, but if you take ten managers aside and ask them what they think it means, you could easily get ten different answers. Before embarking on a blended approach, parameters for when people work remotely and when or if they must be in the office need to be agreed and nailed down. What was intended to be flexible working becomes anything but flexible when employees try to organise responsibilities such as caregiving around being in the office or remote on specific days.
Cultural division becomes a real possibility with hybrid working. Two organisational cultures emerge, dominated by the people working mostly in the office, while the remote workforce languishes. Employees who work remotely most of the time risk being perceived by their in-office peers as less dedicated or as trying to avoid their work.
Exclusion is reinforced in a host of different ways: Meetings take place with on-premises workers only; collaboration involves onsite rather than online white boards; those who are in the office most of the time organise social gatherings amongst themselves. When this kind of exclusion occurs, remote workers can soon lose their sense of belonging and common purpose, becoming disenfranchised and disillusioned — and all because the organisation failed to establish a coherent hybrid model for working.
Divergent career paths
The culture split is most pronounced in the area of career advancement. With hybrid work models, remote workers are less than half as likely to be promoted as their in-office counterparts.
One reason is that people who are outside the office don’t get the opportunity to develop and demonstrate the same kind of relationship-building skills their in-office peers do. Furthermore, the greater visibility of the office-based contingent puts them top of mind when management are considering candidates for promotion.
Employees who want to progress their careers will tend to spend more time in the office to maximise their face time with management. This expands the divide between office-based and remote staff, with the growth of in-office cliques and a sense of career stagnation among those who are left out of the loop at home. Indeed, career progression was one of the reasons Dropbox dropped the hybrid model. It now favours a virtual-first policy, prioritising remote work over the office.
Requiring employees to physically commute to an office at specific times makes it difficult for certain groups of people to work at jobs they are qualified to do. Advocates of hybrid working should consider how obligatory office attendance affects primary caregivers, those with disabilities and people who do not live close to company headquarters for financial or other reasons.
However, giving the option of exclusively remote work to people who need to care for children or other dependents, those with disabilities or people living outside the office catchment area heightens the potential for a culture split. Rather than creating different work models for those with commuting difficulties, organisations can create a genuinely inclusive culture by embracing a model in which everybody works remotely.
Employees can become disenchanted with the concept of hybrid working when they realise that benefits such as subsidised canteens, on-site gyms and even permanent desks are no longer viable when not everybody is in the office all of the time.
Hot desking for sporadic in-office work disrupts communication and team dynamics and gives IT departments headaches setting up workstations and connecting different drives and devices. It can also be disruptive for the hybrid worker: If somebody is already wedded to “their” parking space or spot in the fridge, they won’t be too happy when they discover that they have to sit somewhere different every time they enter the office.
Furthermore, after more than a year of remote working, many people have come to appreciate a working life that does not involve long commutes tied to strict office hours. Companies that are now insisting employees return to the office are facing resistance: When Apple CEO Tim Cook informed employees in June that they would be asked to start going back to the office in September, a group of 80 disgruntled Apple staff issued an open letter expressing their displeasure at the announcement. Employees are also opposing a similar move by Google, with some threatening to quit if they are compelled to stop remote working.
Fully remote works best with cultural buy-in
The hybrid work model is so difficult to get right that it can be tempting for companies to simply pull all of their staff back into the office once pandemic restrictions are lifted. But there is an alternative: Adopting a fully remote culture from the outset can be hugely successful when buy-in is company-wide.
Rather than making vague plans that allow staff to work remotely or in the office on an ad-hoc basis, companies need to take time to create a vision of what kind of work culture would best suit the organisation and help meet its objectives while accommodating the new work dynamic that employees are seeking.
Even the most ardent advocates of fully remote working will agree that face-to-face interaction has obvious value. They understand that this is probably the biggest obstacle preventing the widespread adoption of this model, but companies with fully remote cultures have found ways to compensate while leveraging the fully remote model’s many benefits.
It takes thoughtful leadership to address the lack of in-person contact inherent in the remote working model and ensure that small teams are supported. Team cohesion — or lack thereof — is a key driver of virtual culture, and managers will have a huge influence on their teams’ experiences as they embrace and embed the fully remote model. Leaders need to define and model new behaviours for their teams and create opportunities for their virtual teams to engage with each other for both work and social purposes.
Managers may wonder how they’ll know if people are working without being able to see them, but they could also question whether being in the same room as someone means they are working: People may be sitting at their desks, going to meetings and seeming busy without actually making genuine progress toward set targets.
Teams will feel more secure and trusted if they are expected to produce clearly defined outcomes — rather than spend a specific amount of time generating them. When everyone is remote, you can no longer drop casual, ambiguous obligations in passing — you need to define precisely what is being asked, when exactly is it needed and what communication will be required to get it done.
This makes remote a good fit for agile ways of working, which involve small teams working toward outcomes rather than output and deciding their next steps based on evidence gathered along the way rather than some strictly prearranged plan. The justification for using remote monitoring software to measure productivity is eliminated because the focus shifts from whether an employee is visible to whether clearly defined outcomes are being delivered by agreed deadlines.
For a cultural shift of this magnitude, training is key. Not only should staff moving to a fully remote work model receive intensive initial training so that everybody knows what is expected of them, there must be a commitment to ongoing, regular training for everybody in the organisation.
Even with this level of buy-in, you have to expect that not all staff will adapt to a new results-driven workflow. Some managers cannot accept that work does not involve a physical office, and some employees do not have the discipline to complete their work on their own terms.
Adopting a fully remote working model involves a shift in mind-set to one in which your organisation’s digital channels become office HQ. That means using Slack, Teams or your preferred collaborative chat tool to keep your team interacting. With unplanned encounters at the coffee dock or on the stairs now a thing of the past, managers need to make deliberate efforts to encourage collaboration, feedback loops and interaction.
And if chatting on messaging channels is not working for a specific conversation, don’t be afraid to switch to a call. Keeping channels open without making colleagues feel they are being monitored constantly is a balance you will need to strike from the start. Get this right from the outset and your team will feel connected, supported and productive — without experiencing pressure to be available at all times.
One of the key stumbling blocks for companies considering a fully remote model is the question of how to deliver value for clients when you are in separate physical locations. Collaborating remotely is something of an art that companies can master with the right tools and — more important — the right approach.
NearForm was born remote a decade ago, so moving our discovery engagement process fully online has been a relatively smooth process. The team begins each engagement with a one-hour Zoom call to investigate the client’s problem, potential bottlenecks and their desired solution. The next step is a series of virtual workshops using Miro for virtual whiteboard collaboration and Figma for prototyping.
As veterans of the remote experience, our design directors are skilled at managing the challenges that virtual workshops can raise. One of these is energy levels: Effective workshops require intense collaboration to identify the true kernel of the problem the client is trying to solve and the route to an optimal solution. Without the synergy generated when teams are working together in the same room, the experience can be draining.
One of the approaches NearForm uses to combat this pressure is to ensure workshops are not prolonged affairs. “Even half days are split into two sessions, so that people get a break,” design director Antoine Marin explains. The atmosphere is deliberately kept light, using icebreakers to make the process enjoyable. “I often start by asking people to write down their name, job title and favourite music,” Antoine says.
During a virtual collaboration, a skilled facilitator will use time constraints to make people as productive as possible. A NearForm discovery workshop might begin by giving everyone seven minutes to define the desired features of a solution on virtual sticky notes, seven minutes to review the contributions of everyone else and a final seven minutes to vote on the options and agree a set of key features.
“In under 30 minutes, you have completed the processes of ideation, exploration and closing,” says Antoine. You have also ensured that nobody is excluded and avoided the risk that one person may dominate the session by talking for 40 minutes.
Insisting that people make written contributions via a virtual whiteboard, you also address the issue of commitment — another challenge associated with remote collaboration. In remote engagements, people are more likely to take calls, arrive late or work on other tasks in the background than they would during a face-to-face engagement. Expecting specific outcomes from them, such as written contributions to the virtual whiteboard, helps mitigate these risks and strengthen commitment to the process.
The remote future
Developing the right model for fully remote working means equipping people with the resources they need to keep connected, perform well and maintain a healthy work-life balance. At NearForm, for example, we provide a range of supports, including an allowance to fund home office set-up.
Remote working is not a perfect model but companies that plan wisely and pragmatically can preempt and mitigate the issues that arise. Shifting the focus from in-person monitoring to real results makes work more fulfilling, productive and aligned with the unpredictability of life.
Organisations need to frame a really clear vision of what is needed to move to the work model that best supports results — and then commit themselves to the effort required to fundamentally change how they work.