FUTURE OF WORK
Maybe not now.
The inevitable future of the hybrid workplace
AUGUST 6, 2021 | BRENDA VAN CAMP
The need to “preserve culture” is frequently mentioned as a critical reason for requiring people to return to the office following 18 months of remote work.
For example, Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JP Morgan Chase, said recently that remote work would “dramatically undermine” the character and culture a company is attempting to build. Others, such as Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, have said remote working is a “pure negative” because it gets in the way of innovation.
While we have great respect for these industry leaders, we can’t help but feel that their statements reveal a resistance to change; a resistance which, at its core, is likely driven by concerns over their ability to achieve business outcomes. They know how to get stuff done in the old model and are, understandably, eager to get back to it. They insist on the view that remote work was just a necessary response to a 100-year pandemic. A mere aberration.
But in doing so, they increasingly sound like the people who wanted to hold on to their horse and buggy and decried the dangers of the early automobile while ignoring the apparent promise of its many advantages.
We’re not saying that some aspects of work don’t require in-person collaboration. Simply that as workplace technologies have continued to improve, more can be accomplished remotely. And adding to these changing tides, the pandemic has fundamentally changed employees’ beliefs and expectations in how work gets done and moreover, how it fits into their broader life.
And while for now, many organizations believe they have the power to dictate where, when and how work gets done, we think that eventually, remote work will inevitably become a significant part of the way work gets done. The hybrid workplace is already here. We just have to figure out a few adjustments before it’s ready to go mainstream.
Of course, there will be discomfort, glitches, and even melancholy for things lost. But in the end, when the early adopters like Twitter and HubSpot have ironed out the wrinkles, the advantages they and their employees reap will far outweigh the negatives.
So, in today’s post, we want to start a conversation with those of you who are willing to embrace this massive rethink.
- First, we’ll clarify that culture isn’t dependent on the four walls of a physical office.
- Next, we’ll remind ourselves how culture is created and what this means for managers and leaders in a hybrid workplace.
- And lastly, we’ll touch on some of the key challenges that hybrid models pose and that need to be resolved to make the hybrid workplace a viable option.
Culture doesn’t depend on the four walls of a physical office.
A company’s culture is certainly shaped by its environment. Our work surroundings influence our behavior. But our environment does not CREATE our culture – it can only reinforce it.
For example, workspaces can be carefully designed to encourage communication, and office tools can be provided to support ideation. But it doesn’t CREATE culture; it supports it.
So what then creates culture? And how might it be impacted in the hybrid workplace?
Well, culture is a slippery fish when it comes to definition. It exists. It exerts a massive force on how we operate and work together, but it feels like chasing a shadow when we try and grasp it.
Culture is the aggregated outcome of how people in an organization normally behave. It is driven by the behaviors people live and breathe every day. It’s a combination of how we get things done, how we relate to each other, what we expect, and what behaviors we consciously or subconsciously punish.
Edgar Schein, Professor Emeritus with MIT Sloan School of Management, is one of the foremost authorities on organizational culture. He used the following metaphor for how to think about culture:
“Culture operates at many levels, so I like to think of culture to be like a lily pond. On the surface, you’ve got leaves and flowers and things that are very visible. That’s the “how we do things around here.”
But the explanation of why we do things in that way, forces you to look at the stems and root system, what’s feeding it and the history of the pond, who planted what.”
And that root system is not the physical office, but a company’s managers and leaders:
A company’s culture starts with how managers and leaders show up each day – whether in person in the office, on a zoom call, in email, or on Slack or Teams. Company culture is created by what your managers and leaders do, decide, communicate, and even emote daily as they interact with their employees. They are the root system of your organization’s lily pond.
So clearly, whether or not those leaders or employees are in the office shouldn’t matter. Not quite. The physical office environment does make it easier for managers and leaders to lead by example. Their explicit and implicit behavior is more visible and observable to others in a physical office.
In the hybrid workplace, managers and leaders cannot rely on being visible. Instead, in a hybrid workplace, more is required from leaders to embody and emote the culture. There’s no room for poor communication and unintentional leadership or “management by osmosis.” Instead, leaders need to intentionally manage and reinforce the culture by making it an integral and intentional part of how they lead themself daily, how they connect and communicate with their people, how they set standards for performance and behavior, how they make decisions, etc.
A company’s culture, thus, isn’t dependent on the four walls of its office but on the weaknesses and strengths of its root system – its managers and leaders. And those are most definitely revealed when the crutch of the physical office environment is taken away.
Intentional leadership will make or break the hybrid workplace
So yes, a transition to a hybrid workplace will require an investment in proactively creating better leaders. There is no space for figure-it-out-as-you-go management and leadership. Instead, the hybrid workplace needs intentional leaders who are deliberate and purposeful in their actions. Because they know that everything they say, do or emote is interpreted by their employees as cues to inform their actions and behaviors.
And, more than ever, leaders will need to exponentially improve their interpersonal skills to enable them to “read the room” when the room is replaced by a screen or a Slack message or email chain. Soft skills were important before. Now they are vital.
No one said this is easy.
Having effective intentional leaders is key to developing a successful hybrid workplace. However, even the most deliberate and effective leaders have not done this before. Yes, even before the pandemic, many managers and leaders managed teams while located in different regions or countries. And they collaborated with peers and superiors in other regions, and time zones. Distributed teams aren’t new. We just haven’t ever attempted hybrid work at this scale.
While we are proponents of a hybrid workplace, we’re also realistic. There is much we haven’t figured out yet. To refer back to our earlier example of the introduction of the automobile at the turn of the 20th century, right now, the hybrid workplace isn’t “safe for the road” yet. But that doesn’t mean we cannot get there. We just have to be willing to let go of old mindsets and embrace experiments to find what works.
Key challenges to resolve
So let’s take a look at a few of the key challenges that hybrid workplaces pose:
- How will we proactively enable employees to learn from each other? How can we create a culture of helpfulness among distributed employees?
- How will we provide the connective tissue and social glue between distributed team members? How will we replace the idle banter that can lead to great ideas and connections? How will we create a sense of team and foster a deep sense of belonging?
- How will we effectively gather and share information across those working in the office and those working remotely?
- How will we determine when to meet in person and when remote?
- How will we effectively coordinate collaboration between people with asynchronous work schedules?
In the first 18 months of remote work, we did our best to figure some of this out. Initially, our calendars filled up with more meetings than ever, and our Slack feeds exploded. In doing so, we ran into our first bumps: Zoom fatigue, Slack hell, the never-ending workday, awkward online social hours, etc.
Rather than using these negative outcomes as a reason to declare the impossibility of an effective hybrid workplace, we suggest seeing them as learnings of what doesn’t work. It’s simply time to iterate, not to retreat — time to explore new approaches and tools. Yes, there will most likely be some kind of hockey stick effect as we explore new ways of working together. Still, when we figure this stuff out, we believe the advantages for both businesses and employees will outweigh the negatives.
Fostering a Culture of Belonging in the Hybrid Workplace, Harvard Business Review, August 2021
Culture in the hybrid workplace, by McKinsey & Company, June 11, 2021