The long-awaited transition back into the office has been a confusing process at best, and a terrifying process at worst. Different state guidelines addressing the many parameters for firmly reopening seem to be changing every day, and the color-coded CDC charts aren’t as clear as many would hope.
Moreover, the large companies that usually set industry standards for workplace norms are operating on so many different timelines that it’s hard to tell what’s generally the best way to reopen. Twitter’s CEO Jack Dorsey told employees last year that the firm would stay remote forever (a pipe dream that didn’t last), while Goldman Sachs’ CEO David Solomon is so intent upon boosting morale regarding their June 14th office reopening that he released a song about it. It’s a weird world, it seems – we’re all just working in it.
Luckily, many CEOs don’t have these kinds of hyperbolic feelings about office life, and companies like Google and Amazon have decided to re-open in phases. Though essential personnel are considered the first wave of those returning to the workplace, the aim is to gradually build up to staggered schedules for all staff, flexible workdays, and shorter shifts, all while keeping meetings remote (or partially remote), with masks on and social distancing in place. This tends to be the route many offices are taking, however the goal line is a little less clear.
If there is a status quo out there for the ideal office calendar of the future, Google’s hybrid work week seems to be it. The company has determined that they’d like employees to spend at least three days a week in the office, and work from “wherever they work best” during the remainder of their time. While they aspire to have 60% of employees back in the office on any given day, they want to add a series of fully remote sub-teams working under some of the in-office staff to maintain productivity and growth.
Logistically, the debate of who’s returning to work first is complicated and may involve splitting up teams or entire departments. Some companies want their executives in the office to set the company culture. Others want employees to make their own choices on a more individualized basis, which could lead to a future filled with more hybrid meetings than in-person ones.
The workforce, as it stands today, is resistant to returning to the office. So resistant, in fact, that a recent Bloomberg News poll of 1,000 U.S. adults showed that 39% would consider quitting their current job if their employers did not offer flexible opportunities for remote work. In another poll from FlexJobs, 65% of respondents reported that they wanted to remain fully remote after the pandemic. It seems that the workforce is transitioning to a more hybrid work schedule, and companies will more than likely be adapting to the needs of their now independent workforce.
However, having more than half of employees outside of the office could create new problems for companies whose recent transitions into virtual work have been bumpy and grueling. While it might seem idyllic to continue working from the comfort and safety of home, teams are now confronted with the new problem of keeping remote workers invested and engaged with their teams, even if they’re physically thousands of miles away. What will the daily life of a hybrid team look like? And how will these hybrid teams meet, connect, and thrive?
For many companies, this first-time venture into the world of hybrid work has been an elongated experiment with pitfalls and windfalls. But for firms like Shopify or Atlassian, who have contained partially remote teams since their inception, their global offices and staggered deadlines have provided more time to analyze prominent issues in remote work, and hybrid meetings in particular.
The first pearl of wisdom from long-term partially remote teams is that internet access and bandwidth can make or break your hybrid meetings. When in-office staff are frequently using the internet for video and voice calls, especially if multiple teams are having video calls with different remote employees at the same time, the internet can lag. And just buying a better internet connection isn’t the perfect solution, as those working remotely might have issues on their end – companies like Shelter Insurance report that 25-30% of employees either have general internet issues or no internet at all.
Time zone differences are another issue that partially remote teams know all-too well, and scheduling meetings at convenient times for those around the world can be challenging and filled with compromise (global teams often use tools like Every Time Zone to combat this problem). Loneliness is also a rather unspoken problem during hybrid meetings, and the lack of natural socialization provided by an organic office space can render remote workers feeling left out of the in-person group dynamics.
When roles aren’t fixed and remote work is flexible, the fate of a team’s (and a company’s) culture can end up in the hands of home workers. It’s more than likely that as the hybrid work world evolves, who wants to be in-person and who prefers to be home will become more fixed, and dependent upon the employee themselves.
If some employees turn permanently into depersonalized faces on a computer or projector screen, it can make in-person employees think that they’re more devoted to the task at hand than their counterparts. This is especially the case for those who often see a remote team member disengaging in a meeting by keeping their camera off or not participating. Though these remote workers will be virtually checked in, doesn’t mean you aren’t a little checked out.
Fortunately, because of the sheer amount of people working remotely, new and creative solutions for hybrid meeting issues are being invented every day. So how can your team make hybrid meetings as successful and inclusive as possible?
The art of asynchronous communication has begun to decrease the need for meeting entirely, and various other resources have come to replace the formal idea of what meetings used to be. Streamlining your meetings using tools like Hive Notes, with to-do lists, agendas, and organized content, can cut time-eating miscommunications out of meetings. It’s just a matter of determining your team’s needs and customizing them accordingly.
Connecting in person is another important part of partially remote teams, even if it’s a rarer experience. Some companies are offering employees the ability to have “team office days” on a schedule, especially for employees that are in the area. These would be coordinated for the ease of all team members and would help rebuild a sense of unity within the team.
Overlapping meetings with these “team office days” would be even better; having important meetings in-person can leave room for remote employees to focus on interrupted workflow at home. For new hires, you can kick-start your team with one real-life gathering, or a few days of in-person work before you (or they) retire to their respective home offices.
One final solution for hybrid meetings is about maintaining a professional mindset and attitude. While many of us have gotten used to working in sweatpants from our couches, when half your coworkers are in an office meeting room wearing suits, this might create a little dissonance in your team spirit. Additionally, remote workers who are juggling roommates and childcare could end up feeling out of place in hybrid meetings with a conference room full of well-dressed coworkers. To keep teams from splitting too much, specific rules for remote workers could work to promote a more unified team.
Making one’s home seem more like a formal office is the first step in making your remote workers feel like they still have a place on their in-person teams. This can be done by implementing slightly more regimented office policies about what your background should look like, or what you should be wearing (including fun monthly themed days or once-weekly casual attire).
Simply from a visual standpoint, this can make teams both look and feel more united. And from a more psychological mindset, more clearly defining a company’s specific “Zoom etiquette,” including things like whether you should keep cameras on or cameras off, can create a new sort of company culture — or at least a new kind of team culture.
While hybrid meetings certainly aren’t impossible, they might take a little more preparation, thought and effort than in-person meetings do. A well-organized hybrid meeting can make all team members involved feel invigorated and inspired rather than frustrated and overwhelmed, and the many tools and tricks available can help provide a little guidance as to how your hybrid meetings can go.
— Sara London
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