Work was not good before the pandemic for many. Lockdowns forced a change to remote work, often with the sentiment of getting back to normal as quickly as possible. The prolonged nature of the pandemic empowered some to reimagine work. Managers fear a return to the old ways may not be in the cards, and they are afraid of what they see ahead.
- 1. Real planning
- 2. The management of measurement
- 3. Getting to know the team
- 4. Incorporating anticipation and foresight
- 5. Rethinking meetings and schedules
- 6. Collaboration
- 7. Making time for reflection
- 8. Coordinating rather than managing
- 9. Motivating teams
- 10. People enjoying their escape valves
- 11. Execution over innovation
- 12. Adopting commitment-based work
- Hybrid work: still too early to tell
- Additonal Reading from the web
Management has been likened to orchestration. The manager conducts a team toward an outcome. With everyone in one place, work is more jazz than a symphony. People riff off one another; small mistakes get taken up or played over. Melodies wander off and return.
That can still happen in a hybrid work environment, depending on the team’s goals, but for those with work to deliver on schedule, managerial orchestration is critical. Orchestration does not imply micromanagement—it is not the manager’s job to ensure that every task is overseen and accomplished on time, but it is the manager’s job to put in systems that deliver results.
We need to keep in mind that bringing people to a central location to do work was an unproven (at the time) consequence of the Industrial Revolution. Scientific management and assembly lines brought back a concept that ceased to be common after the fall of Rome.
Managers need to change the way they manage as much as individuals need to change the way they approach their workflows.
What scares managers most is the need to not only change the way they manage but to become better managers. Managing in a hybrid organization will be different and harder. Things hidden, ignored, and allowed just to happen will become explicit. Failure to manage well will lead either to stagnation or to chaos, neither of which should be acceptable in such volatile conditions—conditions that call for passion, authenticity, innovation, perseverance, and resilience.
Hybrid work will likely not be much like previous work in the short term. Those who return to the office will spend their first several visits reacclimating themselves to their spaces and to their colleagues. They will test boundaries about safe behavior—how often do they disinfect their hands, do they shake hands or hug, do they wear a mask even if it isn’t mandated, and what message does that send their peers?
For additional insights, see Lauren Drell’s
Treating Remote Employees Fairly in a Hybrid Workplace at Toptal.
As you read through this post, it will become obvious that hybrid work practices are also good work practices, and they will offer value regardless of how organizations decide to reintegrate offices into the work equation. The real battle going on is not between the past and the future but against institutionalized practices that reflect poor management—and good management practice based on respect, co-creation, and dignity.
Many of the most complex organizations already practice some form of distributed work, be it working from home or working from a customer site. I remember many years ago visiting the cubical of an AI consultant with Digital Equipment Corporation. His cubical was likely no more than 5×5 feet. Most of the space was consumed with a chair. The desktop surfaces were littered with seemingly abandoned magazines, reports, and books. I asked why it was so small, and he said, “Because my boss never wants me to be in the office.”
The frontline problem
Retail workers, factory workers, customer-facing bank employees, hairdressers, restaurant workers, as well as most healthcare workers, and many others, do not have the option of working remotely. Delivering services and personal care requires being at a place where the customer or patient seeks service or care.
Managers, or perhaps more accurately, management, need to reinvent work experiences so that we don’t end up with populations of workers at odds with each other, those with the option of working from home, and those who don’t. Although different, the work experiences need to seek equitability. While organizations may need two sets of work experiences and perhaps managers with different skills, they must avoid creating practices and policies that purposefully isolate work populations from one another. The design of the hybrid work experience must include accommodations for both populations that recognize uniqueness and common ground.
Frontline workers, those who have no choice but to work in the office or from the place of business, should receive rewards and perks commensurate with their work experience. Those working from home don’t have to worry about commuting, packing lunches, or in some cases, childcare. Those in the office do. Consider offering lunch expense accounts, childcare discounts or on-site child care, and discounts on transportation or additional compensation for the commute. Home-based workers may find benefit in more control of their time or meaningful variety in assignments and stipends for office supplies and equipment. Both groups should receive equal benefits when it comes to professional development, family leave, and other shared benefits.
Some commentators on hybrid work, such as Jack Kelly at Forbes (see The Unintended Consequences Of The Hybrid-Work Model) suggest that people who want to succeed more than their home-oriented colleagues should go to work so they can get noticed, volunteer for urgent tasks, and suck up to leadership. I’m appalled by this suggestion, even if it proves correct. It is exactly the kind of suggestion that keeps poor management practices in place for those working in offices and for those working remotely. It suggests that the office offers better opportunities overall—that the office is the right choice for those who want career success.
Hybrid work calls upon different skills. I have found, for instance, that those who can write well succeed in hybrid work situations because content—ideas expressed well—make them more visible. Unlike hallway conversations, writing allows for a deeper exploration and richer articulation. Substance over surface. As an analyst, my work biases me toward writing, but it has proven time and again, even early in my career, often more important to advancement than my coding skills.
Change engenders fear. Moving from a primarily office-based environment to a permanent hybrid organization will change many things about a manager’s role, such as what work gets emphasized and which is jettisoned. The noise and bustle of the office will give way to the distributed pings and momentary connections of a workforce empowered, trusted, and perhaps autonomous. Not everyone will succeed in the adjustment. Managers will retain the traditional role of figuring out which of their peers and their staff are best suited to the reality of the moment. Those who can’t adjust will disappear or realign, including businesses, managers, and workers. The pandemic has not yet finished rearranging the deckchairs on the ships adrift in its turbulent seas.
1. Real planning
Planning sits squarely with management as a core skill. But traditional planning does not work in a hybrid work environment. Tasks must now account for time and place as resources. They need to consider who is available when—and what resources that person has available at their location. Traditionally, skills override other considerations—who is the best person to do the work? That question, however, changes as the skills to deliver in a hybrid work environment differ from an in-office environment.
The dysfunction of office work often prioritizes the ability to appear to get something done in the din of noise and interruptions. Plans can unfold incrementally as leaders swoop around a corner with a new idea to expand on the idea they had 30 minutes ago. That is a way of working, but in hybrid work, those interrupt-driven cycles don’t work—or at least they don’t work as well, though some will try to overlay them on hybrid work through tools like Slack and other real-time chat tools that codify the dysfunction.
Hybrid work requires legitimate planning at a detailed level. That means managers have to work with their teams to not only develop detailed plans but also to create consensus.
What scares managers is the inability to disrupt a team member when they are working to interject something “important.” In hybrid work, the team member may go into a focus mode that purposefully eliminates distraction, including ignoring e-mails. When these two approaches clash, rework likely ensues. When good planning meets hybrid work, however, the result can be higher quality outcomes in shorter times. A plan followed translates into transparency about work. A team member working from home executes the plan In the agreed-upon way.
Agile development methodologies work well with hybrid work because their plans incorporate shorter-term objectives within a broader set of goals. Agile sprints facilitate remote worker partitioning off time to deliver on the promised increment. The manager’s next big idea goes into the backlog to be taken up in a future sprint.
2. The management of measurement
Allowing people to work remotely requires transparent measurements that allow antsy managers to understand that work continues despite their inability to see butts in seats or interrupt people for a check-in.
Hybrid work requires the adoption of push measurements rather than pull measurements, perhaps to the consternation of John Seely Brown, Lang Davison, and John Hagel III and their book The Power of Pull. Push, in this context, gives control to the creator, the executor of the task. They need to push the reporting of results and activity into the information flow. As Brown then suggests, the manager needs to pull what they need from the information stream. The components of the information flow need to be part of the work experience design—a design that should include agreements so those pushing data know what to share and those pulling insights know what is available.
There should be no confusion about what gets posted or where. Project work gets recorded on a Trello board, with comments on obstacles. The completion of a task must be accurate and reported within the day of completion or the hour. Business needs drive the details of timing and data. What matters universally is that all parties agree on what they need to share, where the sharing takes place, and when they need to report.
Managers need to work closely with individuals and teams to define what good looks like—how success gets defined. Managers may fear this because much of management in an office revolves around looking busy—broadly creating activity. A product launch or a marketing campaign in execution is too large a bucket. Organizations need to find measurements that allow workers to understand their value in smaller increments—and ways to share progress at the same level easily.
Good measurement will likely require the re-evaluation of team structures, work assignments, project launch and success criteria, and a wide range of other items that may well lead to more rapid and incremental shifts in teams, as learning will take place more quickly. The veil of hiding behind being busy will lift, and it will become increasingly apparent which people contribute. Managers then need to think about how they mentor, reorient, replace, or otherwise better align their needs with their organizations.
Organizations should avoid measurement that devolves into tracking time, soliciting phone records (or recording phone calls and producing transcripts), viewing website use, or monitoring keystrokes. By moving to commitment-based work, people get to decide how best to use their time to accomplish a goal—and when, as long as it gets done on time and within budget. That they watch TV during the day, and work at night should mean little to the organization as long as the work gets done and the person is present when they promise to be.
3. Getting to know the team
Managers will need to get to know their team members better than ever. Hybrid work requires managers to understand what motivates their people—and to provide them with opportunities that encompass their passions as well as their talents. They need to challenge people and engage them as they learn—not leave them to sink or swim on their own.
Good managers get to know their teams, but even the best managers will struggle in a hybrid environment where people start a job from home after a series of video interviews. Managers will need to work hard to connect and learn from their remote workers.
4. Incorporating anticipation and foresight
Managers can no longer afford to live in the moment. They must spend part of their time imagining near and farther-flung futures. Uncertainty and crisis dominate business. Managers can neither shield their teams from uncertainty and crisis and the change it requires nor can they steep them in the moment so much that they simply ignore the issues facing them, their families, and the organizations they work for.
Managers need to build anticipation and foresight into their role. If an organization builds scenarios, all managers should be aware of the scenarios and their underlying drivers. And they need to ensure their teams also understand the core uncertainties. It is at the team level, through network effects, that organizations will first sense changes forecasted in scenarios.
The scattered hybrid organization will prove more adept at sensing change than those in offices because they lack the cultural, physical, and temporal isolation built into co-existing physical workplaces. Hybrid workers will likely connect to a wider range of customers, peers, and outside sources than those inside an organization because their virtual support network also represents the hybrid sprawl.
Hybrid workers will likely connect to a wider range of customers, peers, and outside sources than those inside an organization because their virtual support network also represents the hybrid sprawl.
Managers may fear anticipation and foresight because they don’t have experience formally thinking about the future. They can learn. They may also worry that asking people to watch for signs of change will become more interesting than their core work. That reflects back on managers and the design of work experiences, not the task of future sensing. Interesting adjuncts to core work should be viewed as a positive introduction of variety, not as a bright shiny distraction to become obsessed with. If work is not engaging, it does not mean that the distraction is bad, but that the work needs to be re-evaluated for how it can be accomplished in a more engaging way, or perhaps if it should be done at all.
In a volatile world, paying attention to unfolding realities and emergent drivers will prove an important skill every manager should master.
5. Rethinking meetings and schedules
With commitment-based work, scheduling need not become a source of conflict. Workers want to concentrate on deliverables; managers want to coordinate to produce results. In the office, managers and team leaders tend to win the scheduling wars. They schedule meetings, and people attend. Days are often spent more talking about what to do than doing it. Scheduling does not become a conflict because most office politics arbitrate in favor of the powerful.
In a hybrid work environment, arbitration should favor necessity. Only those required should attend meetings—and meetings should focus on value. If a meeting does not offer value, then it should not happen. Most status meetings reflect poor planning and even poorer reporting systems. In good Agile environments, meetings focus on blockers—overcoming obstacles to the work, not status. Status should be clear and available because people share the state of their work in a common way.
Hybrid work scares managers because it means a loss of control, perhaps even a loss of prestige. It also results in less spontaneity—and not just more scheduled time, differently scheduled time. Managers will need to manage time in new ways. Hybrid work removes time as a weapon for those who wield it in that way—and it exposes those who fritter it away being busy.
Time becomes a visible, shared resource. The goal is not for managers to fill the time but to empower their teams to put it to the best possible use.
Many managers still struggle with collaboration. I see collaboration technology misused daily, from highlighted bold text in a document to provide in-line feedback to a lack of clarity about which collaboration system should be used for what. The decision of which tools to use for a team, and the effective use of those tools, falls to the manager in a hybrid work environment, ideally with input from the team to build a co-created work experience.
In whatever system emerges, the manager must model the right behavior and quickly correct deviations from agreed to practice. It is okay for a team to experiment as long as the experiment is explicit and it concludes with a convergence on a practice that works.
Although managers don’t need to manage most workflows, they do need to participate in them and be respectful of group practice.
Good collaboration reflection should replace reaction. Teams should be expected to engage in idea development, offer meaningful input, and provide helpful feedback.
Like many items on this list, the manager becomes a co-creator, an accompanist ensuring the viability and success of a vision. This differs from the stereotypical manager/leader who inspires people through decision-driven behavior—a stereotype that often includes the false belief that the more decisions made, the better.
Collaboration distributes the decision-making. It seeks consensus, quality, and thoroughness—even if it doesn’t always achieve them. Collaboration, good collaboration, distributes decision-making.
7. Making time for reflection
Offices leave no room for reflection. Some innovation teams purposefully create time and space where reflection can occur, but it is all too rare. Reviewing a document requires reflection. More importantly, writing a document requires reflection and planning. Posting something because a task requires it does not mean the thing posted is worthy of its intent; it simply means that the person assigned the task placed a document in a repository and declared victory.
I spent a lot of my time rewriting my own work and the work of others. There is a huge disconnect between those creating content and those who benefit from reading/consuming it. Those creating it are often judged by the time required to create content rather than the quality of the content in the eyes of the reader. And even writing guidance that offers examples and clear instructions is, more often than not, ignored by content creators.
8. Coordinating rather than managing
Coordination is not the same as collaboration. Coordination means helping make things happen when they need to happen. It does not mean making them happen.
Coordination does not imply meetings. Coordination results from the execution of a plan by those responsible for the plan accepting their commitments and executing on them, including understanding who they need to work with upstream and downstream of their own assignments. Coordination also means understanding the intent of the work—coordinating their creativity with the desired outcome.
9. Motivating teams
Open door policies. Drop-ins and stop-bys work for in-place work. Managers can get a sense of individual and team engagement by listening, observing, and prompting conversation, but that doesn’t work in a hybrid work environment. Just calling someone up on real-time video seems more than disruptive; it can even appear invasive. So more big meetings, less small ones.
What managers should be doing is scheduling check-ins that focus on the work experience, not the work. They need the patience to learn how to project empathy across the digital domain—for themselves and those on their teams.
And all of that time not spent managing time needs to be spent managing people, or, more pointedly, creating an environment of inclusion where remote workers feel just as valuable as those in the office. It means coaching those in the office on how to include remote workers in designs and decisions.
10. People enjoying their escape valves
It can be hard to escape at work. The lunchroom, the receiving dock, another cubicle, a colleague’s office with a door closed. None of those achieve the goal of escaping. There is nothing better than spending a few minutes with the family dog or cat, a child or grandchild, to get some perspective. Of course, homeschooling and other parental and care duties may add to overall stress, but those are very different stresses than the stress asserted by work. Backyards and parks, hiking trails, and bike rides will offer more release than standing on a loading dock looking out at a slanted concrete driveway.
Hybrid work also retains better connections with the whole person. We bring our books, pictures, and knick-knacks to the office to help ground us within the utilitarian setting. But after leaving those belongings in offices for months without access to them, the home office appeals as a safer place, a personal place where we don’t need to settle for a small piece of ourselves to follow us, but as a place where we are completely ourselves.
Hybrid work offers the chance for better engagement because people can more effectively disengage.
11. Execution over innovation
Getting things done trumps everything else on a manager’s list of skills and responsibilities. Hybrid work offers benefits that often receive short shrift in an office. Diverse teams often outperform homogenous teams. Hybrid work introduced its own diversity.
Innovation need not suffer—the prosaic way organizations approach innovation, however, should be abandoned. Creativity tools often translate to the home more readily than the office, and the choice of when to work increases the capacity to wrestle warm, immediate ideas rather than waiting until the next day, expending energy in an attempt to rekindle inspiration out of context.
12. Adopting commitment-based work
In most organizations, commitments are year-long goals that tie individual performance to organizational goals with the promise of stock options and bonus cash should the individual achieve his or her goals and the organization its objectives. We all do well if the organization does well and we do our part.
But because many managers don’t plan well, they typically end up managing bigger segments of work that hide the inefficiencies of office busywork. Typical pre-pandemic commitments are too grandiose to offer day-to-day guidance for those working remotely.
Managers will need to create granular work commitments—commitments measured in days or weeks because the flexibility of hybrid work requires a framework that allows all parties to understand expectations. (Agile approaches offer incremental commitments based on sprints, which, given economic volatility, may well prove the right model for the moment.)
Learning not to work all of the time
As employees find more autonomy, they may challenge the one thing that managers appreciate about work from home: the melding of work and home so much that working hours are extended, that work and non-work blur. People could be counted on to be available—a question, a task, a project—was only a message away.
But those who want to find a balance between work and life in a hybrid work environment may well push back against the expectation of always being on.
Commitment-based work offers a solution to many hybrid work challenges. It delivers mutual agreements about what to do, when to do it, how much it will cost (the budget), and what good looks like. Commitments can also include service-level agreements for workers and managers, even social contracts. Commitment-based work requires ongoing communication and negotiation. Scheduled check-ins may become more frequent, but systems support visibility into the work that should reduce onerous and repetitive reporting.
Over time, the need for meeting visibility and other “activities” wanes, replaced by work that represents the skills, knowledge, and capabilities of the team members. The work needs to be visible, not the individuals doing it. That doesn’t mean people fade into the background, but that they no longer need to shuffle for visibility or to look busy in order to receive recognition. Their work speaks for them. When they attend a meeting, ideally, they seek to improve it or leverage it, not tell people things that they could already know by looking at the product or the status board.
Commitment-based work isn’t about instant responses to e-mails or Slack messages (unless that is part of the commitment; it is about delivering quality accomplishments. If someone can get more done in eight hours than a peer, perhaps they are ready for more intense work—perhaps the less productive worker demonstrates that a task overmatches their skills. The rapid and regular visibility of work takes time to establish, but once done, it allows managers to more actively understand how their teams work and make necessary adjustments to improve individual and team performance much earlier than broader quarterly or annual review systems.
Hybrid work: still too early to tell
It is too early to tell how long hybrid work will persist. For some, it was their pre-pandemic reality. For others, it is the new reality. Some workers will want to continue hybrid work as the new normal for work. Many companies want to return to what they know, with little evidence that the return to work will increase either productivity or innovation—and scant evidence that remote work negatively impacted either.
It is too early to tell how long hybrid work will persist. For some, it was their pre-pandemic reality. For others, it is the new reality.
We do know that many economies found a way to move forward with most of their workers at home. For a short period of acceptance, organizations allowed workers from home to get things done. Many workers won’t forget soon that working from home worked well. Workers, however, have tasted alternatives; many of them not only appreciate the differences but relish them.
Unfortunately, many managers don’t want to change. The organizations they work for don’t want to change. The dictates from Goldman Sachs or Apple are blusters to avoid reinvention. Rather than see hybrid work as an opportunity for innovation, they see it as a challenge to the status quo—one more change driven by the pandemic in a world already reshaped by masks, social distancing, isolation, quarantine, disinfecting, and death. The return to normal means a return to what they know—to their formula for success that drove the business before the pandemic. Reinventing work may well mean reinventing their business model, and that’s a step too far.
Life for most managers will be more difficult in a hybrid work environment. Managers will find themselves enforcers and mentors. They will need to deal with vaccination policy and with mask-wearing, about who must come to the office and who has permission to work remotely—and they will need to build cohesion and camaraderie among their distributed charges.
Pay promotions, rewards, and other benefits
Promotions and rewards exist within a formula. Those who follow the formula succeed. It has always been that way. Neither the pandemic, remote work, nor hybrid work changes that. There is dissonance, however, between existing formulas and the idea of hybrid work. And that, too, causes managers consternation.
People will still get promoted, but if things go well, they will likely get promoted for different reasons than they might have been promoted in the past. Hybrid work requires a new formula in order to provide recognition for commitment-based work, well-coordinated projects, and collaborative behavior.
Pay will likely prove more fundamental than promotions and rewards. Pay should remain based on performance and potential, not on proximity.
Issues about time off—sick days, paid time off, vacation—will rise. People working from home are just as deserving of these benefits as those in the office, and they need to be protected.
Hybrid work is an ongoing experiment. We are all subjects, and many of us are also researchers. As such, we need to approach hybrid work with a scientific mindset—establish and test hypotheses about what works for us and what doesn’t. Failure teaches as much as success. I believe we have come too far to return to pre-pandemic patterns of work. The world has changed so drastically that we can no longer shape it into something recognizable as a 2019 model of business or life. COVID lingers, COVID evolves. We will be dealing with its direct impact for years and its ramifications for decades. COVID is perhaps the first of the existential threats we will face in our lifetimes. Hybrid work, if nothing else, is a more adaptive and flexible way to deal with crises, be it wildfires in California, floods in London, or nuclear disasters in Japan.
Hybrid work leverages networks, empowers the nodes to continue when disconnected, and it evolves support structures. Perhaps most importantly, hybrid work models bend but do not break. Offices, and the buildings that house them, represent rigid structures that solidify and reinforce legacy approaches to work. Traditional offices nurtured some of our worst impulses and abetted predators.
Hybrid work brings its own challenges, but it also offers businesses an opportunity to reinvent, improve, and connect with healthier, more people-centric, and sustainable approaches to work. And if the businesses don’t seize the moment, they may well find their workforces will.
The automation of the information sweatshop
As reported recently, Microsoft, Cisco, and others (see Privacy and Collaboration: Will Privacy Kill Evidence-based Performance?) moved away from revealing individual metrics about productivity and teamwork that could be derived from their systems. At some point, that may prove a competitive disadvantage should executives at non-technology companies seek tools that will monitor the details of work—an entire market of tools like Time Doctor. Workplus, m2sys, and ActivTrak collect data and monitor work hours, transforming hybrid or remote work into a virtual sweatshop. Technology like this fuels turnover, even if it whips people into productivity in the short term and makes managers feel like they are managing. A good manager will know if people are performing.
By managing well by adopting commitment-based work, people don’t need to be monitored. If they perform, they get to keep performing. If they do more than expected, they get rewarded. If they do less, they get coached, perhaps fired. Watching keystrokes and taking screenshots won’t help motivate and engage. Some areas, like call centers, will end up with technology that monitors and records calls, and tracks engagement. How that technology gets used should be transparent to the worker and ideally used for training, in time management, and in customer care.
Call centers, however, notoriously drive call after call—and customers expect a human connection. More likely than not, organizations that require call centers understaff, creating high turnover by practice, which results in poor initial customer experiences that then drive people to the call center. Solving the elimination of the information sweatshop is a holistic design problem that many organizations shy away from in favor of more draconian, less human-centric approaches.
Common metrics for measuring quality and productivity include:
- Finishing assigned work on time and within budget
- Communicating progress and completeness
- Being available when committed to being available
- Regularly scheduled 360-degree reviews
- Client/customer feedback