Three ingredients to make hybrid working a success: planning, communication and trust

Originally published in the Globe & Mail July 8, 2022

Is your team working in a hybrid model, where some time is spent in the office and some time is spent remote, and you don’t know where to go from here? Whether your organization is leaving the schedule up to individual preference or mandating fixed days in the office, leaders and employees want guidance on how to be successful in this new way of working.

There are differing views on how many days are optimal in the office versus remote. Stanford professor Nick Bloom published research indicating that the percentage of days worked from home is converging at 30 per cent, and that the large majority of employees are complying with their employer’s planned working arrangements. However, mandating a fixed number or specific days in the office risks employee disengagement and frustration if they come to the office only to sit on video meetings all day.

Another way to think about it is which activities are best suited in-office versus remote. And “activities” are not confined to tactical work tasks, they also include less-tangible ones like apprenticeship, relationship building and serendipitous collisions. Here are some steps that guide how I approach hybrid working, both now as an entrepreneur and in my prior role as a leader at an organization that migrated to hybrid working in 2010:

1. Plan in-office and WFH days: I scan my calendar each Friday for 2-4 weeks out and look for patterns – do I have certain days that are heavy on collaboration / social / sensitive meetings that would be better suited in-person? Depending on how many, I try to cluster them on one to three days. I then ask myself whether there are meetings or activities that are better suited remote (for example, meetings with people from other offices / time zones, prep time or writing time)? I try to move these to another day.

2. Optimize in-office days: When I am in the office, I choose a visible space and encourage open-floor dialogue to maximize face-to-face time. I schedule one-on-one meetings with colleagues I want to catch up with in person, and periodically full team meetings or events so that I have an anchor or pull to the office for the entire team. I always communicate “why” I think we should all be in the office for a particular activity or day. Note – the cadence of full-team in-person days largely depends on the type of work we do.

3. Communicate with my team(s) and / or clients – People are not mind readers – don’t assume that because you think a meeting or activity should be in person, everyone else does. I also clearly indicate where I am each day in my calendar and messaging apps. For example, if I am a part of multiple / cross-functional teams, and all have regular in-person meetings on different days, I rotate and communicate my in-person attendance, depending on my role in the meeting (observer, presenter, decision maker).

A few additional considerations:

1. Assume positive intent and trust your team (and your leader): Regardless of how prescriptive your organization’s hybrid model is (from “everyone makes their own decisions” to “everyone in the office Mondays and Thursdays”), most people don’t want to be rule enforcers: trust is the foundational element for success. However, it is also fair to assume that not everyone (particularly more junior team members or newly formed teams) have enough of a sense of what they’re missing in terms of in-office nuance. You may need to be more prescriptive at first (and provide the “why”), while you are building new team habits.

2. Be clear about exceptions: Life happens. As always, there will be exceptions to established organizational and team norms – it’s important to acknowledge this and, at an organization-wide and team-level, make the exception process simple and clear.

3. As a meeting owner, set clear expectations: If you are scheduling an in-person meeting, be clear (in the subject heading or otherwise) that this is the expectation. For example, don’t include a Teams / Zoom link in the invite. This will put the onus on the attendees to ask for an exception by requesting a link if they can’t make it in person. Also, give people as much advanced notice as possible for in-person meetings so they can plan accordingly.

It is also important to use common sense. Especially in organizations that are less prescriptive, both as a leader and as an accountable team member, there is a reasonability check that needs to take place: “when was the last time I saw my leader / team member face-to-face?” While there is no one right answer, if the answer is “I don’t remember” or “seems like forever,” it may be good to schedule some coordinated face-to-face time, for general good team hygiene and human energy exchange. Everyone should feel empowered to suggest coordinated face-to-face time, not just team leaders.