In a recent ThinkLab Clubhouse session, Sascha Wagner, president and CEO of Huntsman Architectural Group, shared this insightful remark about the future of remote work: “We believe in the power of place. This speaks to the idea that space can do more than fulfill functional needs—it helps convey values, bring people together, and empower a sense of cohesion and belonging. What’s more, space can actually become part of the cultural manifest of an organization. So, while the past year has shown us that we can positively embrace remote work, we are confident that group activities, visual and tactical work, and work that relies on an in-person sense of connection will continue to thrive in the built environment.”
His sentiments are supported by a recent study by PWC, which shares that by July 2021, “75 percent of executives anticipate that at least half of office employees will be working in the office.” So, if the future is hybrid work, what will that look like? And how do we balance human connection with function—or, perhaps more accurately, flexibility—that comes with hybrid work? We sat down with Betsy Bula, all-remote evangelist at GitLab, to discuss why hybrid work can be one of the most difficult working arrangements, and to uncover tips on how best to make the transition successful.
Recognize that a hybrid policy is the hardest.
While few companies plan to require all workers back in the office five days per week, and few are ready to continue a fully remote model forever, hybrid is actually the toughest model to balance. Bula shares that hybrid work is that in-between zone that often times blurs the lines and rules of traditional office decorum. It is very easy to prioritize those in the office—to give them more senior leadership exposure, allow them more opportunities for mentorship, and think of them first when you’re looking to handle an impromptu job request.
As she explains, “Hybrid work takes more intentionality to do it well. You must realize that you are responsible for managing different employee experiences, while being cognizant to avoid a two-tier environment where people in the office are considered a different class than people working remote.”
So, to avoid this uneven playing field, Bula shares that asynchronous communication is key to success.
Leveraging asynchronous communication is key.
In telecommunications, asynchronous communication refers to transmitting data intermittently, instead of continuously. Usually, this takes place without the use of an external clock signal. Transitioning that logic to the working world, we liken the external clock signal to the ability to get information from anywhere. In a synchronous-communication work model, a lot of emphasis is placed on working in the same place at the same time. Team members are given information in a team meeting, and then they all break away to do their work.
But in an asynchronous-communication work model, all direction is properly documented so workers can accomplish tasks wherever they are, whenever they are there. In GitLab’s 2021 Remote Work Playbook, it explains asynchronous communication like this: “In a world dictated by calendars and schedules, people are used to working synchronously—meaning that they need to be in the same place (either physically or virtually) at the same time. Another word for synchronous work: ‘meetings.’ Asynchronous communication is the art of eliminating meetings and synchronous work, making it possible to get work done on a flexible schedule.”
And although asynchronous communication allows distributed teams to hand projects off across time zones—a distinct competitive advantage—and reduces disconnects and frustrations, it also takes a lot of intentionality to do so.
Bula explains that it’s important to “try to focus on how work will get done and how your team will work together. When doing so, try to remove the location from the equation as you are thinking through that. That way you will naturally build practices that can be used no matter where your work is getting done on any given day.”
Intentionally define your culture.
Our industry does a great job of defining culture through physical space, but do we ever document our own business culture? According to Bula, combining documentation with intentionality is crucial to a successful approach. She agrees with Wagner that the office is a great place for bringing people together and speaks about the value of a project kickoff or other team bonding experience that unites everyone. Then, when the work is transitioned to a hybrid team, these steps from GitLab can help make it successful:
1. Define a culture that supports equality between remote and in-person work. One of the best ways to do this is to have senior management experience working in the remote model. Do they have communication barriers? What documentation isn’t clear? Are there any access issues?
2. Don’t try to replicate an in-person experience remotely. There are some things that just can’t be done remotely. Hosting meeting after meeting over Zoom is a recipe for Zoom fatigue. Instead, try to be strategic about meetings—if they are needed for hands-on, tactical teamwork, consider coming in to the office. If not, ask yourself if the meeting is really necessary.
3. Place an emphasis on team building. Even teams working 100 percent remotely need to come together to foster team camaraderie. GitLab suggests planning events such as coworking excursions, setting a travel budget for team members to visit one another, and even hosting local coworking days.
The GitLab playbook offers more helpful suggestions. After all, at the end of the day, Bula reminds us that the past year and a half of remote work, while mostly successful, hasn’t been a true representation of authentic hybrid work.
She concludes, “What a lot of people thought they experienced as remote work was really forced working from home due to a global pandemic. Companies that weren’t already working remotely had to transition to a remote work strategy overnight. And while society did an amazing job of adapting, the intentionality and process that takes time to develop wasn’t there. So, as leaders determine what the future of work looks like for their teams, the key to success will be creating, documenting, and iterating on these practices to determine what works best for their organization.”
Want to hear more on this topic? Season 2 of Design Nerds Anonymous launches June 2021 and will include an episode featuring Bula and the GitLab playbook.
Amanda Schneider is President of ThinkLab, the research division of SANDOW. At ThinkLab, we combine SANDOW Media’s incredible reach to the architecture and design community through brands like Interior Design Media, Metropolis, Luxe, and Material Bank with proven market research techniques to uncover relevant trends and opportunities for the design industry. Join in to explore what’s next at thinklab.design/join-in.