We’ve always had a Hybrid Office – But It was Terrible!

4 Steps to an Effective Modern Workplace

We are all talking about a “hybrid office” as if it were a new idea. The reality is, we’ve had hybrid offices long before the pandemic. But have we forgotten how terrible the experience was?  In some cases, the technology was deficient: no video, poor audio quality, or a lack of smart whiteboards. But even in the smartest of smart conference rooms, equipped with the best technology, the experience has been poor.  For example:

  • How many in-person meetings have you attended where the in-person team forgot to dial in the remote participants?
  • Picking up on visual cues, the in-person participants are able to communicate at a faster rate than those viewing/listening remotely.
  • The result: two classes of participants with distinctly different experiences:
    • The in-person attendees often enjoy reasonably good communication and collaboration with a high level of engagement but are missing out on valuable input from the remote team.
    • In fact, remote participants are frequently forgotten, only being asked to weigh in at the very end of the meeting, if at all. Those in the conference room who are collaborating via a physical whiteboard fail to include those dialing in remotely. We’ve probably all been the recipient of a grainy photo of the whiteboard that some kind soul in the conference room decided to share with us.

Despite having great meeting technology, we haven’t changed how we conduct meetings. We haven’t adapted our rituals, culture, or processes to use this great tech in a way that fosters effective engagement for the remote participants.

But wait a minute… hasn’t the pandemic forced us to figure out remote meetings? If your experience is anything like mine, you’ve easily been in over 2,000 virtual meetings since March 2020. We are all pros at virtual collaboration, right?

We may have organically figured out some rituals and practices that work well when 100% of the attendees are remote. But what happens as we move to a hybrid office where half the attendees are sitting together face-to-face in a conference room and the other half is remote? We are already seeing an experience parity gap between in-person and remote participants.  Why? The bad practices from our pre-pandemic in-person meetings are resurfacing.

What needs to be different?  Here are four steps that I believe are already resulting in improved experience parity:

  1. Likely, you have thought through the technology that can enable great communication and collaboration, but if not, start there. This includes camera, lighting, devices, connectivity, and the UC&C platform. It also includes choosing platform settings that balance security with a great experience.
  2. Secondly, think about the behaviors you want to see in your hybrid meetings. Then educate and influence your workers to adopt these new practices. I found some helpful tips in this prosci blog on using the ADKAR model to encourage an organization to make beneficial changes. We’ve used videos, posters, and enlisted change champions to encourage behaviors that lead to effective hybrid collaboration.
  3. It is also useful to find a way to measurethe experience of your workforce. Obviously, this needs to be done while taking local privacy regulations into account. The goal is not to spy on workers, but to understand how effectively they are using the technology that you’ve invested in – and whether you’ve been able to deliver experience parity to all types of meeting participants.
  4. There is much interest in creating eXperience Level Agreements (XLAs). Typically, this is based on some measure of “device happiness” (measured through a digital experience management tool) and “user happiness” (measured through a survey mechanism). I recommend also collecting “collaboration happiness” data to measure the experience of your workforce as they use the collaboration platform that you’ve deployed.

 

An example that ties these steps together is that of a large consulting firm who standardized on one of the major UC&C platforms across all countries and regions at the start of the pandemic. They had the technology, but did they have experience parity? By measuring both device experience and collaboration experience, they were surprised when the data revealed that only 12% of their marketing organization was effectively using the new UC&C platform. Digging deeper revealed that the marketing team was an early adopter of another collaboration platform and was resisting the move to the company’s new platform.  Utilizing the change management techniques mentioned above allowed them to get past this resistance so that now nearly 100% of their workforce are effectively collaborating on the new corporate platform.

So, you are right. We’ve always had a hybrid office – and the experience for remote participants oftentimes was bad. But our new hybrid office does not have to be like that. In fact, if we are going to see the agility, productivity gains, and expanded diversity that the hybrid office promises, we must go beyond simply deploying technology that enables remote work. We must define new practices and rituals that encourage hybrid collaboration. We must make use of change management techniques to educate and change worker behavior to use adopt new practices. And we should find ways to measure experience so that we can proactively adapt as needed.  By doing so, we will create a hybrid office that everyone in the workforce – whether remote or in-person – will find engaging and productive.

Optional Footnote:

For additional tips on meeting rituals and rules of engagement to improve the effectiveness of hybrid collaboration, you may find my interview with TED Talk speaker and author, Jim Kalbach, of Mural to be of interest.  You can find it as episode 28 on my podcast, The Digital Workplace Deep Dive.