May 17, 2022

Article at WSJ

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Five Things Every Worker Needs to Agree To in a Hybrid Workplace

Everybody has to be on the same page about certain things, such as when they’ll be available for meetings. If not, it will be chaos.

Flexibility has to be managed in a hybrid workplace to keep individuals and the team performing well.

Illustration: Adam McCauley

Ask employees what they value most about working remotely, and here’s what they’ll typically say: flexibility.

And yes, flexibility can be a wonderful thing. But unlimited flexibility for everyone can turn into chaos before too long. Imagine a bunch of individual atoms that might sometimes bump into each other at the office. It isn’t hard to see how that would hurt individual productivity and well-being, as well as a team’s effectiveness.

That’s...

Ask employees what they value most about working remotely, and here’s what they’ll typically say: flexibility.

And yes, flexibility can be a wonderful thing. But unlimited flexibility for everyone can turn into chaos before too long. Imagine a bunch of individual atoms that might sometimes bump into each other at the office. It isn’t hard to see how that would hurt individual productivity and well-being, as well as a team’s effectiveness.

That’s why the success of a hybrid model depends on teams getting on the same page with respect to some basic rules of the road—when to be together, how to communicate, and how to respond to emergencies. Call it a hybrid work covenant, and everybody has to sign on.

It doesn’t have to be anything fancy, but it needs to answer these five questions:

When will we work together?

Not when will we work, but when will we be available for meetings and conversations? This is the most fundamental question for hybrid teams, because you can’t tap into the real power of remote work—namely, the ability to get long stretches of uninterrupted time for focused work—if you’re constantly in meetings or expected to be continuously available via email and messaging. But you also can’t be an effective team if you can’t get together at least some of the time.

An effective strategy is to set some common work hours, like 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., when everyone needs to be available for meetings and generally responsive to messages, but also allows people to work uninterrupted (or, face it, take care of errands).

It’s even more crucial to arrive at a common schedule for days at the office if people are in the same city; there is no point in hauling yourself into the office on Tuesdays and Thursdays if your closest collaborators are in on Mondays and Wednesdays.

What warrants a meeting, and how will they work?

The biggest roadblock to effective hybrid work is meeting-itis. Before the pandemic hit, lots of organizations treated meetings as the default way of getting work done. But moving all those meetings to video wasn’t only more exhausting. It also kept us from tapping the remote-work opportunity to put our heads down and tackle focused work.

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Setting some basic agreements around why and how often to meet can help turn that tide. For example, a team might agree that every meeting needs a specific agenda, or that meetings should be kept to days when people are in the office.

It’s just as important to create a common understanding around how meetings will operate. For mixed meetings (where some people are in the room and some are virtual), teams need rules that ensure remote participants get heard—like an agreement to immediately pause when someone raises an on-screen hand, or a practice that assigns an in-room “meeting buddy” for each remote participant, responsible for bridging any communication gaps. For online meetings, everybody has to agree on when it’s OK to keep cameras off, and on team-building practices like taking time for a five-minute icebreaker before getting down to business.

How will we share space?

As people start returning to the on-site workplace, it’s helpful to reset expectations. If workers are only in the office a couple of days a week, and mostly there for meetings, it makes sense to shift the team’s physical footprint into something that gives priority to gathering space over individual workspace—which may mean eliminating some private offices or even personal desks.

Some workplaces have set policies in which employees who choose to spend more time on site get dedicated desks, while others “hot desk” by using whatever’s available on the days they’re in the office.

How will we stay in touch?

Communication is easy when everybody is in the same physical space. But once that is gone, it can be a free-for-all. That’s why it’s crucial that everybody agree on when and how to use email, group messaging (i.e., Slack or Teams) and the old-fashioned telephone.

For example, you might collectively agree that email is how you will handle any concern that requires more than a couple of sentences, or that involves people outside the organization—and that can wait up to 24 hours for a response. Anything that requires a response within an hour or two will be handled via Slack or Teams, with a direct mention of the person who needs to reply; if you don’t hear back within a couple of hours, it’s OK to pick up the phone and call (or text) about a time-sensitive issue.

What’s an ‘emergency’?

All these agreements about hybrid work practices are only as strong as the weakest moment—that is, the urgent client call or intense deadline crunch that provides an excuse to throw all carefully negotiated practices out the window. That’s why it’s crucial to have agreements about what really constitutes an emergency, so that everybody knows when it’s OK to make an exception to your rules.

The definition of emergency will vary by role and team. For instance, an IT department may decide to designate at least one person on the team who’s accessible at a moment’s notice. Another department may have a crunch season when certain team members need to be reachable 16 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Emergency protocols should also include how people prefer to be contacted. Maybe some people never pick up the phone for an unfamiliar number, but will answer a text right away. Others may want to get an actual home-phone landline call if something is truly urgent, or an email that says “URGENT” in the subject line.

Addressing these five questions will be most helpful if the answers are documented in a readily accessible form, and revisited every six to 12 months. But the crucial part is understanding that there can be too much of a good thing, and work flexibility is no exception. Coming together and making sure everybody agrees on the guardrails will ensure that individuals and teams get the most out of a hybrid model—and chaos is avoided.

Dr. Samuel is a technology researcher and co-author of “Remote, Inc.: How to Thrive at Work…Wherever You Are.” Email her atreports@wsj.com.

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