Illustration by Rouba Shabou
As companies and organizations around the globe begin to open their offices, they are rethinking their working policies to give employees more flexibility, and hybrid is establishing itself as the preferred work model post-pandemic for many workplaces. A mixed style of team collaboration allows employees to work either remotely or in-house, and there are many different variations. Some companies have fully remote workers, some are always in an office, and some do a bit of both.
Adobe, too, has announced a permanent shift to a hybrid model. “We saw an opportunity and need to reimagine the employee experience and develop a future of work approach that leverages the best of in-person and virtual interactions to foster creativity, innovation, and culture,” wrote Gloria Chen, chief people officer and executive vice president, employee experience.
Implementing a digital-first approach, Chen says Adobe will put even more focus on digital tools and workflows, while employees can choose to work from home approximately half of the time, and be in the office for the rest. Meetings will be an intentional mix of physical and virtual, making in-person gatherings more purposeful and collaborative.
So how do you adopt the hybrid model in practice and effectively lead a team with both in-person and remote members? In this article, eight experts in facilitating hybrid workflows share the lessons they have learned.
Communication challenges for remote team members
Jim Kalbach, chief evangelist at MURAL, a digital workspace for visual collaboration, has been exploring how to make hybrid teamwork truly effective.
“Hybrid is not new,” he points out. “In fact, my research shows that before the pandemic it was the most common setting for workplace collaboration. The problem is we did it poorly: pointing webcams at whiteboards no one on the call could see, not pausing to let remote participants talk, or worse, forgetting to dial-in remote colleagues at the start of a meeting. We may be going back to the office, but we can’t go back to our old ways.“
Remote workers often struggle with difficult communication, especially when they’re in the minority and team leaders are located in a company office.
“The problem is we did it poorly: pointing webcams at whiteboards no one on the call could see, not pausing to let remote participants talk, or worse, forgetting to dial-in remote colleagues at the start of a meeting. We may be going back to the office, but we can’t go back to our old ways.“
“Pre-pandemic, before we had remote work figured out, people at the head office had direct access to the leadership team, and a lot of key communication was happening in ‘real life’,” recalls Carson Pierce, director of delivery and operations at design and development agency iamot. “Those working remotely often heard information second hand or after the fact. They ended up feeling like second class citizens and – rightfully – felt pretty dissatisfied with the company culture.”
Independent designer Elliot Jay Stocks, former creative director of Adobe Typekit (now Adobe Fonts), agrees and finds that there’s no way to avoid the fact that decisions get made by people when they’re in the same place. As the only remote worker on a management team, decisions had to be made regularly without him by other managers, who all worked around the same desk and in the same time zone.
“Those working remotely often heard information second hand or after the fact. They ended up feeling like second class citizens and – rightfully – felt pretty dissatisfied with the company culture.”
“It might seem obvious to look to the formal environments such as meeting rooms as the source,” he says. “But actually it’s the more informal settings – the discussions in the queue for lunch, the ad hoc coffee break, the drink after work – that present the biggest challenge for remote workers. Not being physically present in these environments usually means being left out of the conversation and therefore the decision-making process, even though that exclusion is rarely intentional.”
Enable social connections and spontaneous collaboration
Claudio Guglieri, group creative director at Huge, leads the experience design team of the digital agency’s west coast branch. For him, the biggest challenge is not coordinating the work, but maintaining and crafting exactly these spontaneous moments of serendipity and connection that can make a group of diverse individuals become a team.
“I like to think about all the non-purposeful chatter we have with our peers as the glue that keeps us connected,” he says. “With water cooler moments and hallway chatter gone, it’s easy to start losing that glue that makes us care for each other.”
“We are in the business of people. Connecting with them in the setting they perform the best is the only way to be successful.”
Over the last 10 years, Claudio has been working with distributed teams in the U.S., Sweden, France, Slovenia, Hong Kong, and Spain. He’s learned that the best way to collaborate with people remotely, regardless of where they are, is to put in the work to create those personal connections. This includes making sure that their working time overlaps for a few hours a day, prompting them to share in a group setting, helping them to do the work while chatting about the last show they saw on TV, what they did over the weekend or sharing that one song from the 90s that we all love to hate.
“Our business is not about crafting digital experiences or brand narratives,” Claudio stresses. “We are in the business of people. Connecting with them in the setting they perform the best is the only way to be successful.”
Put yourself in your remote team members’ shoes
Elliot Jay Stocks points out that it’s not fair to ask remote employees to be in the office more frequently, especially if this means navigating continents and timezones, and suggests getting in-office team members working from home, or simply elsewhere, more often. “Having a taste of what life is like as a remote worker – with all the freedoms, yes, but mainly all of the challenges – gives the entire team a healthier perspective, and goes some way towards avoiding decision-making around the proverbial water cooler.”
In his last role, as creative director for a London-based agency, Elliot managed the design team remotely from his home in Bristol and visited London, around two hours away, for one day roughly every two weeks.
“The bi-weekly visits helped keep our social culture strong, but the most important contributor to our hybrid workplace culture was that most of the team worked from home for at least half the week. Despite their physical closeness to the office, it didn’t really matter that the team were in London and I was in Bristol, as we all appreciated what it means to be remote. As a result, the entire team’s behavior was based on an understanding of how best to communicate and operate in both scenarios.”
“Having a taste of what life is like as a remote worker – with all the freedoms, yes, but mainly all of the challenges – gives the entire team a healthier perspective, and goes some way towards avoiding decision-making around the proverbial water cooler.”
Carson Pierce cautions that problems can arise if you have a culture of equality and fairness rather than equity. Most of his team – everyone who was hired before the pandemic – is centralized in one city where there’s an opportunity to make use of a shared office space.
“For many people who work in that city, it might be necessary,” he explains. “But then a few of the team – those hired during COVID – are remote and probably won’t ever see that space. ‘Fair’ would be to also provide these remote workers with access to an office space in each of their home cities, or at least some sort of remote working allowance to balance things out.”
In the case of Carson’s team, however, the reality is that the remote people don’t actually need, or want, a shared workspace. “It would be silly to hold back our centralized co-workers in an effort to find an equal solution for all. As long as we can develop and enforce a remote-first model where communication happens online at the same time for everyone, the ‘where’ people work is largely irrelevant.”
Use digital tools and run asynchronous activities
In order to get the hybrid work model right, Jim Kalbach suggests taking the best parts of digital-first collaboration that we learned during COVID-19 and adding them to our hybrid collaboration.
“In doing so, it’s critical to fight against the inherent imbalances for a more equal experience regardless of where people are located,” he advises. “The key is to plan each team interaction as if it will be with all remote participants using digital technology from start to finish. This may mean recalibrating your methods and logistics. Then in-person collaborators should expect to use digital tools to interact with the content and the group, putting everyone on more equal footing.”
UX designer, trainer, and director of consultancy Baguette UX Sophie Freiermuth acknowledges that hybrid remote/in-person is the most difficult format to get right.
“The in-person people will unconsciously be applying bias onto the remote people,” she cautions. “They will forget to include them in impromptu discussions and favor the in-person body cues over remote verbal cues in meetings – picking up on Jack’s subtle head nod over Sam’s sigh, for example.”
“It’s critical to fight against the inherent imbalances for a more equal experience regardless of where people are located…The key is to plan each team interaction as if it will be with all remote participants using digital technology from start to finish.”
To overcome this bias, Sophie suggests having a policy of one person per camera and mic, never multiple people in a meeting room with one camera and several remote workers dialling in. “It’s unfair from the get go, because we’re so wired to pick up on full body language and subtle voice chances that a mic or videoconference tool doesn’t always capture to avoid the sound being a constant cacophony.”
“To prevent remote workers from being marginalized, it’s key that everyone dials in individually,” adds Gary Lake, whose ecommerce agency GENE, specializing in Magento, has fully committed to a hybrid model since the pandemic. “It ensures everyone has a voice and avoids the forming of sub-groups or cliques.”
Sophie recommends always using digital tools. This means not working on a physical whiteboard and just putting it in front of a webcam. Use a proper digital smartboard that will render your pen drawings onto a web-based whiteboard interface that everyone can contribute to. While this isn’t perfect and can be expensive, it better supports hybrid teams and will improve over time.
“To prevent remote workers from being marginalized, it’s key that everyone dials in individually…It ensures everyone has a voice and avoids the forming of sub-groups or cliques.”
For GENE’s new workflow, online collaborative design and whiteboard tools have been pivotal, but it’s also important to avoid constant notifications and acknowledge (video) call fatigue. “Meetings used to be a screen break,” Gary points out, “but now they’re keeping us tethered to screens more than ever. We’ve encouraged the team to try and ‘walk and talk’ and to use speedy meetings – 25 or 50-minute meetings – where they can.”
Also, consider switching to more asynchronous activities to accommodate team members across multiple countries and timezones. “Don’t ask people to be brilliant at 2pm when they enter the room,” Sophie warns. “Let them drop in ideas, thoughts, and theories in their own time. Spread out your four-hour-workshop over a longer period like a week. It allows different ideas to emerge without the classic biases of the ‘HiPPo’ – the Highest Paid Person in the room – or the ‘seagull’ – those who barge into meetings late, throw something usually unfeasible or incomprehensible at the table without regard for any previous insights exchanged, and leave without helping to figure things out. This is also known as the ‘swoop and poop’!”
In contrast, asynchronous workshops help uncover creativity, original ideas, and insights from subject matter experts.
Rethink your workflows to scale hybrid creative work
According to Robb Wagner, experiential artist and founder of creative studio Stimulated-Inc, leading hybrid teams also requires seemingly counterintuitive mindset shifts. The process, which Robb has spent a decade honing and is now being shared in The Hybrid Creative Playbook, available from September, includes never assigning work to remote artists.
“Instead, I designed a system to divide our big deliverables into a detailed index of smaller digital assets that need to be created,” Robb explains. “Then our remote artists use this system to review briefs and tell us which assets they want to create. As a result, we get better work.”
Robb also created a workflow to automate assets, links, information and communication for the hybrid team, which increased productivity by eliminating repetitive tasks and project management, and makes sure his team vets remote artists on their ability to follow written instructions.
“It’s easy to admire shiny portfolios, but you’ll set yourself up for frustration,” Robb warns. “I learned this the hard way watching my in-house team suffer from dealing with remote artists’ incorrect work. The quality of written instruction is critical when working with remote artists because we have little contact with them.”
To make the workflow more efficient, Robb allocates additional time to developing briefs that answer every question a remote artist might have before they have to ask it. “Our in-house team bulletproofs remote briefs by taking turns poking holes into them until no holes can be found.”
Balance remote work with collaboration at optimized physical spaces
During COVID-19, companies have increasingly embraced hiring people from all over the world and experimented with new workflows. It’s all about giving team members more flexibility and letting them choose whether or not to work out of the office. Dropbox calls their model Virtual First: Remote work is the primary experience for all staff.
“We had reservations about hybrid models,” explains Alastair Simpson, VP of design at Dropbox. “They perpetuate two very different employee experiences that could result in issues with inclusion or inequities with respect to performance or career trajectory. This was a non-starter for us. We saw an opportunity with Virtual First to create and maintain a level-playing field for all our employees around the globe.”
However, Dropbox still believes that in-person engagement is incredibly important and therefore is reimagining its offices as “Studios”.
“We’ve spent the last several months optimizing the experience to better preserve the team collaboration and human connection critical to sparking creativity, building community, and maintaining company culture,” Alastair says. “Use of the Studios is reserved for meaningful moments of collaboration only, and it’s not intended for individual work.”
Dropbox acknowledges that this is a new frontier for all companies to navigate and does so with a transparent learning mindset. Employee surveys and feedback help iterate on the strategy as it evolves. “We want employees to feel like they have the freedom to work remotely and design their days,” Alastair points out, “but also provide a special and intentional place for that human connection that strict remote-only work can’t offer.”
One size doesn’t fit all – flexibility by default
The new freedom, and the lack of a rigid commute, means that people are falling into their natural rhythms more, which has a positive impact on productivity. GENE, for example, found that operating a core hours policy with flexibility on either side of the day to be a good compromise, allowing early and late starters to utilize the time when they are most productive.
“The situation has required us to be even more delegative as a leadership team,” Gary explains. “Across the business everyone is stepping up to be far more accountable for the work they do. Team members feel more engaged and trusted to do the work they’ve been given, and output quality and quantity is higher across the board.”
Every company and organization needs to figure out the practices that work best for them and their specific set up. Working with a hybrid team can be extremely rewarding, and over time it’ll get smoother. As Sophie Freiermuth points out, the hybrid model enables good management.
“It’s not about counting backsides on seats at every hour,” she points out. “Instead it forces us to identify what good work, good management, and good collaboration really look like.”