The three challenges of the hybrid work model and how to overcome them

As people are progressively vaccinated, companies have been starting to schedule the reopening of their headquarters to employees with the general intent to strengthen culture, improve business teamwork, and energize social connections.

However, a full return to offices is not possible, either by restriction to the number of persons in the same building to prevent the virus spread, people’s fear of contracting Covid, or the company's goal to maintain the productivity levels and dynamics achieved by the remote work model, among many other reasons. In this context, many industries are walking through the first steps in a new work model: hybrid. 

Hybrid is a flexible work model where cyclically, some employees continue working from home while others return to the workplace. This schema offers the best of both worlds to employees as they maintain the perks of remote work, like spending more family time, whilst recovering the advantages of sharing time in the office (and outside the office) with teammates. “67% of employees want more in-person work or collaboration post-pandemic”

But, adapting to hybrid work is not a piece of cake as there could be pitfalls, risks, and a bunch of questions to be answered. Where are the key strategic decisions being taken? How to handle the office-based vs remote culture? Should critical meetings be conducted hybrid or with all folks at the office? In this article, you will find some answers to these questions and insights to face the challenges and risks of the new hybrid model.

Challenge 1: To build and maintain a “Remote First” culture

Employees have been working remotely for more than a year, and the culture for companies and teams has had to adapt to the swift change from working on-site to doing it online. During lockdowns, people got used to waking up late, using the commuting time to do home duties, act as teachers of their children, and take care of their professional development. Nowadays, as companies offices reopen and employees combine a gradual return to offices and working from home, the work culture should be accommodated again. This new context may offer different experiences to employees that could result in unwanted dynamics if the transition to hybrid is not appropriately handled.

For example, if most of the critical meetings are held in the workplace, then the people could interpret that ‘the critical matters can be treated more effectively at the office’. This kind of assumption could forge communication barriers as the work of the employees in the office will be understood as more effective than the remote workers, leading to irregular levels of productivity and the feeling (or the fact) that remote teams are not integrated into the company.

Sid Sijbrandij, co-founder and CEO of GitLab, believes that the success of the remote workforce requires strong intentionality to question the company processes, and actions to adapt the work culture for implementing a “Remote-First” policy. Under this model, the onsite work should not be more valuable than the online, and the critical businesses decisions can be handled remotely as effective as face-to-face. Moreover, the companies that choose to go the hybrid model should prioritize remote work avoiding taking all the critical decisions in the office. The “remote-first” culture and policies are vital to avoid employee frustration due to situations where the “voice” of the employee in the office is considered above the remote one.

Sijbrandij goes even further, as his idea of “remote-first” led him to understand that GitLab, like many other companies, doesn’t need a building to accomplish its goals, and about 400 employees in 45 countries are working 100% remote. 

Challenge 2: Guarantee that communication in a hybrid model is as effective as in a face-to-face way

One of the Agile manifesto principles says “The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation”, alluding that physical proximity is vital. The agile mindset contended that as there is less proximity, the communication effectiveness decreases, and team members lose the clues that nonverbal language and closeness provide.

Alistair Cockburn, one of the Agile manifesto signers, declares that the most effective communication channel is face-to-face at a whiteboard, and this idea is being challenged by disruptive communication technology trends. Like many other authors, Cockburn supported physical proximity as a cornerstone of agile communication. He used the Media Richness Theory to contrast the effectiveness of the communication mode against the richness of the communication channel, arguing that physical and temporal proximity are key and allow opportunities like osmotic communication, the ability to identify contextual information transmission through overhearing discussions, noticing stuff that takes place around you.

Digital tools like Miro are in defiance of the Alistar Cockburn paradigm, arguing that digital work is more discoverable and researchable than physical whiteboards, sticky notes, and notebooks, creating a solid source of information. Miro provides collaborative spaces for democracy and equality among all team members, no matter if not all of them are in person. Achieving this requires collaborative devices, interactive displays, the software to connect everyone, and the most important factor: a strong culture. 

If all team members are working together in the same virtual space collaborating and sharing ideas, democracy and equality can be achieved. It’s unacceptable that in a meeting the people in the office sketch and ideate on a whiteboard and the remote workers can’t see this information, or that the meeting continues onsite when online participants are not connected anymore. Technology and collaborative tools are closing the gap between digital and physical work allowing equal participation for on-site and remote people, this is key to keep and even improve the effectiveness of face-to-face communication.  

Challenge 3: Pitfalls on hybrid meetings

On the hybrid model, the employees can be located in several places at the same time for the same meeting: physically at the company’s office, at the client location, and working from home, even from different cities or countries. The meetings in this context are not a straightforward matter, and adequate planning should be performed to handle these situations.

Let’s imagine this scenario to run a hybrid work session. You and part of your team are physically in the conference room in Bogotá, another part of the team is in the client’s conference room in New York, and some other folks from both teams are connected remotely (part of them could be even at different time zones). There are several ways in which this kind of meeting can go wrong: internet issues, problems with the video and audio devices in the conference rooms, background noises, failure in the applications, and collaborative software. These problems could smash your agenda and the expected value of the session.

Collaborative and conferencing tools like Miro and Zoom provide the ecosystem to run hybrid sessions and achieve a full collaboration when not all team members are at the same location. What else is required apart from devices, displays, software, and strong culture? A few items to be considered are:

  • Think critically about the reasons to schedule meetings. Not all topics require a session and managing calendars and preparing effective meetings is difficult and time-consuming.
  • Asking for feedback on the meeting format, and being open to change it. 
  • The facilitator role is key and techniques like liberating structures should be used. Nevertheless, each session is different and the dynamics should be constantly renewed.
  • Planning the work across time zones. Documentation should allow the off-line collaboration, preventing back-to-back meetings.
  • Always record the meeting and send the recording to those stakeholders that couldn’t attend due to time zone difference. 

Virtualization of in-person whiteboards and interactive displays is part of hybrid work’s future and is a must look into immersive shared spaces like Igloo Vision.

Hybrid work is a reality and there are dozens of risks not mentioned in this article, or still not identified or only applicable for a specific organization. Regardless of the specific context of each company, there are three general components to prepare and adapt during the early stages of this new model to work

  • Implement in your company tools and applications like Miro and exploit its functionalities to work collaboratively online.
  • Keeping people engaged in meetings by managing the digital overload, and ensuring that all voices are equally heard and considered. 
  • A “remote first” policy is key. Each leader, team, and company should discover the particular approach to achieve democracy and equality in the hybrid model.

The hybrid work model requires a strong intention to apply changes in your company’s work culture and to adopt collaborative technologies to guarantee equality among employees, a satisfying work experience, and a high level of creativity and effectiveness. The specific actions to adapt this model are dependent on each organization’s dynamics. However, combining the benefits of remote work with the opportunity to meet in person could offer a powerful scenario to face professional challenges, focused on maximizing productivity and encouraging teamwork and participation.

About the author

Javier García is a Business Analyst who has been working with us for almost two years in digital product management and business definition.