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Hybrid cultures only thrive by treating everyone as remote.

That counterintuitive advice will be important to keep firmly in mind as the return to the office picks up. Instead of celebrating the chance to work side-by-side in the office and jettisoning the complications of the past two years, it means continuing the remote mindset to equalize people in the office and those not.

“This means giving everyone access to the same information, people, tools, and opportunity to succeed, regardless of whether they are sitting in an office in Berlin or whether they are doing their work from a coffee shop in Jakarta or a bedroom in Tokyo,” write James Stanier, director of engineering at Shopify, Michael Li, founder and CEO of The Data Incubator, and Jesse Anderson, managing director of the Big Data Institute, in Harvard Business Review.

They note that this approach is simple but not straightforward. One step is to deliberately change synchronous exchanges to asynchronous ones. If you’re in different time zones – even just in Canada, not necessarily the global cities they name – or people in the same city are choosing to work different hours, you should shift from meetings to written or recorded communication. Scrap your daily stand-up meeting for short written updates to a chat channel or written documents that allow discussion in the comments. Instead of trying to gather everyone for a town hall at the same time, solicit questions in advance and record and broadcast your remarks rather than chatting live.

Use technology to produce artifacts that can be shared after the synchronous exchange. Sometimes a synchronous meeting is required to discuss a complex or urgent issue. Afterwards, instead of moving on and ignoring those who couldn’t attend, produce shareable videos or documents, such as a video recording of the meetings, collaboratively edited meeting minutes or automatically generated transcripts of video calls.

Have everyone make their working hours clear in their calendars, including recording their vacations and time blocked off for thinking. Set rules of engagement for emails, chat messages, video calls and documentation.

“Is it reasonable to not answer a direct message on chat until the next day? What about emails? Is everyone expected to watch every meeting recording if they didn’t make it, or are they optional? These rules of engagement can greatly reduce anxiety and employees’ fear of missing out,” the authors note.

With office face-to-face discussion reduced, they advise leaders to develop a culture of written or recorded messaging to convey the heartbeat of the company. Consider writing regular newsletters to your staff, or recording weekly messages to send out at the beginning of the week. Similarly, on a smaller scale, teams can experiment with broadcasting their regular achievements – initially among themselves, summarizing what they’ve been working on, but eventually to other teams in their department.

It all revolves around the basic premise: Hybrid cultures only thrive by treating everyone as remote.

At the same time, another important philosophical approach will be to make being in the office worth the commute. That advice is offered in Microsoft’s annual Trend Index for 2022. The survey found that 38 per cent of hybrid employees say their biggest challenge is knowing when and why to come into the office. Perhaps to encourage flexibility, many offices aren’t meeting that requirement by clearly defining the new norms.

Experiment with “Team Tuesdays,” when everyone is in the office. Or consider twice-a-week office hours between 12 p.m. and 2 p.m. If that’s too much – not worth the commute – perhaps quarterly offsites will work. Find what works best, providing expectations and guidance for the team.

“Leaders must establish the why, when, and how of the office,” the report states.

Flexibility has been a prominent buzz word as the hybrid office takes shape. But the report warns flexible work should not mean “always on.” Data from Microsoft 365 users indicates average after-hour work is up 28 per cent in the past two years while the workday span has increased 13 per cent. But despite being overloaded, people are showing signs of taking control of their time and reshaping the workday.

“Productivity patterns in Outlook show people are becoming more intentional about taking breaks, avoiding double booking, and establishing meeting-free work blocks,” the report notes. Between March, 2021 and February, 2022, anonymized Outlook calendar data shows the average number of overlapping meetings per person per month decreased by 44 per cent. Teams are starting meetings later on Mondays and wrapping up earlier on Fridays. There are also fewer noon meetings, perhaps indicating more care in preserving a midday break. More employees are also using their vacation time, with out-of-office time blocks on calendars increasing by 10 per cent in the past year.

Intriguingly, people seem to be doing better at finding digital equivalents to the hallway conversation at the office, auguring well for the hybrid years ahead. Unscheduled, ad hoc calls have risen 8 per cent in the past two years and now make up 64 per cent of all Microsoft Teams meetings. As well, meetings under 15 minutes are now a majority of all meetings, at 60 per cent. Some of the asynchronous ideas being recommended are occurring already. The data showed monthly use of recordings that allow people to catch up on meetings, training and town halls on demand has more than doubled since March, 2020.

Everything changed for office workers in 2020. Now it must change again, but with the remote ethos still central rather than forgotten.

Cannonballs

  • Gallup research finds the top three reasons people give for preferring a hybrid workplace avoiding commute time, improving personal well-being and wanting flexibility to balance family needs or other obligations. Reasons companies usually cite – the option to work in-person with co-workers and the need to feel more productive and connected to the organization – only rank fourth and fifth.
  • A New York City wage transparency law comes into effect in May, requiring employers to include a maximum and minimum salary in all job postings, for new jobs as well as internal promotions and transfer opportunities. Is this a trendsetter?
  • Recruiting specialist John Sullivan urges you to hire displaced Ukrainians for your remote work opportunities.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and CanCom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.

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