Let’s admit it: the challenges that business leaders face in this new and ever-evolving hybrid era of work cannot be remedied with technology alone. While technology can help bridge gaps in new working models, we also need solutions beyond technology for the personal and cultural gaps in physical and virtual contexts to make collaboration more inclusive and human. The changes in dynamics of the new modern workplace go well beyond what wifi connectivity and videoconferencing can solve, with far-reaching effects on workers’ sense of value and belonging in a company.
These challenges—which are rooted not only in technology and logistics, but also culture—are problems that very few workplace leaders have been spared from over the past 18 months. Just before the onset of the pandemic in 2020, I joined Google to lead Google Workspace, our communication and collaboration platform. Although we’ve been at home more than we’ve been in the office, and I’m working with many people who have only known me online, the connection we’ve built together makes our two-dimensional relationship feel like we’ve collaborated in person for years. To make it easier to bring everyone to the same place, we’ve done things like add the ability to join a Meet call directly from a Google Doc. We’re all working across different channels, so enabling better collaboration between different solutions has been a real game changer for my team, and hopefully for others too.
Establishing human connection is critical for any team to achieve a great outcome together. This challenge of preserving close working relationships across a hybrid workforce is affecting more than just teams’ capacity to collaborate; it’s affecting employees’ sense of belonging. That said, despite the limitations of working remotely, this hybrid era of work, or more specifically the blending of physical and remote work environments, is here to stay—in a January, 2021 study by PwC, 83% of employers said the shift to remote work has been successful for their company, and 74% of companies intend to shift some employees to remote permanently.
Many complexities come with hybrid work, including security, compensation, collaboration, and culture. Business leaders need to tackle all of these, but my advice is to keep collaboration equity as your company’s north star. When I say collaboration equity, I mean the ability for employees to contribute equally in the workplace regardless of location, role, language, experience level, or device. This level of equity requires an organization’s culture to not only accommodate, but advocate for different working styles and preferences. Without fostering this sense of equity among employees, business leaders risk losing engagement and a sense of belonging in their workplaces—whether work happens in a conference room, a factory floor, or a living room.
Collaboration equity isn’t solely a shift in your technology strategy. It also calls for a shift in culture and mindset. Through our work with customers over the last 18 months, three “hybrid truths” have crystallized that have shaped our views on the future of work, and in turn, we’ve developed best practices to help business leaders navigate hybrid work more effectively.
Human connection is more important than ever, but achieving this in the hybrid workplace requires the adoption of new norms.
When it comes to providing equitable experiences for your employees in a hybrid setup, re-thinking how to approach virtual meetings is an important place to start. Leaders must take into account how software, devices, and cultural norms can all work together to make meetings more equitable and productive.
One way to think about this is: how are you set up to ensure everyone has an equal presence in a meeting, regardless of the location they’re joining from and device they’re using?
For example, when hosting a meeting where some attendees are in a conference room with one another, while others are joining from video, those in the room together will naturally have an advantage due to their proximity. They’re less likely to be interrupted, and have the opportunity for side conversations before or after the meeting, creating inequalities for those not in the room. This can also add to remote workers’ fear of proximity bias in a hybrid work environment.
To level the “meeting field” and avoid feelings of proximity bias, consider making it the norm to have every attendee join from their own device, even for those in the office together. This way, everyone can participate equally—on screen or by voice. Another option is to use a secondary device in addition to the larger conference room screen so all participants are able to engage equally in activities like voting on a poll or answering a question in Q&A.
Making this common practice in an organization also reaffirms leaders’ support for those working remotely, and it helps circumvent feelings of favoritism for those in the office.
Flexibility is the key to managing time and attention.
Over the last 18 months, one of the many things I’ve learned is that time and attention are finite, and both require flexibility to manage.
I encourage leaders to embrace a “social contract” that emphasizes flexibility, acknowledging employees’ unique working situations, whether they involve working from a different time zone, simultaneously serving as a caregiver, or any other complications. Hybrid workplaces can create—and respond to—the need for working hours outside the typical 9 to 5 day, and they call for clear, empathetic, and productive asynchronous communication, in addition to video meetings.
At Google, we’ve developed a few ways to enable a “flexibility first” culture. We record important meetings and share the recordings with those who were not able to attend, ensuring they don’t miss valuable context that can be overlooked in meeting notes. And if there is an important exchange in a chat room during a time a colleague wasn’t able to weigh in, sometimes we’ll share the exchange via Spaces or move the conversation to an email thread, to ensure all team members have a voice.
We also use our calendars to communicate working hours, locations, and time blocks across teams. For example, creating “focus time” blocks on our calendars, or holding time for a personal matter like breakfast with family or friends, or just taking a walk to reset.
To enact a “social contract” that makes these practices commonplace, leaders must lead by example and embrace these as norms first. By setting a precedent throughout the organization, these contracts will become core to your organization’s culture.
Work is no longer defined by a physical space; company security shouldn’t be defined by physical barriers either.
For years, many people assumed that workplace flexibility has a negative impact on security, and that the physical barriers of the office protected organizations against bad actors. However, looking at recent headlines from attacks such as Colonial Pipeline to Solarwinds to Hafnium reveal this is no longer true—each of these incidents relied on companies using on-premises collaboration infrastructure.
As businesses design their IT infrastructure for the hybrid workplace, modern cloud-based productivity tools are critical to protecting against ransomware, malware, phishing, and other forms of attacks, while also allowing for workplace flexibility. The challenge now for leaders is to ensure employees aren’t relying on old ways of working, such as using applications installed on local devices and emailing files back and forth to collaborate.
This is another example of the culture shift that must occur within organizations starting at the top.
It’s important for everyone at all levels—from leaders to employees to external partners—to build connections with their teams, and ensure everyone can participate fully no matter where or how they prefer to work. By establishing a mindset and culture that promotes equitable collaboration between those working in the same place and those who are remote, your teams can stay well connected and achieve more together.