Time to fix hybrid work’s decades of ignored challenges

June 7, 2023 by

Hybrid work isn’t new. Most office workers have experienced it in various ways for many years. But many organizations have under-invested in solving the persistent challenges of hybrid work. Today we have rich opportunities to address both the new and old challenges of distributed work and, in so doing, build more resilient and productive companies.

We’ve actually been doing hybrid all along

Defining hybrid work: The term can be interpreted by different people in different ways, but it basically means that workers in organizations and members within teams work from different locations and are not always in the same place together.

Despite the significant public discourse on this topic today, hybrid work has played a common role in the daily lives of most organizations.

You’ve been doing hybrid work for the past several decades, if:

  • your company has multiple offices
  • your company has large campuses where many employees work
  • you work with people in other locations, such as regionally dispersed teams and cross-location project teams
  • you have distributed teams based on regional territories, such as retail field leaders and sales teams
  • you have roles with significant travel, such as salespeople, technicians, consulting teams, executives
  • you’ve ever been in a conference room for a meeting where people from other locations have joined via a video conferencing tool.

Based on the above fairly universal criteria, most of us who have worked in an office over the past two decades have participated in hybrid work, potentially on a daily basis and to a significant extent.

Today’s urgent focus: Because the pandemic seems to have created a permanent increase in flexible and remote work, companies continue to rebuild their policies, office spaces, managerial expectations and digital workplaces to address the needs of a dispersed workforce that is less regularly in the office.

While the pace and scale of change has led to this very real urgency, hybrid work itself is about as old as the internet.

Long-ignored challenges of hybrid work

HQ-centricity created second- class citizens and disparate organizational cultures

In all the global organizations where I’ve worked over the past 20 years, this issue has persisted. Culture-building activities that tie into the company’s purpose are grander in the headquarters office than anywhere else. Most town halls and related large events originate in HQ, where local employees get to participate live with fun extracurriculars. Internal communications and intranet efforts focus on local HQ audiences. And so on and so on.

This results in a second-tier experience for employees outside of HQ and in many organizations this creates a significant tension, where employees around the world can feel left out, unseen and disconnected.

HQ-centricity also results in different offices around the world building their own systems, activities and overall cultures. While office cultures should vary a bit so that they represent local culture, a significant variance from the overall organizational culture could mean that work is done in very different, potentially incongruous, ways from other parts of the company. This can lead to major decisions that clash with organizational strategy.

Remote employees felt disconnected, unseen

Despite a heavy in-office culture for many large enterprises, most organizations have had some percentage of employees who regularly work remotely or from the road.

Whether at a global non-profit or a global video game company, I’ve seen the same thing: remote employees feel invisible. They don’t get swag from in-office events. They don’t have a voice during company town halls. They don’t hear about major corporate moments at the same time as other employees. They don’t get to present or speak in departmental meetings. They may not get to participate in-person in key team events or have a say in critical decisions.

We designed for in-person meetings and dialled-in colleagues felt left out

The pandemic forced all office workers to move to video conferences and this equalized the experience for all workers. Remote workers no longer strained to listen in to comments made in the conference room, struggled to speak over people in the room, had trouble engaging with content shared in the conference room.

But for many years before the pandemic, colleagues who joined meetings from outside the conference room had a totally different experience from those sitting at the table. We optimized brainstorming for people in the room. Colleagues in the room spoke first and more frequently, and often those who dialled in were even forgotten until the end of the meeting.

We under-invested in comms and info for non-HQ offices

For every intranet rebuild project I’ve led or advised clients on, I’ve encountered the same issue: teams in different offices and countries must hack together their own portals and knowledge solutions because the central digital workplace team doesn’t account for their needs or create a properly federated governance structure.

Offices around the world often don’t get to participate in shaping agendas and questions for executive town-hall meetings, can’t join in live in the same way as colleagues sitting in the event venue in HQ, and have sub-par team-building extracurriculars tied to company events.

While HQ employees may get to participate in two-way conversations around company moments, colleagues outside HQ often simply receive the final product, which may not resonate.

We externalized the costs of unhelpful digital workplaces to daily treasure hunts

Knowledge bases, portals, digital help desks and other employee-facing digital tools often suffer from poor usability – the type of egregiously unhelpful design that would never survive in a consumer environment.

One key element of this poor usability is the focus on HQ audiences. Too often, employees outside the HQ and HQ country don’t see their own needs and information reflected in internal tools.

While this leads to the above-stated problem of disparate intranet sites, it also pushes the onus of finding everyday info onto people’s colleagues.

“Hey Jeremy, can you remind me who has a copy of the new credit card authorization form?”

When employees can’t easily find the information and resources they need on a daily basis, they resort to asking people they know in the office. Often the answer they seek resides one, two or three people away, so workers enquire multiple times to track down what they need and then hoard old copies of things.

This incredibly common occurrence creates a significant drag on productivity.

Ways to address the old problems

As we collectively wrestle with the new world of more common hybrid work, we have an opportunity to solve for the sins of the past as we rethink the future shape of how we work.

Many of the efforts we can take to address decades of ignored hybrid work challenges fall into three main categories.

Globally aligned communications and culture

  • Build global networks of communicators: No matter the processes and systems we establish, we should be leveraging the critical pillar of relationships. HQ communicators need regular touchpoints and meaningful relationships with communications leads in other offices and countries.
  • Establish global digital workplace teams: Teams who manage intranets and other employee platforms should represent the geography of your workforce.
  • Host town halls from different offices, in different time zones: It’s more work! It may take more planning and more effort to lead company-wide all-hands meetings from the office in Sao Paulo or Pretoria or Phnom Penh than the one in Dallas or London – but it’s worth it. This approach results in colleagues all over the world feeling they are part of the global organization, and leads to more diverse faces, voices and content that better represent the whole company.
  • Feature non-HQ teams and locations in global communications: When I launched a global, social intranet in 2009 to a worldwide non-profit, I remember the transformative power of seeing locally sourced and authored content on the homepage. Maybe a communications audit can show if you’re currently leaning too much into HQ-centric content and have an opportunity to diversify.

At one company where I worked, I inherited responsibility for company town halls. I had heard about offices in other countries feeling left out, so I built up relationships with local communications leads, communicated early and often with those colleagues when planning the town halls, captured feedback from their offices, and aimed to build experiences that were on a par with HQ. This quickly shifted the experience and sentiment for those offices, as well as diversifying the town hall content.

Intentional strategies for hybrid teams and remote colleague engagement

  • Managers – double your touchpoints with non-co-located reports: Remote and distributed teams are nothing new, but they require special effort to manage. One key tenet: invest more intentionally in staying connected with reports who don’t sit in your office, including for social-only interactions (e.g. message that team member in Austin and ask how her weekend was, without any additional work asks).
  • Optimize meetings for remote participation: Think ahead of time about how to ensure dial-in participants have an equal voice, and establish meeting rituals that optimize for that; for example, invite dialled-in participants to speak first, send materials in advance and run a chat back-channel for the meeting.
  • Bring teams together with purpose: Teams don’t necessarily need to be in-person all the time to do their best work. But being together at key moments has a hugely positive impact. It’s especially helpful to meet up in-person at the start and end of projects, when hands-on strategy sessions are needed, when new team members join, after re-orgs, and when other significant changes occur.

One of the most efficient ways to run a brainstorming exercise is to start by having each team member brainstorm alone. This generates a broader array of ideas, but can also show alignment around the most common ideas. The meeting time can then focus on prioritization and discussion, both of which are better optimized for distributed video calls and round-robin participation.

User experience tools to operationalize empathy

  • Create user personas to represent different audiences: User personas offer an always-on panel of colleagues with diverse work experiences and information needs. Make sure you’ve built out a group of personas through research into patterns of employee needs and behaviour, and that the personas represent colleagues in different time zones, people in travelling roles and team mates from varied cultures.
  • Conduct user testing with diversely located colleagues: Most companies generally under-invest in employee user research, but especially so for colleagues outside of HQ. By committing to solve for hybrid work’s long-time challenges, you’ll find new opportunities to gather structured feedback from diversely located employees. This can include building up relationships with many offices and a distributed capacity for conducting employee user research.

Ages ago I worked with an HR team in HQ that felt very excited when they proffered up a new set of policies in both Spanish and French – finally we were operating in a more globally minded way. But they planned to name the new Spanish policy PDF ‘Employee handbook (Spanish)’, which had zero Spanish words in it and would not resonate in search results or on-page content for native Spanish speakers! As you can imagine, we ended up creating Spanish and French names for the files. User personas and user research can help to more quickly and effectively make small decisions like this one.

Solving for old challenges presents exciting new opportunities

Okay, you get it – hybrid work has been around for a while and we may have under-invested in solving for its inherent challenges.

Now that many large organizations have set their sights on the problem, we have opportunities to intentionally rebuild our ways of working. We can create more inclusive teams and organizational communications, collect business-critical information from a broader array of colleagues, increase productivity by providing more relevant tools and information, speed up decision-making by strengthening relationships of distributed colleagues, and build more aligned organizations.

Winston Churchill said: “The pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity. The optimist sees opportunity in every difficulty.”

Today we need to be hybrid work optimists, finding the rich opportunities in both new and old challenges of distributed work.

Related resources

Hybrid work reimagined.

Advanced practices for connected workplaces

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Digital workplace resilience.

Key practices in a (post) pandemic world

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Categorised in: Collaboration, Digital employee experience, Digital workplace, Employee experience, Hybrid working, Remote working, Search & findability, Workplace productivity

Ephraim Freed

Ephraim is a communicator, community builder, digital strategist and employee experience leader. He helps innovative, growing organizations provide meaningful experiences of work that enrich employees' lives, grow strong, positive organizational cultures, build community, drive productivity and performance, and bring employer brands to life.

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