The global Coronavirus pandemic unexpectedly thrust the entire working world into new and uncharted territory. A year ago, some 95% of businesses were forced to move to a remote work environment, many for the first time. It was an unprecedented experience that was not only unanticipated, but that few businesses were ready for.
It has now been over a year since quarantines began and we’ve learned a lot. Preconceived notions about working remotely have been shattered and the discussion around remote work has been forever changed. The pandemic has been an unforeseen experiment that’s proven that remote work can — and does — work.
But it hasn’t been easy for everyone. Since the shift was unplanned, some organizations weren’t able to strategize and implement the appropriate infrastructure for a long-term transition to remote work. For many, it happened without the proper structures in place and left them struggling to learn and develop the skills to be effective as a leader of a virtual team.
Employees have faced challenges of their own. The rapid, emergency move to working from home a year ago created a collision that has increased burnout for those without strict work-life boundaries.
Today, many businesses are in the process of planning a transition to post-COVID operations. But what will that look like? We spoke with remote and hybrid work expert, Sacha Connor of Virtual Work Insider, to learn more.
What’s next for work?
There’s a broad spectrum of philosophies on the future of work. Some of the more progressive thinkers in business see the end of the pandemic as an opportunity to adapt to a new landscape and forge a remote-first work environment. Others are desperate to get back to “normal.”
Although some business leaders might want to go right back to the office as soon as possible, there seems to be a general recognition that things aren’t going back to the way they were.
Many, maybe even most organizations, are looking at hybrid work models as a palatable middleground. They’re evaluating who needs to be in the office, who doesn’t, and how to rebuild around that.
Hybrid work is a popular topic and is sometimes viewed as the “best of both worlds.” But it’s much more difficult to execute successfully than simply deciding to go hybrid. It could be the best of both worlds, or it could turn out to be the best of none and worst of both. Doing it right comes with lots of challenges.
Hybrid is hard
It’s complex, but hybrid work may be a way to crawl into the “new normal” before we learn to walk.
So how do businesses make sure they’re doing hybrid the right way?
As the head of a virtual leadership training and remote & hybrid work consultancy, Sacha has spent the last two years helping enterprise clients like Toyota, Vanguard, and Cisco to lead, communicate, collaborate, and drive culture in hybrid and remote work environments. As a remote work pioneer at The Clorox Company, she had 8 years of first-hand experience facing the challenges of hybrid and remote work as both an employee and as a leader. Few people, if any, are more equipped to speak on how to get hybrid right.
When asked about what organizations can do to successfully transition to hybrid work, she acknowledged that hybrid work involves a lot of ambiguity. “It’s like finding the right mix of ingredients in a recipe,” she said.“Every company is different, their needs are different, so it’s not cookie-cutter.”
On top of that, the variability is elevated given the uncertain nature of the post-COVID landscape. As she puts it, “there are so many factors beyond just the work. It’s still so layered right now. And we know that it’s a moving target.”
Making it work
Despite the uniqueness of each hybrid situation, there are some universal truths.
Communication is essential to hybrid work. The entire experience is an ongoing exercise in effective communication that starts the moment leaders begin considering making the switch to a hybrid model. Everyone should know what’s going on, no one should be surprised, and nothing should be left unsaid as it relates to the transition.
Hybrid work requires a hybrid infrastructure. Just as Gitlab has pioneered a “Head of Remote” role for remote companies, Sacha suggests a “Head of Hybrid” role to foster a unified organization across distance. “A senior leader needs to be held accountable as the integrator across all locations, to lead the workforce strategy and oversee its execution, and to drive location inclusion and diversity,” she said.
Organizations should also make efforts to create a Virtual Workforce Employee Resource Group (ERG). ERGs, which sit within the diversity and inclusion segment of HR, create an affinity group that helps individuals of a particular group get together and support each other. When applied to hybrid teams, it creates a business resource group that senior leaders can tap into for helpful input on how to be better at hybrid work. It gives employees a platform to speak to the executive level about issues like location-diversity, location-inclusion, and the skills needed to succeed in a hybrid workforce. Sacha co-founded the first-ever of this type of ERG while at Clorox and it became a competitive advantage.
Distance bias must be avoided at all costs. The NeuroLeadership Institute describes distance bias as our brain’s natural tendency to put more importance on the people and things that are closer to us than those that are farther away. While this hasn’t been as much of an issue in the pandemic forced remote models because, as Sacha puts it, “everyone has their own box on the screen on a Zoom call,” it’s a major threat in hybrid work models. When moving to hybrid work, “this distance bias is going to rear its ugly head, and if organizations are not trained to identify it and put plans in place to mitigate it then that’s where they’re going to struggle,” she said. It’s imperative that organizations intentionally develop the skills, systems, and processes that keep distance bias at bay.
Does the hybrid model work?
The hybrid work model does work, and it has for many businesses already, but it’s not easy. For every organization that puts in the work and successfully transitions to a hybrid work model, others will fail. There are still lessons to be learned about how to successfully operate as a hybrid workforce.
Sacha warns that, while hybrid can be a great option for many businesses, “it takes a lot of intention, strategy, skill-development, and location-inclusion. It’s not something that just organically happens. You can’t just say ‘OK, we’re going hybrid!’ and expect that everything will work out.”
Many believe that the future of work is remote. And while the pandemic has proved that may just be the case, that future is far-off for lots of businesses. In the meantime, hybrid could be the next step in a long process of evolution for those that are willing to put in the work.
For more insights from Sacha Connor on navigating remote and hybrid work, you can view her 10 tips from 10 years of remote work, this discussion about 5 Things You Need To Know Before Taking Your BIG Company Remote, or watch her speak at the world’s largest remote work conference in May.
Ryan Plank is a content marketer with a degree in Journalism and a background in technology. He lives in Orlando, Florida, and is an avid golfer.