Three rules to make hybrid work suck less

Maybe I’m being a little bit provocative here but let me make my position clear. I think hybrid ways of working where you’re neither fully in the office or fully remote makes a lot of sense in theory, I actually think it has the potential to be the ideal way to work if its done right. That seems to be the story with everything though isn’t it? It would be good in theory but suck in practice, we can complain about it but the only way to really make it better is to get involved look for a way forward. This is my attempt to do that but first let’s look at the two opposing camps that hybrid ways of working tries to marry.

First is team work from home. We all know these folks, these are the guys who say they get more work done at home than they do in the office. They say they have less distractions, more flexibility and are generally happier working in this way. There are many merits to this and the past two years of being in lockdowns have shown us that we can indeed be very productive while being at home. There are certain privileges that you need to be aware of though. Those people who are able to work remotely with a lot of success generally have dedicated work spaces at home, that means no working from your dinner table. It also means their circumstances actually allow for them to work undisturbed when they need to and of course have high quality internet for connectivity. Those are things that may not be true for everyone. Regardless though we know that working remotely can work, we’ve seen it work but there is one aspect where it falls short and that’s collaborative work. When we need to work on something that requires a high degree of collaboration and engagement it becomes a pain to do remotely. There’s no way around it, face to face provides the highest bandwidth of communication and that’s that. This is something you can live with when working remotely because most of the time the work being done doesn’t require a high degree of collaboration.

Second team is the ones who are team “let’s work on-site”. These guys aren’t as loud as team working remotely but they do exist. Remember the privileges earlier for team WFH? Those are the same reasons why some people would like to work on-site. For others it’s just not practical to have your own office set-up at home or maybe they’d like a clear distinction between home and work that the office provides. There is also the value of social networks and connections in the workplace, these are things that much easier to build through face to face rather than remotely. Working from site though comes at a price too, you’d need to travel going to the office and spend time getting dressed up. How much time, effort that costs you varies from person to person.

So how do we make hybrid work … work?

Hybrid working generally sucks because we often don’t take time to design how we’re supposed to work with it. Oftentimes we’d be showing up to the office following our own convenience or just to appease a “return to office” mandate. It absolutely sucks to wake up early, get dressed, drive to work then spend your day taking Teams calls on your laptop. It equally sucks to be stuck at home making all sorts of visualizations on Miro just to explain something that would have been explained by a 2 minute conversation. These are examples of why it sucks, so let’s try to design around them.

Remote or Optional

As a baseline use remote working as your starting point. Assume everyone is working remotely and design your regular interactions around that. Your tooling, dashboards, backlog management tools etc. should be designed for remote ways of working. At the same time people should be allowed to work on site as an option if their remote set up isn’t ideal. While we’re at it let’s also make staying the whole day on-site optional. For most people a set-up like this is ideal and will cover most concerns.

High collaboration days

Assuming that remote is the baseline, then high collaboration days need to be designed in advance and face to face. Things like planning, brainstorming, retrospectives etc. those high collaboration activities are best done face to face. Same for engagement or social activities, best done face to face with food. Playing virtual jeopardy! over teams is fun but it pales compared to playing board games and pizza. This is to me is one of the key parts of working in a hybrid way, you have to be deliberate as to why people need to show up in the office.

All in or all out

This refers to how meetings and activities are supposed to be designed. The worst set-up is when you have a mix of people onsite and remote who are trying to collaborate, it just sucks. So don’t do that. High collaboration days are face to face, no exceptions. That means people can’t join it remotely, if they can’t make it then they can’t. The reverse is also true for regular days. Calls or meetings on regular days are designed to be done remotely, just because you can share a laptop with a colleague doesn’t mean you should. If its designed to be a remote then we all join remotely, on our own.

This may sound a bit like common sense, it may even sound like I’m ranting a little bit but I really believe that simple rules like this make would make working remotely suck less.