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After more than a year of working from home, there’s finally a light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel. With vaccination rates rising, restrictions on in-person gatherings are easing up. And that means businesses that went fully remote back in March of 2020 are starting to bring employees back into the office.
But let’s face it — the pandemic has completely changed not only how people work, but general attitudes about where work gets done. This is all to say that the future of workplace collaboration is … mixed. That is, it will entail mixed circumstances such as hybrid organizations with both remote and in-person team members. And while mixed or hybrid collaboration is not new, the current situation presents new opportunities for hybrid teams.
To be frank, many companies weren’t all that great at hybrid collaboration to begin with. In fact, they sucked at it. On most teams, there was (and still is) an imbalance between in-person workers and remote ones, with remote employees feeling “left out” from everything from office perks to promotion opportunities. And often, the company did not do nearly enough to address this fundamental issue of mixed/hybrid work.
Truly effective hybrid teamwork requires much more than installing expensive tablets in every conference room or scheduling virtual team building activities. Instead, it involves a radical rethinking of your entire work environment, from the digital to the physical to the interpersonal.
So, let’s take this moment to apply what we’ve learned about hybrid collaboration both before and during the pandemic to meet its unique challenges. Below, we’ll discuss these issues, then share some recommendations for navigating them.
Let’s start with the hard part: The challenges of hybrid collaboration.
There's an important social component to how people come together in a physical setting (as the isolation of the pandemic made abundantly clear). Working together in the same space fosters connections between colleagues and builds a strong company culture. Recently, we recently surveyed over 400 people on their experiences with remote collaboration. Their biggest frustrations? Missing social connection with colleagues, lack of spontaneity, difficult communication, and struggles with creativity (among others).
In many hybrid environments (at least pre-pandemic), the “core” employee group works together in the same place. Remote workers, on the other hand, make up a smaller cohort. To make matters more uneven, leadership is usually part of the office group.
This “we’re here, you’re there” mindset creates a number of negative downstream effects. One is an “unintended hierarchy” with on-site workers at the top and their remote colleagues at the bottom. Members of the C-suite run into in-person employees in the hall and see them in meetings, leading to promotions and high-visibility work. At the same time, remote workers can be seen as less reliable, capable, and willing to lead. They also experience reduced access to resources, from in-office snacks to mentorship opportunities.
It’s time to finally level — or even flip — the playing field. How this all shakes out post-pandemic is really anybody’s guess. However, one possibility is a complete reversal of the traditional here-there mentality, with remote being “here’ and the office being “there.” Another is the widespread adoption of work-from-anywhere (WFA) policies. In that case, everyone is a potential remote worker, so location becomes completely irrelevant. No more here, no more there — only collaboration.
Hallway conversations pre- and post-meeting chats happen naturally when in person. It’s not uncommon for people going in and out of meeting rooms to talk about the topic at hand. Sometimes, decisions are even made during those unofficial conversations. In those cases, remote coworkers get left in the dark.
They also miss out on elements of spontaneous collaboration and social connection. We can all relate to losing these “water cooler moments” during the pandemic. For long-term remote workers, this will be a continuous issue that requires creative solutions (a virtual water cooler, for instance).
We’re all familiar with Zoom calls stalling and Wifi connections going out. Also, just about everyone has been forced to use a tool that didn’t really meet their needs. Technical issues on both the hardware and software sides are a major challenge for hybrid teams.
“Can you all hear me? No? Let me try to reconnect.” How many times have you heard that over the past year? During hybrid meetings, there will most likely be an imbalance in audio signal. For folks co-located in the room, distance from the mic may make their voices louder or softer. People who are remote may also be using different mics and devices. The net effect is an unequal audio signal for participants, leading to comprehension and audibility issues.
Think about your team’s tech stack. How many tools do you have at your disposal? We’re guessing the number is pretty high. How many of those do you use every day? That one is probably a lot lower. And which of those do you actually like?
Some tools might be more valuable for in-person teams, while remote workers may struggle to use them. Also, each group may use a tool differently. As a result, some key pieces of information might live in one place, and others might be somewhere else. Plus, the way in which people can contribute in words or images will differ across the group types. In-person teams can use whiteboards, while remote workers might use a tool like MURAL. And the two sources may not ever meet.
Working as a team is hard enough when everyone is in the same room. Add in different time zones, spotty Wifi, and poor audio, and you’ve got a real challenge on your hands. To make collaboration as seamless as possible, you’ll need to manage the unique dynamics of hybrid workspaces.
The aim of hybrid meetings is to encourage equal participation between remote and co-located attendees. Otherwise, it could lead to in-person dominated conversations and decision-making.
However, conversing and taking turns is much easier when face-to-face. The pace of an in-person conversation can easily overtake the rate at which remote teammates are able to contribute. This might have real consequences on leadership and even promotions.
What’s more, differences in communication patterns may be exaggerated with hybrid collaboration. For instance, extroverted individuals tend to interrupt more frequently than introverted ones.
For remote participants, there may even be a heightened gender bias in the conversation. An introverted woman dialed into a room full of extroverted men may not get a chance to speak. To address this, include intentionally designed activities in your meetings to ensure balanced communication and equal participation.
Keep in mind, however, that one size won’t fit all when it comes to hybrid collaboration. Different teams will probably have different needs. And if your workplace is more fluid, allowing employees to move from home to the office and vice-versa, be ready to shift your meeting habits as required.
During hybrid collaboration sessions, the team needs to deal with two sets of instructions: one for the in-person group and one for the online team. Getting each of the group types to move into breakouts, for instance, requires different coordination and timing. It will take a lot longer for an in-person team to physically move to another location than for the online team to change Zoom rooms. Same in reverse: in-person teams often take longer to reassemble after breakout sessions. Hybrid teams need to anticipate these variations and plan meetings accordingly.
Note that for facilitators, the logistics of a meeting or workshop will be more complicated. You’ll have to direct in-person with a different set of instructions than the remote team.
Okay, we did just list a lot of challenges. But all hope is not lost! While hybrid collaboration comes with its own quirks and struggles, your team can mitigate or even avoid their negative effects. We’ve got some advice on how:
Before every hybrid meeting or collaboration session, come up with a set of goals and a detailed agenda. In other words, get started before you get started in order to make the most of the team’s time together. And keep the momentum going afterward. A digital collaboration tool like MURAL is extremely helpful for this. How many times have you ended a great meeting only to forget your action plan? Keep it all in one digital resource for easy access and quick updates.
The goal here is to engage both in-person and remote attendees. Structure the sessions to have a mix of individual contributions and read-outs with group discussions. Collaboration activities that don’t give everyone a chance to contribute individually and favor open discussion will naturally exclude people in hybrid contexts.
It’s difficult for one person to facilitate both the in-person and remote cohorts, so we recommend having two co-facilitators (one for each group). You also might want to have two scribes, two time keepers, and two of any other roles you need for the session.
So, yes — the technology and tools you use are important. But without the right methods, and more importantly the right collaboration that goes with them, no amount of hardware or software will solve your challenges. Make getting ready for hybrid collaboration a people problem first.
Successful hybrid teams adopt a “digital first” mindset. The default motion should be to have information — input, ideas, decisions, etc. — start out in a digital format. Decisions made around the coffee maker, while leaving an in-office whiteboard session, at the after-work happy hour, etc. don’t count. Your decisions are only as good as the people you include, and if your remote teammates are missing out, you’re losing valuable input. That’s why digital discipline is so important. Your team needs to bake “digital first” into everything it does.