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  • Danny

Two cultures of hybrid work – a few years of reflection

Updated: Jul 3, 2023


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TLDR: - We need to look at how we service our people.

- The organization needs to create new roles that help navigate the hybrid world.

- To be truly hybrid/remote it’s not tech that’s the answer - it’s the mindsets, patterns, and behaviors of the people using it.


The transition to hybrid/remote for many organizations was always going to be hard, especially given how quick COVID-19 caught on and the rapid response needed to stand up to this big change. I made a video at the start of COVID-19 talking about the approach I thought could work. Two years on from that video, with the added benefit of being onboarded in a new organization and accounting for various clients’ challenges, I decided to capture my reflection. This piece is not intended to be a list of answers but more a collection of reflections and observations when it comes to bringing new talent into the business when in a large period of transition. Deciding when to share this was important; I nearly shared it earlier this year, however I wanted to share this when I had built up enough observational data points from my own experience – and others’ too.

The house party

Have you ever arrived at a house party, or perhaps been out for food with friends, only when you get there you realize:

  • Everyone knows each other apart from you

  • There is an etiquette and set of rituals to eating something a certain way which you are not aware of, yet everybody else seems to know it (I had this recently)

If you have been in this situation, the end result tends to be that you hide away in the corner of the house or you make a mess of the meal.

This unfortunately tends to be how hybrid working can feel, depending on how well you know the business – and more importantly when you joined it.

Before we get into things, I have noticed based on experience and experiences from clients it make sense to pull out some other observations.

When two tribes go to war

Throughout COVID-19, one thing I have observed is that if you sit back and do a bit of scanning across the organization, you can tell which people were part of the business before COVID-19 and which joined during it (NB I am going to call this the ‘transition’ because COVID-19 now is only one element around this new way of working).

  • Culture 1 (before transition)

  • Culture 2 (In transition)

Below is a snapshot of the two cultures I have noticed:

Culture 1 – (before transition)

This culture is what we knew pre-COVID-19; it has elements often found in rich tribes – bonding, trust, interdependency, community. Here they had shared history, rituals, celebrations and safety built on affective trust. This type of culture has the ‘in it together’ – if someone in the tribe can’t help you, there will be someone who they know that can and would make it happen in a near frictionless way. For new talent coming into this type of culture felt like a warm cuddle where you were supported, checked up on, often felt like you had a support group around you. All collective hive knowledge was easy to tap into and often shared in fleeting moments, any culture hacks on how to make something happen fast were easily to identify and team rituals of ‘how we do things round here’ could first be observed then adopted. Little shared moments such as when people collided together in meetings, eating together on lunch, after work drinks, were less designed and more a pattern of working. Every question or task felt near frictionless; when you hit a bump you have someone to turn to. For the record my personal view is that we shouldn’t go back to this, because while for new talent coming in it may seem perfect, for anyone who moves past the phase of being a newbie it was a broken system full of pressure.

Culture 2 – (in transition)

Speaking with new talent across various clients and through my own experience, this has been described as a feeling of being isolated, like you are outside looking in – a bit like the person on their phone in the corner of the house party. It can sometimes feel cold, invisible and often feels like you’re not in with the cool kids. The little big things really start to matter here, unfortunately these things are often overlooked or replaced with so-called ‘priority meetings’. Knowledge sharing is often replaced with a content dump of pdf and slide decks often designed to show a process and not the stories, experiences, and shared history.

Rituals become near impossible to observe and understand and make it hard to imbed with new talents.

Typical rites of passage become a thing of the past, and while on paper this may seem tiny, having this shared experience that drives a feeling of belonging between you and other members of the team is critical. Look at the importance of ‘buds week’ in the marines. Shared struggle of experience is a powerful thing and signals ‘you’re one of us, we have common ground’. Simple tasks start to feel uber-complex because shared culture hacks are missing. Building trust here is often only really gained after many projects, a job, or many tasks are completed. Simple navigation and networking can feel like swimming through quicksand. It would be fine if at this point you think, well we need to all come back in the office…no. Save that dinosaur approach for the narrow thinkers of work.

The distance travelled

I wouldn’t judge you right now if you were thinking ‘it’s simple, we’ll just get better at comms’ – to be fair it’s an easy assumption to make. Getting better at comms and doing a health check on your approach is always a valuable task, asking yourself questions such as:

  • Does our comms help or hinder new talent make sense of the world?

  • Is the cadence of comms too little or too much?

  • Are we creating a place that is full of noise or full of useful stuff?

Better comms in a poor experience will results in poor comms, so unfortunately this isn’t about having a ‘make comms great again’ moment – and it’s also not about bringing everyone back in the office again so we can all communicate and make better decisions faster. Thomas Allen, a professor at MIT, noticed that communication breakdown isn’t just down to if the comms were good or not; he noticed there is a strong link between communication and the distance it travels. Over time he identified that after eight metres the communication cadence became less frequent. He also noticed the introduction of electronic comms didn’t have much impact either (hello Teams), he noticed what tends to happen when someone has a challenge or question, is that they would call or ask a trusted person at work (hello affective trust).

Tech isn’t the answer

It’s a tricky to answer this because tech is just that. Tech. It doesn’t know if it’s being implemented in a good or bad way; it’s a system and a system produces perfect results based on how it’s set up. Office 365 is an off-the-shelf product, however its impact depends on the behaviors of the people and org using it. I’ve seen it be both a thing of beauty and a nightmare from hell. As I’ve said many times in my career, tech is the enabler to the change – but it’s not the catalyst. Having something like Slack or Teams is great, but very quickly they become attention-seeking blackholes and add more noise. To be truly hybrid/remote, it’s not tech that’s the answer – it’s the mindsets, patterns, and behaviors of the people using it.

A typical pattern seen in orgs across the world now is create a Teams channel, then create another one, followed up by an ad-hoc call that wasn’t needed and a nudge email a day after. And its nobody’s fault this happens.

These patterns were formed when COVID-19 hit, when everyone was in a period of ‘just make it work’. However, now is the time to take a pause and ask, are we using this stuff right, do our patterns need a reset? Do we need a clear set of rules and rituals of engagement and a move to a deeper understanding of the tools we have for hybrid? Hopefully an unfixed hybrid way of working is here to stay, until the recession hits, and we see many companies try to justify the need to have people back in the office full time (I hope I am wrong here).

So, what do we know?

  • We have two different tribes or cultures in the world of work; ‘pre transition’, and ‘in transition’

  • Being in the office at the start of joining a new business may be beneficial but once the new talent has settled in, the value starts to fade and work-life balance and trust becomes incredibly important

  • Getting people back in the office doesn’t mean it makes communication and decision making better

  • Understanding ritual, patterns and having a trusted person to turn to is potentially the biggest difference between new talent getting embedded into the culture or not in the first few months

  • Tech is tech – put it in a good system with rules and it thrives, put it in one that has none of that and it becomes another distraction

What’s next

We have a tribe and first we need to realign and bring them together. This, for me, is where we need to design better experience in a macro-, micro- and nano-sense. We need to design better nano experiences in the form of ritual design that creates a shared language and some shared patterns; this could be how we do meetings, how we deliver feedback, how we celebrate wins and share failure. Then, we need to experiment with them. Some rituals will stick while others will fall off – and that’s fine. The fun in experimentation is to see what works and what doesn’t and understanding why. Eventually the rituals form a habit, a new memory that is shared across both tribes, joining them together.

The service to our people needs iteration

We know work has changed and hopefully the recession and some old school thinkers won’t take us backwards. We need to look at how we service our people. The organization needs to create new roles that help navigate the hybrid world. Thomas Allen identified in his study that to overcome the ‘communication over distance’ challenge we need to implement a form of gatekeeping. These gatekeepers aren’t managers or leaders, they’re a group of people that are responsible for translation and focusing on specific challenges; this could be hybrid onboarding buddies, maybe they are culture coaches or champions in the team, but these roles pre-COVID-19 are struggling to translate over and still keep the rich connection and value they had.

We need to look at the org systems in place

To move to what Matt Mullenweg calls ‘level three of distributed work’ we need to invest in understanding the likes of Office365, understanding that it is more than just calls and messages; this could be through simple awareness or running some experiments on new ways of working. Behavior change will need to happen at an individual level and scale out to a team level first. Behavioral experimentation and culture hacks will flourish here on the simple things such as how we do meetings, from how we use them, run them and how we document them.

However, positive behavior change in a system that doesn’t support it becomes frustration.

Here we must step back and look at areas such as how we reward in a hybrid world to how we measure performance and what we really value moving forward…and that’s for another day.

Conclusion

  • Most organizations I’ve observed have yet to master hybrid work.

  • Some organizations have mastered the basic ways of working and then stopped short of progressing past the basics.

  • If we want to get the benefits of hybrid working, we need to adapt or create some roles, whose goal it is to be the glue that hold things such as onboarding together?

  • Designing new experiences, rituals and patterns for ways of working and behavior experimentation is the only way we are going to be able to do this, by simply starting small.

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