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Hybrid working – How we communicate and interact with one other


Dominik Robellaz

The long-awaited relaxation of Corona measures makes it possible to return to the office. Pre-pandemic, informal chats with colleagues in the hall or over a cup of coffee or tea were a normal – and very valuable – part of office life. Over the past years, such moments were lost. Perhaps, like me, you were hoping that this would again be the norm post-Corona. The reality, however, is different.

Many colleagues have made private arrangements and continue to work from home, at least some of the time. Hybrid working is not just a passing trend. It is here to stay and poses major challenges for companies. What are the advantages and disadvantages of the new working model? How can we interact and communicate with each other in the new normal of hybrid work?

What is Hybrid Working?

Hybrid working refers to the combination of home office, mobile working and office days. In this setup, it is possible to work flexibly at different locations. Most often, mobile working refers to a temporary workplace in a café or co-working space. (In reality, anything is possible, the only requirement is a stable internet connection). Flexibility regarding working hours also plays a key role. Ideally, employees can choose and arrange their own working hours. However, these arrangements vary from company to company. In some organisations, it is up to the employees to self-organize. In others, on-site days may be dictated. As noted above, this setup also means that team members will not necessarily be working in the same place.

Hybrid working poses new challenges for companies and their teams.
Hybrid working poses new challenges for companies and their teams (Source: SwissQ).

What are the advantages and disadvantages of the new work model?

Die folgenden Aufzählungen der Vor- und Nachteile hat keinerlei Anspruch auf Vollständigkeit. Sie dienen lediglich zur Orientierung.

The following list of advantages and disadvantages is not meant to be exhaustive, but rather to provide an orientation.

Advantages

  • Flexibility
    Work-life balance can be significantly improved by hybrid working. Commuting costs and, above all, travel time are eliminated. Private appointments can be better integrated into the workday.
  • Best of both worlds
    Hybrid working harnesses the best of both worlds: whereas working from home office can offer a quieter and more focused setting, the office has the advantage of being able to interact more easily and exchange ideas face-to-face.
  • Cost savings for the company
    Companies can save on physical workstations with shared desks. Incidental costs are also significantly lower when the office is used less often.

Disadvantages

  • Collaboration becomes more complex
    A concept and some tools are required if a company wants to successfully adopt a hybrid working model.
  • Meetings become more challenging
    From technical hurdles to personal inhibitions – all are impediments to collaboration. These challenges remain in a hybrid context.
  • Technical requirements
    In the office, there are new requirements for meetings or simple collaboration in a hybrid context. Meeting rooms must be equipped with the appropriate technology.
Hybrid working - some colleagues are in a meeting room, while others are at home or on the road.
Hybrid working – some colleagues are in a meeting room, while others are at home or on the road (Source: Unsplash).

What are the typical challenges of communicating and interacting in a hybrid context?

Hybrid working has certainly made its way into our lives. According to a recent study by Microsoft, 71% of employees would like to work partially from the office, partially from home. However, there are many challenges with a hybrid setup. Have you attended a meeting where your colleagues were onsite while you were at home? Perhaps you recognize yourself in some of the following situations.

Including everyone

Including the people who are connected via conference call is always a challenge. When a discussion starts in a physical meeting room, it is often not easy as a remote participant to follow, let alone actively participate in it. In some cases, you miss half of what is being said, in others it is difficult to draw attention to yourself.

Distraction

At home or in another location, it is often difficult keep your attention focused on the topic at hand. The temptation to answer an email or complete an urgent task in parallel is ever-present.

Meeting culture

In some organisations, the accepted culture is to have remote conversations without video. There are also some people who refuse to turn on their cameras. This lack of visibility inhibits interaction.

Technical problems

Technical issues are probably the most annoying of all evils. Be it a buzzing headset, an unstable internet connection, a camera that is not working, or an unexpected update of the virtual platform. Sometimes the problem is the user themselves – some people are just not comfortable in the world of virtual meetings. All these factors lead to unproductive meetings or collaborations.

Outside noise

Working in a different location or from home can be pleasant and varied. But kids playing in the background or noise from a train or busy location are often distracting and disrupt the flow of work.

The hurdles in hybrid working using a meeting as an example.
The hurdles in hybrid working using a meeting as an example. (Source: Unsplash)

How can the challenges of communication and interaction in hybrid working be addressed?

Adequate equipment

I am not here to promote device manufacturers; but for hybrid to succeed, it is essential to have proper infrastructure, especially in the office. As described above, without adequate technology, it is difficult for people participating remotely to follow meetings or to collaborate effectively. A good setup is to have large screens available in meeting rooms. Ideally, these are interactive, and can also be used as whiteboards. A decent camera and a suitable microphone, which in combination can capture all the people in the room, are desirable. There are complete conferencing systems available for office installation. Although it might seem like a big investment up-front, when you compare the initial cost to the cost due to lost productivity, a technical upgrade in the office quickly pays for itself. There are also good inexpensive solutions available. The same applies to remotely connected team members. A good webcam and a noise-cancelling headset go a long way to improving the hybrid work experience.

Guidelines

In a hybrid work environment, it is useful to define agreed behaviours upfront for more effective and focused communication and interaction.

  • Camera on: Always turn on the camera during a meeting or work session. This simple act significantly improves communication and interaction.
  • Stay on mute: During a meeting or work session, always mute the microphone when you are not speaking. This reduces distractions from background noise.
  • Concentration and focus: Give your full attention to the work session or meeting at hand. Do not work on email or other tasks in parallel. One way to achieve focus is to turn off notifications from the Messenger service and Outlook.
  • Disciplined conversation: Side conversations between people onsite are difficult to follow remotely. Be conscious of this fact and keep your conversations inclusive.
  • Breaks: Make sure to take enough breaks. A high level of focus and concentration takes its toll on everyone.

Employee Onboarding

Good onboarding of employees in the use of remote tools is a must to avoid long wait times during hybrid working.

Preparation and facilitation of meetings

Good preparation when facilitating hybrid meetings is key. Think about how you can structure the meeting to actively engage all participants.

Here are a few ideas:

  • Visualize all participants and in what form they are joining the session. Make sure all attendees have this overview in front of them.
  • Agree on rules for how participants can get involved in the discussion, regardless of whether they are on-site or remote. For example, through virtual or physical hand signals. Spontaneous statements and comments in the on-site meeting room should be avoided because they are often difficult to understand acoustically remotely. Similarly, remote participants should refrain from holding side conversations in the online chat.
  • Try to include everyone in the discussion by explicitly asking remote participants for input or taking note of who has contributed on the list of participants.
  • Use digital whiteboards for visualizations. Sharing flipcharts online via a camera does not usually work well, because the video quality is inadequate, or the content is obscured by the person writing on the flipchart.
  • Hybrid working is more tiring than a purely physical or purely online meeting. Plan in group work or breakout sessions to change context and focus better on a specific issue. Collaboration may be easier if online participants and on-site participants are not mixed. However, depending on the topic, this may not be ideal, in which case you will need to provide additional physical meeting space for mixed group work.
  • If decisions are to be made in the meeting, consider in advance how everyone will be involved and how the vote can be visualized, e.g., by hand signals into the camera or by online voting tools such as Menti. 
  • Finally, make sure to schedule in enough breaks and to end them on time.

Our new Agile Team Facilitation course addresses many topics that can also be applied in a hybrid context.

Choosing the right place to work

Large workshops that involve a lot of collaborative work quickly become exhausting in a hybrid setup, and the technical options are limited (e.g., working together on a flipchart). Such meetings are best held on-site. In an Agile environment, sprint ceremonies are an excellent way to spend a day together in the office as a team and can also be combined with a social event. Fixed office days can be established, but this is not a must.

The challenge of interacting when not all people are in the same place.
The challenge of interacting when not all people are in the same place. (Source: Unsplash)

Key messages

Successful communication and interaction in a hybrid work environment can be achieved with the following points:

  • Good technical equipment: a good technical setup makes hybrid working more efficient and enjoyable.
  • Preparation for facilitating sessions: think about how the meeting or workshop can be held so that everyone can actively participate.
  • Guidelines: define ground rules in your team for interacting and communicating in a hybrid setting.
  • Location – decide on a case-by-case basis which meetings or work sessions are suitable for which working environment (hybrid, remote, on-site).
  • Onboarding – make sure that all employees have a good handle on the tools used.

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