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Many leaders are breathing a premature sigh of relief as employees begin trickling back into the office because although some may be returning to the office full time, many will be entering a new phase of hybridized remote and collocated work. Often, this split is a “choice” by employers who are rotating their staff to enable safe spacing between those in the office. Other times, the ongoing dearth of childcare options limits the hours employees can spend away from their homes. Regardless of the reason, however, leaders approaching a hybrid world of collocated and remote work with expectations for this phase to be “easier” than having everyone fully remote are in for a rude awakening. While the same practices that enable fully remote collaboration will also support hybrid teams, these practices require a level of active communication and documentation far exceeding the standards of most collocated teams. Maintaining these efforts as even partial collocation enables the return of less rigorous behaviors requires discipline, or specifically created structures. With proper preparation and expectation setting, hybridized ways of working can be quite successful but stumbling into the next phase of this pandemic with minimal planning is a recipe for disaster.
For anyone new to remote work, it may seem logical to view the relative complications of working together as a scale with “fully collocated / easy” at one end and “fully remote / difficult” at the other. This mentality recognizes the benefits of collocated teams, but these “benefits” are often simply crutches that allow teams to function despite poor business practices. Such a scale further assumes when more employees are collocated, it will be easier for the team to collaborate. Unfortunately, there is no easy linear scale that lets a leader slide the ratio of remote to collocated employees to predict the level of complication in working together. What is true, however, is that hybrid teams will almost always be more complicated to lead, and face more challenges in working together, than either fully collocated or remote teams. As many leaders have learned over the past few months, working fully remotely requires clearly articulated objectives, lots of documentation, and active communication. So perhaps it is unsurprising that leaders who have survived, and even thrived, in remote conditions expect the next phase to be more straightforward.
Indeed, a team who implements and maintains all the best practices required for fully remote collaboration can support a mix of collocated and remote individuals. In fact, per the linked article above, the communication challenges faced by fully remote teams are simply magnified when compared to collocated teams, so following best practices suitable for a remote team should benefit anyone. But the challenge comes in the need to maintain such a high level of discipline. Fully remote teams have no choice about adopting and maintaining such practices, because as soon as the discipline erodes, efficacy drops and all team members are impacted. But there is a reason that so many teams find themselves depending on the “cheats” of collocation: the tribal knowledge that is never recorded, the high percent of information communicated in the hallways, and the additional information that is shared entirely non-verbally, to name a few. Remembering something, and reciting that information on the rare occasions when asked, is simpler than writing a document and ensuring that it is constantly maintained. Taking advantage of seeing someone in passing requires less effort than actively reaching out to share information. Observing someone from afar to deduce their stress level or determine their workload is less daunting than opening up an explicit conversation around either topic. As soon as these options become available, even if only for a few individuals and only for some of the time, they have a tendency to creep back into daily practice.
Of course, such behaviors also leave the individuals working remotely at a disadvantage. Without access to these “cheats”, the remote employees must put in the extra time and effort to document and discuss. Without being part of the informal network, the remote employee may be perceived as uninformed and disinterested when they simply have no idea that there was information to be shared. This situation can be complicated enough when “remote” and “collocated” is a permanent identifier on an employee by employee basis, a reality that had already led to quite a bit of research studying biases against remote workers before the pandemic struck. But when any given employee may alternate between remote and collocated work, everything becomes even more complicated. Unintended reliance on collocation cheats can introduce miscommunication and frustration. Which employees have access to the cheats, and to the informal information network, will vary on a daily basis depending on the regularity of the rotation schedule. The result is that recognizing the intermittent use of collocation cheats as the underlying cause of newly erupting communication challenges becomes nearly impossible. As icing on the cake, a hybrid team where each individual may rotate between collocated and remote work still faces remote bias but the bias may manifest in diluted and inconsistent ways, making identifying and fighting the impact more difficult.
The good news is that the challenges faced by hybrid remote and collocated teams are nothing new. There were already companies experimenting with hybrid teams and reporting out their best practices before COVID struck. Furthermore, the balance and dance required to successfully support a mix of collocated and remote individuals looks just like a large organization with a formal headquarters and satellite offices. Some individuals are exceptionally successful from remote offices and some team members shine despite being remote in a hybrid team. But if the goal is to enable the entire team to thrive, the literature agrees that discipline is the key to success. While there is nothing wrong with taking advantage of a chance hallway encounter or leaning on the nonverbal cues available in a collocated setting, for the entire organization to succeed together, everyone must make the extra effort to stay connected to all members of the team. This effort comes naturally to those who are remote – they have no choice if they wish to succeed. Therefore, the burden is truly on the leaders and the collocated employees, whether they wear that mantle every day or only sporadically, to ensure that information is documented and communicated to everyone.
Teams who maintain the discipline required to collaborate successfully in a fully remote configuration should also be successful in a hybrid context but having anyone collocated offers frequent temptations to relax that discipline. With appropriate warning and forethought, leaders and teams alike can prepare for their return to the office braced against the natural desire to relax the structures that have held the team together over the past several months. If you have made it this far in the article, the onus is now on you to ensure that your team is ready. At a minimum, encourage your team to actively discuss how they will balance communication across remote and collocated workers, particularly if those designations will shift on a regular basis. Better yet, make a formal commitment to the best practices that will enable your success. But understand that the challenges will be ongoing. Be ready for the momentary lapses in discipline and the times when temptation will triumph. Be ready to identify those times. Be ready to apologize and adapt. And be ready to recommit once more to the best practices and discipline that were in your best interest all along.