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THE HYBRID OFFICE: ENTER WITH CAUTION

The Hybrid Office: Enter With Caution

Amid much personal tragedy, the unanticipated success of the pandemic era has been the ability of businesses of every size to move work from offices to homes. Both start-ups and large enterprises, especially those filled with knowledge workers, report that the WFH trend has done little to hinder productivity. Some have gone further.  Facebook has announced that its employees can plan to work from home through at least the summer. Twitter and others have suggested working from home indefinitely. Bill Gates predicts that going forward there will be 50% less business travel and 30% less days in the office. Yet Netflix CEO Reed Hastings has said that he sees no positives in working from home and not being able to get together in person.

Most companies are taking a cautious approach, preparing to bring more people into the office in the second half of the year when vaccine distribution ramps up. Now comes the harder part: will the return to a post-pandemic work environment be as seamless as the shift to working from home? 

For the last few months, CEOs and their human resource teams are hearing from employees who want a “hybrid model” – a work arrangement where there is more flexibility about coming into an office and more use of video conferencing for meetings, collaboration, and employee check-ins.  Many organizations have already started experimenting with hybrid work models and like what they see.

For the start-up world, where focus and speed are paramount, the question is blunt: can a small, growing, and tight-knit team find success when part of the team is together in a workspace, and part connects by video conference?

There will be some obvious considerations: no start-up company should compromise the health and safety of employees. There should also be some much-needed re-evaluation of an office schedule that demands long hours coupled with a 90-minute commute.

Yet beyond this, there are some serious considerations that should give every manager pause about the long-term viability of the “hybrid office.”  Below are four considerations I advise every innovative organization to examine:

1. The Two-Tiered Team.

Pre-Covid, there was sometimes an awkward dynamic in moments following a video call: moments after the call was complete, those in the room would continue the conversation for a few moments, sometimes making the most important decisions or observations. It is an unavoidable dynamic. Physical proximity encourages conversational spontaneity, quiet asides, and unplanned, informal interruptions that video calls cannot replicate.  

The risk for management teams is that a hybrid office can inadvertently create a two-class system of employees: those who are Zooming in, and those who are “in the room where it happens.” This development seems inevitable. Video calls, by their very nature, need to be scheduled. But the reality of brainstorming and hashing out ideas is that it works best for those who can walk down the hall, sit around a table, or pop their heads into someone’s office. Innovation by its very nature is boundary-less and doesn’t fit within the confines of a 60-minute video chat. If some of the team is together in person, those who call-in will always be at some disadvantage.

2. Performance Assessment and Feedback.

Providing feedback to employees in a hybrid office setting has some advantages. Regular performance reviews conducted over video can take the anxiety out of a formally scheduled face-to-face review and can make employees feel more at ease. There are also an increasing number of reliable, technology tools such as Cultureamp, Kazoo,  and SurveyMonkey that enable feedback and amplify the employee’s voice with less friction.  

But in a small team environment, even daily check-ins over video miss something. Evaluating an employee requires not just looking at their individual output, but also developing a sense of how they interact and contribute. Video conferences are not ideal platforms for judging how someone might respond to new ideas or chime in during a multi-person discussion. They don’t do a good job capturing body language, EQ, or spontaneity. Growing and developing over video is hard.

In an office setting, you can see up close  how team members network, how they seek out feedback, or how they retain focus during a long day. The hybrid workplace, where an employee may come to an office a few days a week, robs a manager of the facetime that, while often overvalued, nevertheless provides an important basis for evaluation and feedback.   

3. Chemistry and Collaboration. 

“Chemistry” is a hazy concept, often associated with sports teams and long-term partnerships. Yet there is no doubt that it is a vital component of making early-stage start-ups succeed.  

Chemistry emerges when an embryonic team occupies the same small space, spends long workdays together, eats meals at the same table, meets new hires and customers face-to-face. For an innovative company, chemistry must mean more than “getting along.” It must mean that one person’s style and strengths complement someone else’s. Chemistry creates both innovation but also a team spirit that requires being in the same physical setting for a good part of the work week. My own experience as a venture capital investor is that the in-person meeting — sometimes over a walk or a glass of wine in my backyard — revealed more than any set of video interviews. 

Today, there is a rich selection of excellent collaboration tools. Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Slack have started to replace the culture of in-person meetings. Miro white board enables real-time brainstorming over video. Asana and Basecamp have reinvented project management.

Still, in the coming year, every business leader will have in the back of their mind one question: what happens when my competitors or my customers start coming back to the office full time? For those organizations that have committed to a hybrid workforce, this moment will be challenging. In the current environment, the flexible workforce makes sense. But can it endure when travel, conferences, and just “showing up” starts to regain normality?

4. Management By Walking Around.

One of management’s oldest tools is walking around the office and observing and talking to the team to better understand the organization. Ironically, in the current environment, it may be the experience managers miss the most. There is something about walking through an office, hearing directly from employees, asking questions or simply observing, that offers the best way to assess the rhythm and reality of a business. A hybrid office, where some employees are rarely in person, inevitably eliminates an essential learning experience for the CEO. 

More broadly, the busy, highly interactive office offers the joy and stimulation of interacting with people that no video tool has been able to replicate.  It allows us to read body language, to get to know someone who doesn’t speak up in a meeting, or simply catch up without scheduling time. 

Without a doubt, the pandemic has triggered some much-needed thinking about how work gets done. But as innovative companies start contemplating what the period after the pandemic looks like, the initial enthusiasm for a hybrid office solution may quickly fade.

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