July 20, 2021
Post-COVID Expectations and Organizational Priorities: Hybrid Virtual Models for Teams and Leadership
“The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.” Agile Manifesto
Nothing accelerated during COVID quite like the transition to remote work. Also: That wasn’t a transition, was it? It was an explosion, and for months, leaders and our teams did what we could to best respond to the fallout. We flexed whatever tools we had. We adapted. We invented new terms (“Zoom burnout” became a thing). We saw our cats. We saw each other’s kids on screens all around the world. And now…well, now what?
The world is coming back online and many of us are filling our offices again. Remote work is a reality that we all have to accept, but how we do just that will define many of our organizations going forward. How are we going to balance the needs of in-person and face-to-face conversation with the expectations of staff who like the flexibility of working remotely?
Because we have people embedded as coaches, trainers, and developers within teams throughout several different companies in our region, it’s easy to make some observations about where this issue sits right now, but my/our view about this discussion is: There’s no one-size-fits-all solution for any given company or team.
100% WFH Offices Look Heady on Paper…But (Pun Warning) They Sure Can Cause Big Headaches
We all remember that tweet from early-ish in the pandemic about “which meetings could have been emails after all.” And sure, fair point. Productive people can be trusted to do the work without excessive oversight and micromanagement.
This is where I’ll step in with a slightly alternate view. As someone who really values in-person contact, my counter to that is (and humor me for just one second!): What emails could—or should—have been meetings?
Email and video conferencing are just okay (at best) at communicating nuance and tone. When someone can see your face, hear the tone in your voice, something that may “read” a certain way on Slack would be a very different experience if you were sitting next to someone. There’s nothing, at least for me, that is ever going to be a fully acceptable substitute for the intimacy, trust, and creativity that in-person collaboration provides.
Then there’s the extra security risks. Twitter had a terrible, terrible year in 2020. As their leadership was very publicly crowing about how anyone in the company would be able to work from anywhere going forward (and good on them for that during COVID), it then suffered one of the worst and most embarrassing breaches in its company history.
How did hackers (who were, let’s be clear, bored teenagers) seize control of the Twitter profiles of public luminaries like Barack Obama and Elon Musk? They pulled off a phishing scheme that happened in an environment where the rushed transition to remote work enabled a lax security environment.
According to the investigation (conducted by WIRED magazine), “Since switching to remote working, VPN problems were common at Twitter…The Hackers then tried to direct the employee to a phishing website that looked identical to the legitimate Twitter VPN website and was hosted by a similarly named domain.” So, basically, one person with remote access to a VPN was slacking and Twitter became a threat to national security. Not…great. At all.
Outside of security and collaboration, I’d suggest that no one make generalizations about what everyone’s WFH life is like. Staff in bigger and more expensive cities or parts of town may just be sick of working at a kitchen table. On the other hand, busy parents or people with long commutes may dread the return of a five-day workweek in the office.
The bottom line? Your best foot going forward post-COVID is arguably the asset that we discuss at Sketch the most: Communication.
To Understand the Reality Facing Your Individual Team Members: Ask Them
Not everyone in your organization is struggling in the same way. TechRadius conducted a study of 450 IT professionals and found that 57% of the women they questioned were “feeling burned out at work this year as a result of the pandemic, compared to 36% of men. Central to this has been an imbalance in added responsibilities due to the pandemic, both at home and in the workplace.”
What is causing a lot of anxiety (and there are a lot of articles that are flooding your inbox about this very thing right now, I’d wager) is a lack of clarity about the future of your remote work environment. What your staff wants and what they need may be in line with what the organization can accommodate and needs as well. You won’t know, however, until you ask them.
We’ve already mentioned that communication and emotional intelligence were going to be critical job skills in a post-COVID world. That world is here. The intelligence (as I mentioned above) is starting to roar in. A recent study by McKinsey found that “The lack of clear communication about the future of post-pandemic work also contributes to employee burnout. Nearly half of employees surveyed say they’re feeling some symptoms of being burned out at work.”
That lack of transparency is further feeding burnout and anxiety. With mental health costing companies over $1T a year in productivity, smart organizations will prioritize communication as your first resource in transitioning back to an in-office work environment. (For more data, check out the full study about the future of remote work here; it’s excellent.)
The Future—Probably—Involves a Hybrid Model
Remote work isn’t likely an either/or option, and workers likely don’t expect it to be. Another recent report from the employment firm Manpower signaled that most workers preferred working two to three days/week at the office, and the rest of the time from home.
What’s the best way to move forward with your post-COVID remote work/in-office hybrid? Isn’t that up to you? Let’s take that (truly, truly awful) Twitter example from above. Consider what tasks and what information can be accessed remotely. Maybe you can embargo certain parts of your backend to be accessed exclusively by your team when they’re in the office or from specific machines.
But that’s all the straightforward stuff. I’m really talking about collaboration and creativity as much as I’m also referencing security and responsibilities. While it’s abundantly clear now that organizations have to balance the needs of their employees and the requirements of the clients and products, I like to think that we’ve been preaching that very thing for years.
What fascinates me the most about the “COVID accelerated X” discussions is just how many of those issues we’d been prioritizing, both for your own staff and the teams that we coach, since, oh, forever. Transparency, input, information sharing, and trust. (No, really, we said that very thing here and here…and zillions of times in coaching and training sessions.)
Moving forward, how do you establish hybrid models that make sense, and how do you execute them?
Emphasize “Upward” Communication
Said another way, ask your teams what they want. I’m a fan of this piece that puts it pretty simply: “An often-overlooked component of organizational communication is upward communication—where employees can voice their thoughts and opinions and ask questions of those higher up in the organization. It’s important to create an outlet for employees to voice concerns and questions, without fear of reprimand.” Amen to all of that.
Embrace What’s Working
Some people are going to be more productive while they’re doing certain things when they’re not distracted by people at the office. If those people have already proven that to you, congratulations, you don’t have to fix what isn’t broken.
Invest in Your Staff
Let’s talk about those people with long commutes, or your skilled workforce who have already relocated to another city during this whole remote-work-COVID era. Maybe the solution is to reimburse them for the cost of a co-working space closer to home. Perhaps the company takes advantage of all the unused office space we’ve been told exists and rent some offices in their city or by their houses. Also, in those cases, allow their colleagues to go to them every once in a while, or at least create the opportunity for dialogue about not just shared workspaces but shared drive times.
Make Stuff Mandatory
It’s 100% okay to say “This is the day and the time that you absolutely have to be in the office” and then enforce it. The key is that you solicit their involvement and input as to when and how they adjust that for the actual work they do, and how they do it together.
Is it unreasonable to expect that everyone should be friends outside of work? Naturally. However, if people are truly dreading coming to work, if coming to the office causes deep anxiety and depression, then maybe it’s not them. It may be you. While you can’t control where someone lives and how bad the drive is, you do control what it’s like once someone shows up at the office.
Just as leadership and organizations have the right to expect people to show up on time and do the work, everyone is entitled to feel appreciated and productive when they do that work. In 2021, empathy, clarity, and support aren’t optional. Investing in those skills and resources in the right way should bring your teams back, and the enthusiasm for a “return to normal” right along with them.
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