Working Remotely, Hybrid or Face-to-face; Which Should I Choose for My Team?

Thursday, August 19, 2021

A Message from Katie Tagye, Director, Organizational Design and Development 

Are you struggling with how to determine what work should be done in a remote, hybrid or in-person modality? Are you trying to figure out how to make the most of the time that you and your team spend on-site? You aren’t alone.

In Phase 4, supervisors have the agency to determine operational and many other decisions. This can be both liberating (I’m freeeee) and frightening (what if I choose wrong) at the same time. The tough and good news is that there is no one “right” choice. The key is really in making a deliberate, thoughtful decisions. This means not jumping to what might seem easiest or most comfortable, but instead it’s about weighing what needs, work and services are best met in what modality. It’s about monitoring what we think might work and making adjustments to ensure we are making the most of our options while remembering that just because something can be done in a modality doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a good practice.

What Do the Olympics Have to Do With It?

I heard an analogy a while ago that was a really helpful mental model for thinking about remote, hybrid and face-to-face work. The analogy was a sports analogy, so this being written shortly after the summer Olympics, it seems fitting to use Olympic sports in the analogy.

Individual sports, such as swimming (mostly), are like individual work. The majority of the effort is completed by one individual. This work doesn’t need to be synchronized with another team member, and the outcome of the work depends (mostly) on the individual. Individual work is great work to be completed virtually or remotely. It doesn’t require that the individual be in a specific location to accomplish the task.

Relay sports, such as sprinting, are one way to think about hybrid work. While a portion of the work might be individual work, another portion of the work must be done in coordination and synchronization with other team members. The outcomes are a result of both individual effort and team effort. Hybrid work is work to be completed in a flexible manner. There may be times when the team element of the work can be completed virtually or remotely without experiencing any drawbacks. However, there might be times when the team being co-located strengthens the work, speeds up the process, or just makes the task more meaningful or enjoyable. For those times, the hybrid portion of the work is likely to benefit from taking place on-site.

Finally, team sports, such as beach volleyball, are like collaborative work. The effort here is completed by a team and without the team being fully present together, the work will suffer. The work requires the most synchronization, and it is likely that the team would benefit from being co-located in a space where they can work in formal and informal ways and where they can pick up on nonverbal cues that can often be imperceptible virtually.

Unlike Olympic sports, our work can, at times, fall into different categories. As we often say, just because work is collaborative (i.e., a team sport) doesn’t mean that the entirety of the work is collaborative. It’s about identifying what part of the work is individual (to stick with the analogy, conditioning can be done solo) and what part of the work needs collaboration. In this way we must highlight what work is expected before the group gathers together. This will maximize the effectiveness of the collaboration and reduce the frustration of covering individual work when we meet as a team.

Considerations for Hybrid Ways of Working

For teams that have employees working both on-site and virtually, it can be a balancing act to figure out how to manage ways of working. And our work projects and outcomes aren’t the only elements to consider. Our teams are made up of people, and we have social and interactive needs, some of which need to be fulfilled at work. So how do we make sure our team members feel essential, included, and connected? Below are a couple of considerations.

One Virtual, All Virtual

One essential guideline for leading a hybrid team meeting is “one virtual, all virtual,” meaning that if even one person cannot meet in person, the entire meeting should be done virtually, even if some people are on-site. It will be tempting to have the person or people who are remote to just “call in” to the meeting. We’ve done that before — remember that? It was not productive, it did not support connection between employees, and it was not inclusive. Luckily, we now have the technology and know-how to set up a Zoom meeting so that everyone has the opportunity to fully participate in the meeting.

Resetting Expectations

For teams that will begin meeting in-person, it will also be important to reset expectations. During the last year and a half, those working from home and meeting primarily via Zoom have begun multi-tasking. For me, I might have found myself in a Zoom meeting listening (ok, half-listening, at best) while also answering emails or working on a project. For some meetings this may have been OK, but for other meetings, I definitely missed important pieces.

Moving forward, it’s time to reset expectations. Are meetings ones where people only need to half-listen, or do you need people’s full attention? How will we handle having laptops open and phones in front of us while we work collaboratively? Perhaps your team will work together to set and monitor norms. Whatever you decide is right for the team, do it early rather than two months from now when everyone is working on emails sitting around a conference room table barely listening to what’s happening in the room. (And, by the way, if attendees only need to half-listen, maybe the meeting could be an email or maybe only some of the people in the room need to attend the meeting.)

Team Office Hours

Research indicates that teams are more productive and collaborative when they meet in coordination. Consider using on-site work, if possible, like team “office hours” when employees will experience one another both formally (scheduled meetings) and informally (in the hallway or by popping in). These office hours might include a specific time for a whole-group meeting, for instance from 10 to 11:30 a.m., and include another set time when everyone will remain working in the same location, for instance from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. This time after the meeting can be used for informal meetings, working lunches and social interaction. Depending on other expectations and obligations, the supervisor may give employees flexibility to work before their team office hours or finish the day after. As just one example, Deanne Abrams, director, employee development, and her team plan to meet on-site every other week with two goals in mind: first, to work on projects where multiple perspectives are needed, and secondly, to be together on a consistent and meaningful basis for social interaction and informal requests.

If in-person team office hours isn’t possible for the whole team, you can still glean some of these same benefits by scheduling coordinated work virtually (regardless of whether employees are in the office or working remotely, again following the “one virtual, all virtual” guideline) through the use of Microsoft Teams (using real-time chatting) and/or Zoom. Again, the Employee Development team has taken advantage of this during the pandemic by scheduling time for the whole team to be on Zoom and working with their cameras off. There is no formal agenda, but the team knows everyone is there, can pipe up with a question, a joke or any other discussion point, just like they could when they were in their offices near one another.

Support Cross-team Networks

Intentional, inclusive, social interaction is an essential consideration for all meetings. It is especially important for cross-team thought partnership, interpersonal connection and cross-functional work. Research has indicated that during the pandemic when many employees were working remotely, that in-tact teams grew in their ability to coordinate and collaborate virtually; however, they also became more siloed. Cross-team collaboration fell and many employees (especially new employees) may be struggling to form or even to reform those cross-functional networks in this newer mode of working.

Try, Monitor, Adjust

Finally, give yourself and your team space to figure it out. You’re setting new expectations and perhaps even some new group norms. Give everyone involved time to try them out and see how they work. When you find something that isn’t working, don’t wait — go ahead and change it. This will strengthen your team’s trust and productivity. And as a side benefit, when leaders share how well-thought out plans did not work, they encourage their colleagues and employees to take intelligent risks leading to a culture of sustained innovation.

I hope that some of this has helped you to think through what’s next for you and your teams. The goal is to experiment and adjust and to keep being deliberate. If you find yourself thinking “whatever” or “do what’s easiest,” see this as an indication you need to block some time for thinking. And, remember, you can always reach out to me or to another member of the Organizational Development and Human Resources team as a thought-partner.

Questions to ask yourself while figuring out how to make the most of our options:

  • When must we be synchronous and when can we be asynchronous?
  • When should we meet, for what purpose, and what modality meets that purpose best?
  • How do we make connections across teams, especially for employees who are more remote?
  • When should we get together in-person?
  • How do we make the most of our togetherness?
  • How do we use the office as a tool?
  • How might we look forward to our time together in the office?

For a remote, hybrid, face-to-face or email job aid, click here.

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