The Future of Work is Hybrid: Here’s How to Thrive in the New Normal

 Sacha Connor

This article is part of a 3-part IDEO U series on remote work. Read Tips From the IDEO U Community on Combating Remote Fatigue and How to Build Culture Remotely.

You’re on video, trying to interject, but the group in the conference room is too focused on their conversation to notice. They’re about to move on to a new topic when someone says, “Before we switch gears, Louisa has an idea she’d like to share.” How did they know to make space for you to participate? Because you asked them to be your advocate in the room before the meeting even started. 

Identifying a backchannel buddy is one tactic Sacha Connor, Founder and CEO of consultancy Virtual Work Insider, suggests for folks working remotely to ensure they have the impact they desire in a hybrid work world. But there’s no denying combining some remote and some in-person roles creates new challenges. 

“Hybrid is harder,” Sacha says. But it also holds the potential for increased creativity and innovation. And it’s what most companies will look like as we come out of the Covid-19 pandemic and begin transitioning from fully remote to hybrid structures. 

In this conversation, Sacha pulls from more than a decade of remote leadership experience to share three things companies and individuals can do to thrive in a hybrid work environment, tactics for combating remote fatigue, and how to build team culture—not just camaraderie—in a virtual setting.


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The future of work is hybrid

In March 2020, just as the Covid pandemic began to force the world into lockdown, Sacha joined us on the Creative Confidence Podcast to share some advice for going from in-person to remote work on an accelerated timeline. Now, more than a year later, many organizations are trying to figure out what the right next step is for their workforce. Will they stay as a fully remote organization, require employees to come back to the office full time, or find some hybrid of the two? 

IDEO U surveyed our community and out of almost 1,000 respondents we found that 86% of people expect their organization to adopt a hybrid work structure in 2021. While 15% of people would like their organization to be fully remote, only 7% think that will really happen. 

Sacha sees a range of work structures emerging among her clients. Two common hybrid models are role-based remote and on-site overlap days. Different teams within an organization may choose different models as well.

Hybrid Work Models

Companies should focus on the why when choosing an organizational structure. “What is the type of work that would happen in your overlap days?” she prompts. What do you hope to get out of time together in an office? If the need is for easier collaboration, for example, how might you meet that need for remote workers as well? 

It’s a fallacy to assume that you’ll ever have all of your employees together at one time. This didn’t happen before the pandemic—think of important meetings where someone was traveling for business, someone else was working from home because of a doctor’s appointment, and a few colleagues were calling in from another office location—and it certainly will be less common now. No matter how much co-location you hope to have, adopting a remote-first mindset will help you design for the portion of your workforce that will not be “in the room,” and ultimately ensure more productivity and employee satisfaction.

“This is the moment to redesign for location inclusion from the start with the assumption that even well-intended co-location is probably not going to happen,” Sacha says of setting realistic expectations. “Build from the place of remote first.”


3 keys to thriving in a hybrid work environment

Whether you’re a leader making choices about how you’ll structure your organization or an individual contributor looking for ways to help yourself and your team adapt to a hybrid working world, Sacha says these three things are key to thriving in a hybrid environment. 

1. Upskill your soft skills

If the past year of remote work has taught us anything, it’s that old-school, in-person management techniques are no longer enough. Now people have one year of remote work under their belts, but there’s still a learning curve to be effective at leading or working within hybrid and remote teams. 

Sacha’s virtual leadership success framework (which you can download here) outlines four skill areas:

  • Technology tools — Getting comfortable with (and understanding best-practices for) using video conferencing, digital brainstorming platforms, chat tools, and more.

The first three areas encompass soft skills that require a new approach when working remotely. Learning to use tech tools is very helpful—and often where companies focus first—but alone it’s not enough. 

It’s not fair to expect these skills to quickly grow organically. Leaders should prioritize learning opportunities for themselves and their teams and set aside time and resources for people to upskill.

 


“Build from the place of remote first.”
Sacha Connor


 

2. Develop a location diversity & inclusion plan

“When offices start opening back up, distance bias is going to start to rear its ugly head again,” Sacha says of our brain’s natural tendency to place more importance on the things or people that are close to us. You’ll need a plan to mitigate its impact. 

“How do you ensure all of your team members and employees are considered and included no matter where they live or work?” she prompts. Distance bias often lives in our people processes, like performance management and career pathing. 

Sacha’s felt the repercussions of distance bias firsthand when she first moved from in-office to remote work at a prior company. She was given permission to make the move, but told she’d never get a promotion, wouldn’t have access to certain roles, and would go from being perceived as a high-potential employee to a low-potential one. Not because her skills had changed, but because potential was linked to promotability, which was linked to location. Over time she was able to overcome those perceived barriers and get the company to delink location from potential.

Speak up if you see your company’s processes give more weight to proximity than performance and potential. If you work remotely, advocate for yourself and use the story of your success to shift the perspective of remote work at your company. 

3. Create a head of hybrid role & a taskforce to go with it

If you’re strong in the hybrid skill areas and passionate about building location inclusion, Sacha encourages you to raise your hand to teach others and lead the charge at your company. You’re ahead of the curve if you have more than 18 months experience, she notes of the immense demand for people with this skill set and relatively low supply. 

While hybrid is the future, it’s harder to orchestrate. Sacha says companies that leave it up to chance aren’t understanding how important this is to their overall success. A Head of Hybrid or Head of Workplace Innovation role is responsible for looking at the employee experience across all locations and functions including IT, real estate, learning and development, and more. Dedicating a lead and taskforce to the transition to hybrid gives your company the best chance at a pain-free process and shows employees you’re taking their needs seriously. 


Combatting remote fatigue and burnout

As we talk about the benefits of remote and ways to thrive in a hybrid environment, the reality is that many of us are also feeling burnout and fatigue from endless video meetings and added pressure to do more to appear productive from afar. Sacha has a few suggestions for preventing remote fatigue. 

Designate asynchronous and synchronous work

What work needs to happen in a meeting, and what could be done over chat or email? Live moments are precious. Use your time wisely by planning meetings that are effective, efficient, inclusive, and engaging. Craft team agreements to align everyone on expectations and communication norms. 

Batch non-urgent interruptions

If you’re a leader with five direct reports, chances are each of your reports is contacting you once a day for non-urgent matters. That’s at least 25 interruptions a week. Instead of responding immediately, set office hours a couple times a week where anyone can pop into an open video meeting with you. Critically, communicate to your team that this is how you’ll handle small requests. As an individual contributor, try blocking your calendar for project work, setting time aside for responding to non-urgent requests, or using away settings on chat to batch work. 

Plan for spontaneity 

It might not be as fun as running into a coworker in the break room, but planned virtual watercooler moments can help energize a hybrid workforce by making time for problem solving and ideation across teams. At Clorox, Sacha’s team created “Spark Time,” an hour or so each week where colleagues could meet up virtually or in person to brainstorm and chat.


Building culture in a remote work environment

“Break apart culture building from camaraderie building,” Sacha clarifies of the difference between happy-hour type activities and those that give employees a deeper sense of purpose at work. It was easy for camaraderie and perks like free snacks to feel like culture when we were co-located in the office. “Now that we’re behind the virtual curtain, we realize how we need to be so intentional about reinforcing values and behaviors,” Sacha says. 

In a hybrid work environment, leaders should prioritize clarifying the values, attitudes, beliefs and behaviors shared by their team and company. Designing rituals that ladder up to these elements will guide how people work together toward a common goal and how they treat each other—something that will drive more happiness and motivation for employees than a virtual happy hour ever could. 

While Sacha was at Clorox, one of the corporate values was “work together to win.” Her virtual team brainstormed behaviors they wanted to encourage to ladder up to that value and landed on the theme of “we are teachers and we are students.” They reinforced this behavior by creating a “blackboard award” ritual, where the teammate that went above and beyond to teach others was recognized in a fun team moment. 

“Look at your recognition and camaraderie building activities and ensure they’re infused with intention to reinforce your values,” Sacha advises of building culture remotely. How does your company and team role model, recognize and reward based on your values?


Free resources to kickstart your transition to hybrid work

Whether you’re preparing to guide your team through the transition to hybrid work, or you’re thinking a Head of Hybrid role might be your ideal next career move, Sacha put together three free resources for the IDEO U community, downloadable at virtualworkinsider.com/ideou

  • 10 tips from 10 years of remote work
  • 20 minute mini-class “How to Create Valuable Virtual Client/Agency Relationships”
  • A resource guide that includes a self assessment on the 10 most important virtual leadership skills


Get more tips on facilitating collaborative work to unlock innovative ideas in our online course, Cultivating Creative Collaboration.

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