Re-energising your company with true hybrid work

Office work or home working is a false dichotomy. Smart companies need to make hybrid work deliver — and that means new skills are needed.

Hybrid work doesn’t mean forcing your employees back into the office three days a week. It means truly embracing the possibilities that digital disruption of work offers to create a truly energised corporate culture. But it’s not going to happen by default. It needs that most dreaded and feared of words: management.

But before we start talking about management (and even community management), let’s start on more familiar ground: digital disruption. We know how digital disruption works. First, people replicate the analogue experience in digital form. And then they re-engineer it to be truly digitally native. We know that digital transformation often takes a trigger event: the rise of a pure play, digital competitor, for example, or a change in circumstance that necessitates change.

But we usually talk about this on a company or product basis. What if the digital disruption we’re facing is a societal level one? That’s the challenge we’re facing in the workplace right now. Our triggering event is clear: the pandemic broke the habit of going to the office to work. Initially, as the lockdowns hit, we just replicated analogue practices with digital tools. Meetings became online meetings. Even after the worst of the pandemic eased, the new patterns tended to persist.

But, over time, new problems emerge. Not all tasks transfer well to a remote environment. And so the “back to the office” mandates start.

There’s a tendency to retreat to the familiar when difficulties become evident: get everyone back into the office, and our management issues will be solved. To believe that requires a degree of forgetfulness: the full-time office was hardly a place free of management issues.

A chance to inject new energy into the workplace

Let’s not make that mistake of retreating into corporate nostalgia. As we’ve discovered repeatedly over the past few decades, a point of disruption is a moment of opportunity. Can we reshape the way we work, knowing what we do now, in a way that injects brand-new energy into our teams?

This is actually our second point of disruption in less than five years. First, we went from office-based to remote. And now, smart companies are working out how to combine the two into a dynamic hybrid, rather than just slipping back into their pre-pandemic habits.

The press’s tendency to frame this discussion in terms of a binary — work from home or work in the office — isn’t useful. There’s a reason we prefer to use the term “hybrid work”: digital facilitates working from the most appropriate place, be that home, the office, on the road or in a shared workspace of some kind.

There’s no one way to innovate

There’s very little doubt that moments of casual encounter, idea generation and exploration often happen better in conversation. But that doesn’t mean that getting everyone in the office creates that. All too often that just leads to people sitting staring at a screen, getting on with their job. They’re together alone. Now, the creativity we want happens in spaces designed for encounter, discussion, and ideation. And those spaces can be digital:

In-office work is essential for some innovation jobs, like those that involve physical objects, and beneficial for some people, like newly hired employees and those seeking mentors. Yet some creative professionals, like architects and designers, have been surprised at how effective remote work has been during the pandemic, while scientists and academic researchers have long worked on projects with colleagues in other places.

But also giving the team the flexibility to work from anywhere, and to choose the best space for the job in hand delivers a more compelling employee experience. And that means getting digital communication tools right.

The need for corporate community management

There are skills out there that can help. Community management has been a discipline for over a quarter of a century. Ever since the internet allowed people to connect and form communities online, people have had to learn how to manage those communities. Games companies have used community managers, to engage and drive player loyalty. Publishers have been employing them, as membership models become more important to the media. And smart brands have been using them to develop customer communities.

We now need to turn those skills inward. Digital communications channels can be hugely effective in supporting hybrid work — but they can also be vectors for bullying and abuse. Poorly managed Slack groups can end up as toxic communities, but one-on-one bullying can occur, too. Asking managers or HR teams with no expertise in these areas to deal with these problems is a recipe for disaster.

Just rolling out these tools with a lack of training or expertise will, at best, lead to a drop in productivity as people get distracted by talking about work rather than doing it. At worst, it can lead to bullying and power games delivered performatively in front of the company:

These new work tools were designed to look and feel like message boards and social media. Workers notice that and adopt similar behaviors, researchers say. The performative nature of Slack, where colleagues fuel discussions in vast chat rooms by adding emojis, for example, means frenzies grow and are hard to contain once they start.

These are literally the skills that community managers have honed over the past decades in dealing with external communities. It’s time to bring them into the company as well.

Making Slack and Teams work for a business

Which works better, the carrot or the stick? In any sort of creative endeavour, the carrot is always preferable. But the truth is you need a bit of both. And you certainly require a stick if you’re to make hybrid work.

And just as online communities require community management to keep them on track, with clear rules and punishments for transgressions, so too do work online communities.

Traditional management problems can reoccur in new forms in hybrid situations. Management by presence is a classic. Just because someone is highly visible in Teams doesn’t mean that they’re actually being productive. And just because somebody isn’t always bantering in a chat channel doesn’t mean they’re not producing the goods. Good community management will spot people who aren’t engaging, and seek to understand why. And they’ll also spot the trouble-makers and work to bring them in line.

Inviting people back to the office

And now onto the carrot. If you force people back to the office, you get surly, reluctant staff. Make it worthwhile for them, and you get productivity. If you want people in the office, it shouldn’t be because you want to manage them by eyeball, but because there are some tasks better done collectively.

Believe it or not, this is pushing at an open door. Humans are inherently communal, social creatures. We like working in teams that feel connected and which are working towards a shared goal. It fulfils a basic human need. If people feel connected to their workmates, they will want to spend time with each other. You won’t have to enforce it.

So, think about why you’re inviting people back to the office. If you have set days, focus on creative meetings, team bonding and communal activities. Leave the remote days for deep work. And that means structuring staff deadlines and meeting patterns around these needs.

Making the office itself a creative environment

It also means changing the environment: if people use remote work to concentrate, then offices should be built around encounter and sharing. A decade ago, Apple was already treading this path with its new campus design:

One of the primary themes behind the campus mentioned by Ive is that of collaboration, creating natural places for employees to meet together – whether formally or informally. Among those places is the massive main cafeteria; “Ive imagines it as a central meeting point…leading to the kinds of serendipitous encounters that could give birth to new ideas.”

A return to the office mandate needs to be accompanied by a hard look at that workplace. Is it really designed to facilitate ideas and group work? Or is it yet another cube farm of isolated desks?

New energy in a hybrid workplace

In the ideal world, time spent together in the office creates connections, bonds, and inspiration among colleagues. Then those relationships are maintained, and the ideas developed, through digital tools during remote phases. The team functions as a cohesive whole, whether remotely or in person.

This is the lesson that all remote companies have been learning for years:

“People lose track of how to empathise and relate to each other,” says O’Nolan. “The thing we’ve found that works is to separate the two. We schedule meetings for the sake of getting people to talk to each other without an agenda. We use written communication to talk about the actual work. Both are equally important.”

That’s rethinking processes, not just replicating them.

The digital workplace challenge

Sure, there are questions still to be answered:

  • Do we hire community managers?
  • Do they sit at a team level, or are they part of HR?
  • Do we, instead, teach managers community management skills?
  • Do we create some mix of these?

“Everyone back to the office,” is the luddite approach. It’s an attempt to revert to the way things were before — but the genie is out of the box. We’ve proven that people can do much of their work remotely, and people who value that will seek work elsewhere rather than obey the diktat. By choosing that approach, you’re putting yourself at a disadvantage in an often competitive recruitment marketplace. But also, if you’re a digital business, you’re advertising that you’re not a very digital business.

Nobody wants to hate their job. We’d all much rather feel trusted and valued as part of the community. Now, let’s figure out how to do that using the tools of the 21st century, not the 20th. By picking and choosing the best of what physical interaction does well, and what’s most effective done remotely, you’re creating a more agile, more sustainable workplace, and facilitating a corporate community that people want to be part of, not one they feel they have to be. A place where work gets done with energy and enthusiasm because it’s fulfilling.

And maybe, on a good day, even fun.

Photo by Brooke Cagle on AdobeStock.