As the pandemic begins to ease, many companies are planning a new combination of remote and on-site working, a hybrid virtual model in which some employees are on premises, while others work from home.
The new model promises greater access to talent, increased productivity for individuals and small teams, lower costs, more individual flexibility, and improved employee experiences.
While these potential benefits are substantial, history shows that mixing virtual and on-site working might be a lot harder than it looks—despite its success during the pandemic. Consider how Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer ended that company’s remote-working experiment in 2013, observing that the company needed to become “one Yahoo!” again, or how HP Inc. did the same that year. Specific reasons may have varied. But in each case, the downsides of remote working at scale came to outweigh the positives.
These downsides arise from the organizational norms that underpin culture and performance—ways of working, as well as standards of behavior and interaction—that help create a common culture, generate social cohesion, and build shared trust. To lose sight of them during a significant shift to virtual-working arrangements is to risk an erosion over the long term of the very trust, cohesion, and shared culture that often helps remote working and virtual collaboration to be effective in the short term.
It also risks letting two organizational cultures emerge, dominated by the in-person workers and managers who continue to benefit from the positive elements of co-location and in-person collaboration, while culture and social cohesion for the virtual workforce languish. When this occurs, remote workers can soon feel isolated, disenfranchised, and unhappy, the victims of unintentional behavior in an organization that failed to build a coherent model of, and capabilities for, virtual and in-person work. The sense of belonging, common purpose, and shared identity that inspires all of us to do our best work gets lost. Organizational performance deteriorates accordingly.
Now is the time, as you reimagine the postpandemic organization, to pay careful attention to the effect of your choices on organizational norms and culture. Focus on the ties that bind your people together. Pay heed to core aspects of your own leadership and that of your broader group of leaders and managers. Your opportunity is to fashion the hybrid virtual model that best fits your company, and let it give birth to a new shared culture for all your employees that provides stability, social cohesion, identity, and belonging, whether your employees are working remotely, on premises, or in some combination of both.
Avoiding the pitfalls of remote working requires thinking carefully about leadership and management in a hybrid virtual world. Interactions between leaders and teams provide an essential locus for creating the social cohesion and the unified hybrid virtual culture that organizations need in the next normal.
Cutting the ties that bind
If you happen to believe that remote work is no threat to social ties, consider the experience of Skygear.io, a company that provides an open-source platform for app development. Several years ago, Skygear was looking to accommodate several new hires by shifting to a hybrid remote-work model for their 40-plus-person team. The company soon abandoned the idea. Team members who didn’t come to the office missed out on chances to strengthen their social ties through ad hoc team meals and discussions around interesting new tech launches. The wine and coffee tastings that built cohesion and trust had been lost. Similarly, GoNoodle employees found themselves at Zoom happy hour longing for the freshly remodeled offices they had left behind at lockdown. “We had this killer sound system,” one employee, an extrovert who yearns for time with her colleagues, told the New York Times. “You know—we’re drinking coffee, or maybe, ‘Hey, want to take a walk?’ I miss that.”1 Successful workplace cultures rely on these kinds of social interactions. That’s something Yahoo!’s Mayer recognized in 2013 when she said, “We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together,” having the “interactions and experiences that are only possible” face-to-face, such as “hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings.”2
Or consider how quickly two cultures emerged recently in one of the business units of a company we know. Within this business unit, one smaller group was widely distributed in Cape Town, Los Angeles, Mumbai, Paris, and other big cities. The larger group was concentrated in Chicago, with a shared office in the downtown area. When a new global leader arrived just prior to the pandemic, the leader based herself in Chicago and quickly bonded with the in-person group that worked alongside her in the office. As the pandemic began, but before everyone was sent home to work remotely, the new leader abruptly centralized operations into a crisis nerve center made up of everyone in the on-site group. The new arrangement persisted as remote working began. Meanwhile, the smaller group, which had already been remote working in other cities, quickly lost visibility into, and participation in, the new workflows and resources that had been centralized among the on-site group, even though that on-site group was now working virtually too. Newly created and highly sought-after assignments (which were part of the business unit’s crisis response) went to members of the formerly on-site group, while those in the distributed group found many of their areas of responsibility reduced or taken away entirely. Within a matter of months, key employees in the smaller, distributed group were unhappy and underperforming.
The new global leader, in her understandable rush to address the crisis, had failed to create a level playing field and instead (perhaps unintentionally) favored one set of employees over the other. For us, it was stunning to observe how quickly, in the right circumstances, everything could go wrong. Avoiding these pitfalls requires thinking carefully about leadership and management in a hybrid virtual world, and about how smaller teams respond to new arrangements for work. Interactions between leaders and teams provide an essential locus for creating the social cohesion and the unified hybrid virtual culture that organizations need in the next normal.
Choose your model
Addressing working norms, and their effect on culture and performance, requires making a basic decision: Which part of the hybrid virtual continuum (exhibit) is right for your organization? The decision rests on the factors for which you’re optimizing. Is it real-estate cost? Employee productivity? Access to talent? The employee experience? All of these are worthy goals, but in practice it can be difficult to optimize one without considering its effect on the others. Ultimately, you’re left with a difficult problem to solve—one with a number of simultaneous factors and that defies simple formulas.
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