Hybrid Part 1: Improving Remote Work

Hybrid lets remote & the office collide. When each working mode has its advantages and disadvantages, how do you make sure you only get the good stuff? Thoughts on improving remote in hybrid orgs.

This is the first post in a series covering the post-pandemic move to hybrid in many organizations. I’ll start with some thoughts on how to improve the remote part.

Cut down on meetings

Companies that go hybrid/remote seem to spend more time in meetings than before. Whenever unexpected questions arise, someone schedules a meeting. After all, that new item in everyone’s calendar gives you the instant gratification of no longer having the problem on your plate and knowing it won’t be forgotten. Setting up a video conference call requires much less energy and preparation because you don’t need to reserve a room and get your colleagues to commit to physically making their way to it.

Video conferences do not give either parties time to think. If people think, they end up with awkward, unproductive pauses. If not, quality is being sacrificed. In long and complicated discussions, whoever does the most thinking and the least talking falls behind. People find it harder to consider counter arguments. This alone can result in the wrong decisions being made.

Face to face communication may be great for small talk, chit chat and rumors. But for communication backed by actual thought, it has its disadvantages. Some hybrid organizations end up in a toxic cycle of back-to-back video conferences which only serves to bring people up to speed. If your personal calendar sports multiple repeat conference calls with dozens or even hundreds of attendees, you’re clearly doing it wrong. Companies which rely heavily on video conferencing end up with an inefficient environment.

If video conferencing is the go-to method for transferring information in a scaled environment, there are additional challenges regarding effectiveness. Telling the difference between matters of fact and matters of opinion may become quite difficult for some. People might have to share information they don’t fully understand. They might be asked to explain decisions for which they don’t know all the facts, because someone else has done the reasoning. They might have to repeat these facts to someone who believes in something different, which may even be demonstrably false. Very, very awkward! Also, people might be “taken hostage”, attending only because they fear missing something important. All of this can be remarkably frustrating.

How to improve video conferences

The best way to cut down on time spent in video conferences is to schedule more of them. Instead of discussing something via a large video conference call with a group of colleagues, try scheduling short calls individually to get their buy-in one-by-one. Instead of having one large video conference with five coworkers, where everyone technically gets 10 minutes of airtime, you schedule six one-on-one video calls, each lasting only 10 minutes. Each individual’s airtime stays the same (10 minutes), but the total amount of minutes needed to reach a conclusion drops significantly: From 420 minutes down to just 120 (60 minutes of your time and 60 minutes of theirs). That might not work for all types of decisions, but even then scheduling individual conferences can help you identify the issues that need to be addressed earlier, thereby reducing the time needed in a large call.

Setting one-on-one video calls as the standard for decision making can also help clamp down on meetings in general, because it makes it more costly to initiate meetings with a lot of people than to attend one.

Support those who struggle

Some people think working remotely means they get to work in their own silo, and ignore most of what is going on within the rest of the team. This can lead to conflicts and a deterioration of trust. Even one-on-ones may become impersonal, and people may feel extremely uncomfortable. If you don’t want to lose team members who retract, you need to talk to them sooner than later. Start with an empathetic “Are you okay?”, and tell them you noticed the distance between them and the team. Let them know that switching off their camera during video conferences will seriously impact their visibility within the company, and thereby diminish their future career prospects. Ask them if they take enough breaks, if they work in a separate room, how their work setting is and if they would prefer to work in an external shared office to overcome feelings of loneliness. Some of these problems are easily addressed. For example, a simple collection of themed video backgrounds, or a short guide on how to use artificial backgrounds, can impact the general willingness to switch on the camera.

Communicating over text

Communicating through text should be the clearly preferred way in a remote environment. It feels a lot more respectful, considerate and inclusive. Written communication requires you to put yourself in the intended recipient’s shoes, and to adapt to their current perspective. It forces you to think through what you’re saying. It makes you consider if your words could be perceived as inflammatory. It forces you to assume that recipients don't know much about the topic, and makes you provide the right amount of context, so they can get up to speed as fast as possible.

A lot of people struggle with applying soft skills in their written words. For example, some software developers could fear coming across as overly analytical. Some language used in companies may be precise, but if it lacks emotion it might not be great for developing social bonds. Written communication should be light-hearted, and fun - not corporate or technical. It’s a skill that may need some training.

Documentation over meetings

“Past work”-thinking people generally believe in-person company culture is stronger and thereby more productive than remote culture. They do have a point here, because feeling productive really is a function of clarity. It’s about knowing exactly how to get things done, working from the same baselines, and short ways to sources of truth.

Clarity is what makes cultures strong. But that doesn’t mean an office with clearly marked hallways is the best way to provide clarity to everyone. Clarity can also be advanced through documentation. A culture generally is stronger the more it is written down.

Taking the time to document a solution can be consuming in the moment, and is often deferred when other important tasks arise. In a hybrid company, leadership needs to make clear that pausing to document is a highly valuable activity. In order to strengthen your remote work culture, think about how to praise and reward good documentation.

Onboarding

Remote Onboarding that is based on heavy documentation is a lot more scalable, efficient, and impactful. Think about it: Most In-office onboarding experiences consist of an endless series of person-to-person meetings, stretched out over the course of a few weeks or even months. Knowledge is mostly shared in tiny increments. Even after a few months, chances are that pieces of the organizational puzzle may be missing, lost or forgotten. When a high degree of documentation is used during onboarding, new hires can jump into ongoing projects earlier and their first person-to-person interactions will consist of higher quality questions instead of just hashing out administrative stuff.

Hire for strong writing skills

There are people who really like working remote. It may not be for everyone, but some really thrive in a remote work environment. A great indicator for candidates that will thrive are strong written communication skills: People who love to write, who are able to condense a lot of information into short paragraphs, who like to consume information in written format as well. They will have an easier time in a remote environment than someone who prefers face-to-face communication.

Keep collaboration small

Everyone has a lot of priorities they are trying to juggle. It can be really hard to coordinate the calendars of a large group of people to work together remotely. Try keeping the collaboration smaller. Let people work in pairs and make sure to break down and prioritize bigger problems into smaller problems suited for two people. Let them work through the problem, and agree on a solution. As soon as they come back with a better vetted solution, it becomes a lot easier to solve the corresponding problem.

Reducing requests

A simple idea by Peter Drucker made it into organizational pop culture a few decades ago: Management by Objectives. With it, Drucker introduced the concept of autonomy. The gist of it is that leadership should set out clear targets, but the details of how they are accomplished should be left to individual workers. A lot of companies provide quantified goals and motivating mission statements, but give little guidance on how to actually organize and manage these efforts.

Because of this popular idea, in some companies, individuals are left to optimize for their own throughput. Some think they are more productive when they can take more meetings in a day, send more messages that demand immediate responses, share information or send someone else a task in an ad-hoc manner. In a purely remote setting, an ever growing mountain of information and demands, growing in size and speed, can make work seem unmanageable. And there is nothing that any one individual can do to fix the problem.

To fix this, you have to start at the organizational level. Productivity can never be entirely personal. A good place to start is reducing the quantity of requests in general.

Here’s a radical idea: Temporarily reduce the number of hours in a workday. For a month, set it down to 6 hours per day instead of 8 hours, fully paid. Watch what happens. Meetings will be shorter. Repeat video conferences will vanish from everyone’s calendars. There will be fewer emails, and they will be more to the point. We tried this at sipgate in January/February 2021, and it did work wonders.

Simple Rules

Hybrid work does require new constraints and guidelines. Some of the companies I talked to let their lawyers take over - and as expected, they did come up with very long documents full of legalese/gibberish (and fun long German words, like “Telearbeitsplatzzusatzvereinbarung” or ”Betriebsvereinbarung Home Office”).

I think it works better if the rules are short and simple. No more than a few should exist. Here is an example - a set of three simple rules and three simple recommendations for a hybrid organization (with an additional three recommendations):

Rule #1: We prefer everyone on the team to be in the same room. Or nobody.

Rule #2: We love meeting in person, but our work happens online.

Rule #3: We prefer 1:1 video calls and asynchronous decision making.

Recommendation #1: You’re pretty. Please, always keep your camera on.

Recommendation #2: Writing things down beats endless talk.

Recommendation #3: Leave no-one behind and break the rules if need be.

What’s important now

First, I would recommend taking a good look at the amount of synchronous vs. asynchronous activities within your organization right now. You simply can not come up with your best ideas if you sit in back-to-back meetings all day. Before someone blames “remote” as the reason why the company is no longer shipping any blockbuster products, make people take a good look at their calendars.

Second: During the pandemic, we’ve all been trying out new technical solutions for collaboration, started small experiments, new ways of sharing information and decision making, established new work structures. These are all things that have already been taking place, and they made us survive 2020/2021. Instead of reverting to the old ways, we should double down on these efforts now. Where old tools were simply transferred into a virtual setup one-to-one, new circumstances finally require a bit more thought. Good enough just won’t cut it any more. Emergency mode is over. Now is a good time to think about even more changes, adaptations and additions.

Third, “back to the office” doesn’t mean going back to the old ways. If you’ve been tasked with preparing for a return to the office anytime soon, don’t forget that the advent of remote work will impact how your office will be used in the future. Even if it’s incredibly soothing to just go “back to normal” after all this long and crazy time. In order for hybrid to work, your office has to change too. More on this in the next article.