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The Future of Work is Multimodal

Written by 
Jim Kalbach
August 22, 2022

It wasn’t long after the pandemic forced a majority of people to work from home that companies began pushing hard to get people back to the office. As early as Fall 2020, I was getting a lot of requests to help teams with “hybrid collaboration” — a mix of in-person and remote people meeting at the same. Back then, the assumption was people would start returning to the office by the end of that year.

The requests were valid: getting hybrid right is hard. The trick is connecting disparate teams in an equitable way. When some people are “here” and others are “there,” breakdowns in collaboration can grind teamwork to a halt.

But despite all these difficulties, people keep learning how to be effective working and collaborating from anywhere. And with this comes a growing desire for work flexibility.  Now, it’s no surprise that so many are challenging “presence requirements” (e.g., the employee backlash at Apple). In fact, some peoples now question what the office is even for at all.

Of course, distributed work hasn’t been all roses and no thorns. For example, “Zoom fatigue” is a real challenge. Too many meetings is another problem.

So while people didn’t necessarily want to go back to the office, they also didn’t want to be on calls all day long (quite literally in many cases), staring at a grid of their coworkers.

As a result, “async collaboration” emerged as a hot topic. It might sound contradictory, but one of the key factors in effective hybrid collaboration is increasing the amount of asynchronous collaboration. If you can get work done while apart, it minimizes the frequency and length of having to work synchronously — hybrid or otherwise.  

Stepping back further, a bigger picture about how work happens begins to emerge. How work gets done isn’t just hybrid or just async. It’s multimodal. Any given employee may move from collaboration that is all-remote to in-person to async to mixed meetings in a single day. Fluency in different modes of collaboration becomes imperative as the nature of work changes.  

A simple way to think about modes of collaboration is along two dimensions. On the one hand, there is time — synchronous or asynchronous collaboration. On the other hand, there is location — remote or in-person.

If we take these dimensions and put them on a graph, four modes of working arise. A fifth mode — mixed meetings — is also present as a simultaneous blend of modes, with part of a team working synchronously in-person while others are remote. Each has its strengths and weaknesses, as well as unique challenges to overcome.

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1. In-person synchronous

In-person synchronous interaction is regarded as the gold standard for collaboration. Agile practices, for instance, have idealized in-person meetings. The Agile manifesto even states: “The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.”

Part of the attraction to in-person interaction is the richness of non-verbal communication. Facial expressions, body language, and other gestures add to our understanding. And there’s also the more spontaneous touchpoints with colleagues with in-person synchronous collaboration, e.g., walking in and out of the meeting room together, casual side conversations, etc.

But in-person synchronous is also time-consuming. Travel may be involved, and set-up and break-down may take thought and planning. By its nature, in-person synchronous collaboration is less inclusive, as well: only people who are physically present can attend.  

Overall, in-person synchronous communication is good for:

  • Building rapport and getting to know colleagues
  • Solving complex creative problems with no clear beginning or end
  • Manipulating physical objects as a team, e.g., lab work
  • Interacting face-to-face with customers or patrons, e.g., retail, customer service

2. Remote synchronous

Remote collaboration is not new. Jack Nilles coined the terms "telecommuting" and "telework" in 1973. And prior to that, Doug Engelbart gave his famous “mother of all demos” of a remote collaboration system back in 1968. Since then there has been a steady incline in the number of workers.

But the pandemic really changed things, and for many people remote synchronous is now the new norm. Increasingly, remote synchronous collaboration is good for many collaboration tasks:

  • Building personal connections over time
  • Including a broad group with diverse perspectives
  • Holding general discussions and problem-solving
  • Unblocking team members
  • Quickly clarifying ambiguous situations

3. Remote asynchronous

Often, remote asynchronous collaboration is used to prepare for synchronous work — either remote or in-person synchronous work. For example, a presentation can be shared in advance of a meeting with all attendees so that everyone has time to prepare questions and discussion points.

In theory, pre-work helps you get started before you get started. But not everyone on the team will complete asynchronous work. Establishing a culture of pre-work is imperative: make coming prepared a team habit.  

But remote async collaboration can be extended beyond just prep to accomplish tasks together. Completely async brainstorming sessions are imaginable, and so too is creating shared documents and materials together without ever having to meet in real-time.

Think about how to leverage async more to gain these benefits:

  • Doing deep work and solving tough challenges individually
  • Sharing information that doesn’t require discussion
  • Working across timezones
  • Including a wider range of input and perspectives on work

4. In-person asynchronous

This is a rarer mode of working, but it does exist. Typically, it entails hanging a poster or worksheet in an office space and asking people to contribute to it.  

For instance, I once ran an in-person asynchronous exercise where we asked the group to complete the sailboat boat exercise on a poster. The anonymous results showed a lack of alignment on the project, to the surprise of leadership. We were able to the correct course based on the feedback.

In another example, my colleague Laila once held a multi-day team offsite. Each day, team members indicated their general mood on a large poster. By the end of the event, they could see patterns over time, allowing them to reflect on their overall team dynamics.

In-person asynchronous is good for:

  • Gathering anonymous feedback
  • Providing visibility into shared information
  • Solving simple problems together openly
  • Reflecting on a common challenge

5. Mixed meetings

A fifth mode emerges in this model: mixed meetings, also referred to as hybrid meetings. In this mode, a core group works together in the same place while other participants join simultaneously from remote locations.

The challenge here is that the in-person group tends to dominate. They are “here,” and the remote team members are “there,” leading to unequal participation. As a result, remote participants become second-class citizens as the in-person group out-paces them in the conversation.

Overall, mixed meeting will likely continue having a place in our collaboration design strategies, and there are many benefits:

  • Including a diverse set of perspectives in the conversation
  • Saving money and time on travel
  • Moving quickly to solve problems together
  • Keeping creative momentum going

Workplace flexibility is the name of the game

Workplace flexibility is here to stay for the foreseeable future. Rarely will everyone be in the same location at the same time. Instead, we’ll move in and out of different modes in an ongoing way. Being fluid in all modes is essential for teamwork.

A key to becoming more fluid is to think and work digital-first: start and end collaboration in completely digital formats, even when in-person. It’s the only way to give you and your team the flexibility they will need to move between different modes of working. But it’s also a mindset shift, one that embraces new ways of working and shows empathy for collaborators who are also moving between modes.

About the author

About the authors

Jim Kalbach

Chief Evangelist
Jim Kalbach is a noted author, speaker, and instructor in customer experience, experience design, digital transformation, and strategy.