Why hybrid work is the new standard for productivity and sense making

By hybrid work I mean a combination of remote and in-office work, virtual and physical, etc. The extremes have been tested. Before the pandemic it was mostly in-office work. With the pandemic its been all remote/virtual. Now many are coming to the conclusion that a balance is best, in other words, hybrid work. While the data tea leaves are still being sifted, I capture some of what I know on the subject, since I work in the space (disclosure), as well as from recent great articles.

A few renegades like Matt Mullenweg, who co-founded WordPress, was touting all-remote work as far back as the turn of the century – he calls it distributed work. Follow that link or do a search and you will find lots of reports on distributed or remote work and why it makes sense and uhm, works 😁

I’ve written about it in several posts too, under various guises:

Why “asynchronous” working is the key to efficiency (this actually links to an Economist article)

Meeting workflow for virtual work

Writing skills for remote asynchronous work and how you can master them

In most of them you will see that it’s not all about fully remote work. I have for instance, always given the nod to in-person effectiveness being unsurpassed. Its only when things go too far and for example, in-person meetings are called for when a virtual one will do, that I despair. But there are many cases when in-person activities benefit productivity and outcomes, especially around creativity, collaboration and innovation.

Matt Mullenweg too recognises the value of in-person activities. It’s why his company funds an all company get together from global locations, at least once a year (when they can), at great expense.

The point again is that balance is everything, as with life, which in essence is what hybrid work is all about. Work from home or virtually when it makes sense to and go into the office when that makes sense.

Sense Making

There is a wealth of data around sense making in the context of work and especially remote work, going back as far as Xerox’s Parc days according to this post from The Guardian: The empty office: what we lose when we work from home. The article is based on a book by Gillian Tett, Anthro-Vision: How Anthropology Can Explain Business and Life. Some choice snippets below with brief commentary.

Humming does not sit easily with the way we imagine technology, but it highlights a crucial truth about how humans navigate the world of work, in offices, online or anywhere else: even if we think we are rational, logical creatures, we make decisions in social groups by absorbing a wide range of signals. And perhaps the best way to understand this is to employ an idea popularised by anthropologists working at companies such as Xerox during the late 20th century, and since used by Beunza and others on Wall Street: “Sense-making”.

Above is just a quick intro to where sense making fits in.

JSB knew there was an “official” answer in the office handbook: technicians were supposed to “print out 1,000 copies, sort through the output, find a few bad ones, and compare them to the diagnostic”. It sounded logical – to an engineer.
“Here is what I do,” Mr Troubleshooter told JSB, with a “disgusted” look on his face. “I walk to the trash can, tip it upside down, and look at all the copies that have been thrown away. The trash can is a filter – people keep the good copies and throw the bad ones away. So just go to the trash can … and from scanning all the bad ones, interpret what connects them all.” In short, the engineers were ignoring protocols and using a solution that worked – but one that was “invisible … and outside [the] cognitive modelling lens” of the people running the company, JSB ruefully concluded.

Great example above of how sense making works where the protagonist used it to arrive at a better solution than what the official documents suggested. One of its key ingredients is going beyond the status quo or conventional thinking. It requires a kind of subversive approach, you need to think outside of the box so you can avoid your own blind spots.

Orr quickly realised that many of the most important interactions took place in diners. Their “gossip” was weaving a wide tapestry of group knowledge, and tapping into the collective views of the group – like the IETF humming. What engineers shared at the diner was this history and context. “Diagnosis is a narrative process,” Orr said.

Another excellent point noted about sense making is in the combination of references above. The fact that sense making is at its best when its done in collaboration with others.

The Xerox scientists eventually listened to the anthropologists – to some degree. After Orr issued his report on the technicians, the company introduced systems to make it easier for repair people to talk to one another in the field and share knowledge – even outside diners. A two-way radio system allowed tech reps in different regions to call on each other’s expertise. Xerox later supplemented these radios with a rudimentary messaging platform on the internet known as Eureka, where technicians could share tips. JSB viewed this as “an early model for social media platforms”.

Which doesn’t mean to say that technology cannot play a role as the reference above shows, even way back in the day. But taken to the extreme, we see that technology has limitations as Tim Cook, CEO of Apple has concluded, from this article in The Verge:

"For all that we've been able to achieve while many of us have been separated, the truth is that there has been something essential missing from this past year: each other," he said in a memo. "Video conference calling has narrowed the distance between us, to be sure, but there are things it simply cannot replicate." He added: "I know I'm not alone in missing the hum of activity, the energy, creativity and collaboration of our in-person meetings and the sense of community we've all built."

I’m still a firm believer in the role of technology so we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bath water. Which brings me to my next topic but before I do, a further reference and DanelDoodle on sense making, my take of it: Making sense of sensemaking. Even back then (this post is from 2016) I was thinking the core elements of sense making were your own judgement but also peer review.

Productivity

The article from The Guardian is biased in support of returning to offices for the best work to be done. It could just as easily have been entitled “what we GAIN when we work from home”. In the three posts I wrote and shared at the beginning, you’ll see that remote and asynchronous work has many benefits to productivity. I also write under the Future of Work category which touches on this theme in almost all cases.

And it seems the verdict from many employees is in. They want to continue working remotely, or at least be given the choice. This is where hybrid work comes in.

See some of the key stats below from research where Microsoft posits that the Next Great Disruption Is Hybrid Work—Are We Ready?

There are inevitable downsides to remote only work despite gains in productivity which the research points out, like the fact that “high productivity is masking an exhausted workforce”.

I’ve been working fully remotely for at least the last four years, since long before the pandemic started. Even before that in lesser forms. I have done so because of the organisations I’ve worked for and the roles I’ve fulfilled, not because of circumstances that have dictated it.

I currently manage a regions activities alongside a remote virtual team which is scattered across Europe, Middle East and Africa. I do so reporting in to a Japanese subsidiary of an American company with my host subsidiary being in the UK where I live.

This is not the norm necessarily for smaller organisations but still, in an ever expanding and global operating environment and with digital technologies opening borders and eradicating boundaries, it is increasingly so.

I work with teams across the globe, in different disciplines, time zones, with different customers and technology plays an equally vital role (the glue) in facilitating collaboration and innovation as in person sessions do. As long as its used correctly. And it’s not just down to the technologies but also the culture, of teamwork. This necessitates a willingness to work out loud, sharing knowledge not hoarding, growth mindset, etc.

Before the pandemic I was travelling a lot, across the entire region. I was doing this alongside remote and virtual work, with customers and colleagues. When we needed to push the needle and really get stuff done, nothing beat in person meetings. When I needed focused time to get things done, I didn’t have to go anywhere or waste any time commuting, I could just hole myself up in my home office and work undistracted. And my colleagues and customers were just a Microsoft Teams call or chat away if needed to sense make.

My ultimate point is that with hybrid work, when we are given the choice to choose where, when and how to work, we will do our best work. I cannot wait to get back to how I have always chosen and been empowered to work – the hybrid way.

And if you were to ask me what kind of balance will be struck in a hybrid world of work, I would venture to say that remote work will dominate. Pretty much in line with the excellent predictions in this article: 3 Bold Predictions for the Real Future of Virtual Work.

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