Watch: How to get the most out of a hybrid work environment

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In a recent Limeade Institute poll of 4,500 working adults in five countries, a full 100% of survey respondents who worked in an office pre-pandemic said they were anxious about returning to the workplace.

That’s a jarring statistic, and it adds to the weight of the decisions many companies are making right now about when, how, or if they will bring employees back to the office.

On June 10, 2021, Quartz brought together a panel of HR and employee experience executives for a workshop on how to get the most out of hybrid work structures. The event, sponsored by Asana as part of our Quartz at Work (from home) workshop series, can be watched in full on the video replay above (just click on the large image at the top of this article). Below are highlights from the session, with tips for people designing, managing, or taking part in hybrid teams.

Ask employees what they want—but only if you’re willing to be responsive

In the survey from Limeade, a workplace software maker, potential exposure to Covid-19 was the top cause for employee anxiety about returning to the office. This was closely followed by worries about losing flexibility and needing to commute again. Lindsay Lagreid, a senior advisor to the Limeade Institute, says the latter two anxieties are indicative of “a deep concern around the loss of autonomy” as people transition from fully remote work to office or hybrid schedules.

“I think a lot of people have recognized the sacrifices they have to make in order to function in the world of work the way they used to do things,” and they don’t want to go back to working that way, Lagreid said. But 56% of respondents said they were never asked by their employers about their preferences regarding when and where they work—which is potentially adding to their anxiety and perhaps their displeasure with the return-to-the-office plans that their companies ultimately announce.

The logical response is for companies to start polling their workers. But if you’re going to survey your staff, Lagreid says, “you need to be prepared to share with full transparency all of those results, and then justify why any choices that you’re making are misaligned with what they’re telling you.”

Think digital first, not remote first or office first or even hybrid first

At the beginning of the year, Paddle, a UK-based business-to-business software startup, looked like it was going to recall everyone back to the office five days a week—until the CEO had a change of heart. Now it’s offering flexibility to anyone who wants it.

“We’re trying to move away from labels right now; we like the idea of digital first, rather than being hybrid or remote teams or fully in the office,” says David Barker, Paddle’s chief people officer. “So however we operate, we want to operate in a digital way, meaning we capture things digitally and we’re able to circulate [information] asynchronously.”

Figuring this out will have benefits that far outlast the early stages of the hybrid model. “Even if you take the pandemic away, opening up new offices in different geographical locations still drives [the need to answer questions like] how does a manager work when you’ve got a remote team in a different location—so the challenges would still always be there.”

Streamline all those apps, please

Technology made it possible for remote teams to stay connected and get work done over the past year, and our reliance on it is unlikely to change in a hybrid environment. But there’s a downside to all this tech. Asana’s 2021 Anatomy of Work report found that American workers last year switched between 13 different apps an average of 30 times per day.

“I think especially during the pandemic, for companies that weren’t used to having any remote workers or collaborating asynchronously, they tried to app their way out of the challenges by just throwing a bunch of tools at the problem, and that typically doesn’t work,” says Joshua Zerkel, head of global engagement marketing at Asana.

“There are ways out of this. This app sprawl typically happens when there aren’t clear guidelines set for what each tool is supposed to do and how it fits in with your workflow and intersects with other tools,” he says. “The solution is to choose specific tools that solve specific problems and communicate that with the team.”

Zerkel, who also was one of the world’s first Certified Professional Organizers, observes that teams typically need three categories of tools: for communication, collaboration, and coordination. You might have multiple apps for each (for example Slack and Zoom, or email and Microsoft Teams). Just make sure everyone knows which technology is expected to be used for which kinds of conversations.

Hybrid-proof your meeting times

In managing a global team that stretches from Sydney to San Francisco to Dublin, Zerkel has reached several conclusions about large team meetings.

  1. Have as few of them as possible. He holds one per week, in addition to his individual one-on-ones with direct reports.
  2. Alternate the start times. Zerkel, who is based in San Francisco, switches up meetings to be convenient one week for US mornings and Europe’s afternoons, and the next week for daytime in Sydney and Tokyo. This means only half the team is live at the meeting each week, which makes the next tip especially important.
  3. Meetings should be recorded for anyone who misses them, and those who can’t attend will usually share videos in advance to provide their updates to the group. “It’s just a lot faster than typing a book-length status update,” Zerkel says.

Stop worrying so much about what a hybrid environment is going to do to your culture

Cynthia Burks, chief people and culture officer at the biotech company Genentech, was witness to much debate over how much flexibility would be afforded to employees whose jobs didn’t need to be tied to specific workplaces, like the company’s labs or manufacturing facilities. The culture question “came up early on,” she says, with senior leaders wondering, “If people aren’t all on campus, are we going to be able to maintain the culture?”

Their fears, however, were overblown.

Between the Genentech employees who have always worked in the field and those who were working remotely through the pandemic, “the reality is we already had people who weren’t in physical proximity, and the culture is still very much alive,” Burks says. “Physical space, physical proximity—absolutely [they] can help reinforce elements of your culture. But culture is the mission, it’s your values, it’s about strong leadership. This opportunity that we have now really is pushing on leaders to show up differently, because they really need to be the stewards and cultivators of culture that doesn’t sit within the physical space.”