How to evaluate the risks of in-person and remote work
As I was boarding a plane late last week — my first flight on a non-Canadian airline since before Covid — I felt slightly overwhelmed at the sight of people whipping off their masks all around me. (On Canadian carriers, you still have to wear a mask in flight.) On top of my Covid anxiety, I was worried about the tight connection time between my flights, I was worried about getting my slide deck finalized and delivered over airport wifi, and I was worried about whether I’d have time to get a meal between flights.
I was more excited than anxious about the talk I’d be delivering the next day, but I did wonder how the audience would respond to me keeping my mask on until the moment I reached the podium. The moment I settled in my seat and flicked on my phone for a final, pre-flight email check, I found an answer to my worries: an article I wrote for The Wall Street Journal after my last round of business travel.
The Anxiety of Traveling for Business Again appeared in yesterday’s C-Suite Strategies section, and you can also find it online. Re-reading the story helpfully reminded me of the most crucial strategy in my arsenal: “Anticipate social anxiety.” As I wrote in the Journal:
Whether it’s a one-on-one lunch, a small meeting or a large networking event, I’ve found every type of social interaction a lot more fraught in the aftermath of Covid isolation. It sometimes feels like I’m back in high school! Recognizing the anxiety — and acknowledging that it will take time to get comfortable — has made it easier to reacclimate.
Thankfully, I’d already followed the rest of my own advice when planning the trip: I’d simplified travel logistics, talked through Covid concerns with event organizers, and pre-ordered all my trip snacks so they’d be waiting at the hotel.
And yet, there I was, still anxious — because I needed to assess and navigate a now-unfamiliar set of risks, while surrounded by a whole lot of people who were assessing those risks entirely differently.
The hybrid risk gap
The anxiety of business travel is a very particular instance of a much larger problem that organizations and professionals have to grapple with in a world shaped by more than two years of a pandemic and of remote work: the hybrid risk gap.
The hybrid risk gap is the difference in how we experience and evaluate not only the risks of Covid, but all the other risks associated with hybrid work. It’s the gap behind questions like:
- How much time should I spend in the office?
- What’s the right hybrid work schedule for our company?
- Should we expand our office space, or close it down?
I hear versions of these questions every time I give a talk on hybrid work. And behind each each one is an implicit question about relative risks:
- How much time should I spend in the office? means…What’s the risk that you’ll miss that big promotion if you insist on working from home….and what’s the risk that you’ll alienate your spouse or kids if you go back to the office?
- What’s the right hybrid work schedule for our company? means….What’s the risk to our organization’s culture if we commit to a permanent, remote-first work model…and what’s the risk to our recruitment and retention if we insist on everyone returning to on-site work?
- Should we expand our office space, or close it down? means…What’s the risk to our bottom line if we keep our office space….and what’s the risk to our customer relationships if we scale back?
Don’t mind the gap
I really get that we all want there to be a clear answer to questions like these — questions that boil down to assessing and managing the risks of establishing an entirely new model of working sometimes together, and sometimes apart. It’s really uncomfortable to live in the uncertainty of our present moment of transition, especially when everyone you talk to assesses those uncertainties a little bit differently.
But it’s easier to live with that uncertainty once you realize that how you and your colleagues navigate a given set of choices may boil down to differences in your risk tolerance, stakes and assessments. Some of us are quicker to venture into the unknown, while others have more to lose if our hybrid experiments fail.
Acknowledging the hybrid risk gap is the first step towards a hybrid workplace in which we’re willing to learn from experimentation, observation and hard data — and to take the risk of making some mistakes on the way to getting it right.