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As people increasingly come back to the workplace, sometimes disconsolate and sometimes delighted, we may be missing the moment. The pandemic clarified the possibilities of remote work, with many benefits for employees and organizations.

It was odd. It had its faults. But so did the previous approach of dumping us all together in the same office five days a week, and ignoring the fact many people could only get their work done before 9 a.m. or after 5 p.m. given the many meetings and constant interruptions from colleagues.

Hybrid is often the favoured approach these days, a middle ground. But consultants Kevin Eikenberry and Wayne Turmel, who first noted the trend to out-of-office work for a 2018 book, warn in their latest effort, The Long-Distance Team, that if we want to be truly hybrid we need to design teams that are different from if we were just trying to recreate the traditional office environment. “We already know that following that old template leads to too many meetings, e-mail overload and a lack of flexibility around when people are working,” they write. “If you are designing for a hybrid team, think of it as designing something unique and taking the opportunity to really change how you and your team work.”

Most of that discussion these days is about collaboration – bringing people together so magic moments of creation can occur as people interact. But they argue that’s only one third of the equation. You also need to give thought to improving communication and cohesion. Together, those three elements form the pillars of your culture.

Communication is key to work. But putting us together in the same office – even the same room – doesn’t ensure that happens. The authors point to a study that found nearly one-third of communications during surgical procedures were classified as failures with respect to timing, content and whether issues were resolved. That’s side-by-side communication during important work. So bringing people back to the office doesn’t solve your communications issues; it might just obscure those problems.

They warn that collaboration isn’t just an event. It can exist within and beyond a meeting – indeed, collaboration can be paltry in many meetings. Collaboration isn’t just a synchronous activity. E-mail allows asynchronous activity. “There are plenty of other newer collaboration tools – including those that replace and enhance the venerable whiteboard – that can create fantastic collaboration results,” they write. “Ongoing discussion threads in Microsoft Teams or Slack can improve the quality of decision-making, or creative problem solving.”

Cohesion is about unity and sticking together. It has many facets that a manager needs to give attention and try to foster: Relationships, connection, relatedness between people, trust, beliefs, purpose, engagement, inclusion and accountability. You should consider how much psychological safety there is in your team and what is the level of trust. On a scale of one to 10, how cohesive is your team? What rating would team members give?

Raghu Krishnamoorthy, a senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, whose research revolves around the workplace, says the role of a manager at its core remains the same wherever people are located: To motivate employees and organize resources to drive performance excellence. “So what managers do remains the same; it’s the how that changes,” he writes in Harvard Business Review.

His study of remote work during the pandemic found that employees began to appreciate the role of the manager more while working from home full-time in 2020. “Having a manager was helpful, provided the managers shifted from managing time, activity or physical presence to managing results and outcomes,” he says. “Further, employees considered the managers to be even more of a key resource in getting the job done remotely. They expect their managers to devote more time and effort to removing interpersonal and work barriers, co-ordinating among many stakeholders, as well as coaching and orchestrating their performance.”

He sums it up as managers must be enablers, not enforcers. Instead of micromanaging, employees want them to micro-understand their work. That will begin with setting priorities and clarifying. A remote work environment calls for ruthless prioritization. A micro-understanding manager needs to know how detailed priorities work together to produce the intended product on time and with the required level of efficiency.

In the hybrid era, alert mechanisms are needed to spot potential problems and come up with timely fixes. Managers must develop an ability to scan constantly and instantly know vulnerabilities and obstacles. In manufacturing, the Andon system is often in place allowing a worker to pull a cord or press a button alerting managers and other workers of a problem. Mr. Krishnamoorthy tells of one manager who creatively applied a similar approach in white-collar remote work by allowing his employees to call a meeting when they spot a small, but irritating “mosquito” problem that should be quashed immediately; a “quicksand” problem where they need help to get out of a fix; and a “dragon” problem for a serious issue that needed escalation to higher authority.

The hybrid workplace is not a return to the past. It still involves remote work, and so is a new mixture. It involves thought about communication, collaboration and consensus, and a change for managers to becoming wise, watchful enablers.


  • Make hybrid in-office days communication days, says leadership coach Kristi Hedges. Focus on communicating key messages in person.
  • After reading a recent Fortune article of thought leaders discussing the importance of having employees work together in one spot for creativity, media executive S. Mitra Kalita noted all were men. Her response is: Put women in charge of the return to work. “The (mostly male) wave of nostalgia for physical proximity is ignoring what survey after survey tells us. One of the most commonly cited traits of a bad job is workers feeling unable to care for children or their own mental or physical health,” she says.
  • As you ponder the three Cs of communication, collaboration and cohesion that Mr. Eikenberry and Mr. Turmel highlight, add a fourth: Commute. Jim Harter, Gallup’s chief scientist of workplace and well-being, notes that employers typically don’t include commuting time on the 40-hour workweek, but it is eroding leisure time for their employees and contributing to poorer overall well-being, daily mood and health. It’s a part of the hybrid (and retention) equation.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston-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.