What to do if hybrid isnít working

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Feb 27 2024 by Wayne Turmel Print This Article

How are team's hybrid working arrangements working out? Are they better or worse than you expected?

After the pandemic, many companies settled on a hybrid way of working. Some people worked mostly remotely while others worked in the office. Others had no definite location requirement, just a minimum number of days they had to be with their team.

Some organizations were extremely methodical about how they created this new arrangement. Most weren't, and it shows. Too many organizations saw this new way of functioning as a compromise at best and a lose-lose at worst. "If we don't let them work from home sometimes, they'll quit!" So neither party is happy, and they all feel trapped.

Common Complaints

Among the common complaints organizations and their employees have are:

  • Communication snags.
  • Productivity challenges.
  • Unfairness (or perceived unfairness) in how people are treated by the manager.
  • A lack of engagement and team cohesion.

So What Do We Do?

Before making radical changes to the working environment, I want you to recognize two critical factors:

1. Forgive yourself. Few if any companies have done this before and everyone's figuring it out as they go along. Pandemic-induced diaspora recovery required nearly every organization to make assumptions about what would work and what wouldn't. Employees' lives and attitudes had changed in 18 months or more or working in new ways. Not unexpectedly, some of those assumptions were correct and others were way off. Some people missed the old way of working, others didn't. Afterwards, the stress of commuting seemed so much worse. And people realized there was some quiet, focused work that's easier done away from the team. Forgive yourself for not getting it 100% right the first time.

2. As best you can, define exactly what isn't working. It's not enough to say, "Everybody's unhappy so we need to change again." If you don't know exactly what you're trying to fix, you're no better off than you were at the beginning. For example, a specific, identifiable problem may be that not enough good collaboration happening. But just demanding everyone come into the office all the time may or may not be the right answer. Getting it wrong will be stressful, expensive, and just plain uncomfortable for everyone.

Most organizations did the best they could in an unfamiliar situation. But just because you created a policy doesn't mean you have to stick with it if it's not working. It also doesn't mean you necessarily need to make sweeping dramatic changes either. Don't just blow it all up and say, "Everyone back in the office." Odds are what you need to do is make small, incremental adjustments to the processes and work agreements.

So can hybrid work be salvaged? Here are some ways to make the necessary changes that may still make hybrid work successful:

Choose one problem at a time

Let's say the challenge is that people aren't getting the answers they need quickly in order to be productive. Would everyone being in the same place at the same time solve that problem? Would it create other, unintended consequences? What if you looked at solutions like using asynchronous tools (Skype, Microsoft Teams) more effectively?

That's a training and technology solution, not a workplace location issue. Maybe the team isn't effectively communicating their work status and availability on a given day. Ratcheting up how you use shared calendars and being vigilant about availability notifications can help. It may be possible to fix a challenge if you have the right data.

Work as a team to find the best solutions

Most companies that are successful with hybrid work don't dictate policy from the top down. Different functions, geographical regions, and teams have unique circumstances. What works great for one group may not be as successful for another. Shared purpose and goals inspire people to find effective, viable solutions to adversity. Candid, sometimes difficult conversations are often the best way to find the answers that work best.

Use your one-on-ones to ask the tough questions

Too often, leaders are blind to what's going on around them. That's not a judgement - it's true of all humans. Proximity bias, for example, is a natural phenomenon that can be overcome if you're aware it's happening. When you have one-on-one conversations with team members, make sure you're not just handling the items on your "to-do" list. Ask probing questions about their productivity and engagement. What's working well? What can be better? Do they have any ideas for improvements? You might not be thrilled with the answers, but best to kill dragons in the egg than fight them later.

Get (and interpret) data consistently

Most of the problems that lead to crises were a long time coming. If individuals are experiencing communication challenges, don't just assume they're alone. Check in with the rest of the team early and often. If productivity is a challenge, use data to identify the source of the problem. Then make small tweaks, rather than dramatic, sweeping changes.

Think "pilot before policy"

When doing something you've never done before, it's a great idea to pick small projects. Think of this first try as a pilot that will be re-examined and tweaked. This is different than creating a policy. Policies tend to go wide, get written into procedure, and then become difficult to adjust as needed.

You Don't Have to Give Up

Hybrid work is a relatively new phenomenon. The odds of getting all the answers right the first time aren't (and weren't) great. Don't beat yourself up. Also, don't assume that this experiment will never work just because pieces of it aren't living up to your expectations. Small, incremental changes are less dramatic and traumatic than ditching the whole idea of a hybrid workplace.

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About The Author

Wayne Turmel
Wayne Turmel

For almost 30 years, Wayne Turmel has been obsessed with how people communicate - or don't - at work. He has spent the last 20 years focused on remote and virtual work, recognized as one of the top 40 Remote Work Experts in the world. Besides writing for Management Issues, he has authored or co-authored 15 books, including The Long-Distance Leader and The Long-Distance Teammate. He is the lead Remote and Hybrid Work subject matter expert for the The Kevin Eikenberry Group. Originally from Canada, he now makes his home in Las Vegas, US.