Hybrid work may be the new norm, but there’s nothing standard about its implementation — yet. At this juncture, managers need to think creatively and futuristically to fully reap the benefits of a hybrid workforce rather than just tolerate it.
At the inaugural Thinker-Fest 2023 conference, sponsored by the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy, a panel of experts delved into the implications of and opportunities for the future of hybrid work. Here are seven pieces of advice for leading teams that are partially or fully remote.
Look at outcomes, not output. When COVID-19 hit, teams needed to work nimbly and asynchronously, with less focus on process and more on the big picture. Competent leaders will maintain that perspective.
“People leading individual and smaller teams that were very easy when located together [had] to start to think more like global leaders,” said Jerry Carter, vice president of engineering at Dell Technologies. That means they had “to think about time zones, and to think about asynchronous communication — how to coordinate work, how to trust but verify, and how to do outcome-based instead of output-based work,” he said.
Be deliberate about interactions. Remote work forced leaders to engineer interactions that previously happened organically, said Geoff Parker, a Dartmouth professor and MIT Sloan visiting scholar. Intentionality matters, Parker noted: When meetings are stacked back-to-back, serendipitous moments evaporate. To counter that phenomenon, managers should leave room for chatter. “Did you enable or create space for random small-group interactions?” he asked.
And, thinking more broadly, “how do you intentionally have the check-in points and monitor the well-being of remote people?” Parker said. “More frequent interactions build and maintain better relationships. In a remote environment, that’s critical.”
Read the digital room during remote meetings. “High-bandwidth conversations that are more ambiguous, that have more of a strategy component,” are often suited to in-person work, where employees can gauge social cues, Carter noted. But that’s not always possible.
Leaders should grasp the limitations of Zoom and online chats, where colleagues with preexisting relationships might fall into side-chat mode, causing mistrust, the panelists warned. Tech glitches or awkward pauses also sow confusion, so reading the virtual room is essential.
Ideally, public chats should offer an automatic, transparent archive of feedback and added value, including shared links and references, Parker said. Leaders can intentionally pause to allow for feedback and to ensure that participant comments are heard. They can also offer alternative venues for disagreement if people are uncomfortable pushing back online.
“There have to be ways to [express] dissent without it being quite so public,” said an MIT Sloan associate professor of information technologies.
Be strategic about teamwork. Not every topic requires groupthink. Carter defined “team” as “a group of individuals who come together to achieve something that is greater than the sum of the individual work.” Projects with standardized metrics and routine tasks are ideal for individual work; creative work typically requires more team-based interaction, Parker said. Leaders shouldn’t invite everyone to a meeting merely to broadly share information.
“If the invitation says the guest list is too large to display, it’s the biggest red flag in the world,” said Horton, who leads research on AI, labor economics, and online marketplaces at the IDE.
Use virtual tools to highlight humanity, not to create fatigue. At their worst, virtual meetings are exhausting.
“You can’t quite hear people. You’re worried about stepping on someone else who’s talking. You’re focused on a tiny screen. There’s a bunch of things that are just tiny pebbles in your shoe that make it tiring,” said Horton, who once participated in a virtual meeting with a wood-paneled background behind him that looked to viewers like a sauna, much to his embarrassment.
“Person-to-person interactions can be more energizing because you can hear perfectly and see body language,” Horton said.
On the upside, virtual meetings inject a shot of humanity into business proceedings that leaders should work hard to continue. During the pandemic, “we were invited into people’s homes. We saw their kids. We saw their dogs,” Carter said. “People showed up in baseball and ski caps, and they gave more of a candid, authentic view of who they were” — something that’s essential to retain.
Leaders can also experiment with creative ways of sharing information to bring out their team’s personality, such as short-form videos, podcasts, or 15-minute YouTube updates, Carter suggested.
Prioritize autonomy, alignment, and diversity. In a hybrid world, bosses should be more cross-functional, striving to be part organizational psychologist and part engineer. They should enable autonomy, alignment despite dispersion, and diversity of thought, the panelists said.
“Individuals need a sense of autonomy. You have to push decision-making out to the edges of the organization,” Carter said. But at the same time “you have to have alignment. Autonomy without alignment leads to really bad outcomes.”
To illustrate his point, Carter offered an analogy: “If you’re putting a bathroom in a house, the first question you’ve got to ask is, ‘Are the pipes running to all the rooms that I need them to be?’ For a lot of organizations, you have to ask from a communication standpoint, ‘Are the pipes running to all the rooms — or are they clogged up?’”
Finally, managers should ensure that the free flow of diverse ideas doesn’t fall by the wayside. “Innovation can stagnate if social circles become very closed,” Carter said. “If it’s a closed-loop system, then you either get in isolation or you get in an echo chamber,” making deliberate interactions even more essential.
Pick up the dang phone. In the rush to remote work, many organizations hopped on the tech bandwagon with software and organizational tools designed to streamline and connect. In the long term, this can backfire.
“Unifying teams to increase internal communication can solve one type of problem, but often at the cost of exacerbating or slowing things down in some other area. We shouldn’t assume that ‘even better’ tools are silver bullets,” Parker said.
A team doesn’t need to always rely on high tech just because everyone is remote. There’s a “psychological cost” to asynchronous communication, Carter noted; people can get bogged down replying to text and emails and wading through Slack.
As an antidote, good leaders will make themselves available for direct, real-time conversations as much as possible and foster that culture among their employees.
“The definition of a successful one-on-one or roundtable is that people in the meeting feel comfortable enough that they can just pick up the phone and call,” Carter said. “There are times when the phone is all that you need.”