Lessons from a hybrid world.
Tackling a hybrid world is hard for managers struggling to find the right balance. Sharing some of the ideas we've implemented and the disasters we've avoided!
It’s pretty clear I think, we’re not going back into the office in the way we used to. As the world begins to feel the possibility of safe interaction again we know the future of work-life is a productive, healthier one where individuals have greater choice on how, when and where they work. When employees know they no longer want to work ‘the way it used to be’, but are also proactively telling us they do want some space to use flexibly along with opportunities to connect with their peers and colleagues; how can we get to a working solution? This article shares our current hybrid working setup, some of the practical approaches we’ve taken (and why) along with the feedback from our teams and importantly some of the unexpected lessons we learnt on the way.
Pre-pandemic, Hive Learning operated fairly traditionally; most employees worked 4 days in the office. When the pandemic hit we went remote. In the UK and US, we have a distributed team with a core based in London and Tampa. Many of our younger employees were living in cramped, shared accommodation, alongside other professionals, an experience which turns out to be pretty challenging when nobody can leave the house. As soon as we could, we safely reopened our offices to give them and others room to breathe. Since then we’ve been talking about a hybrid future, and what we might return to.
The message from our employees:
When we started to discuss life after lockdown, no one entertained the idea of ‘forcing’ teams back, instead, the sentiment was excitement at the possibility of working out what this new future might look like. We started by listening to feedback beginning by asking if they even wanted an office at all. The headline? - They did, but the use and expectation weren't unanimous the summary of the feedback we received from our teams can probably be paraphrased as:
‘We enjoy face to face time, we feel like we work productively and comfortably in our own space (we proved it together) and we don't feel a ‘need’ to be in the office to be successful. We’d like flexibility, we would like space to use that feels like home when we need it, we love the cultural buzz of being together but we really don't want to feel forced to be in the office to do individual work’
Feedback was clear when we got together, everyone really enjoyed it, it didn't always look like a lot of work was being done (lots of Fika!) but like so many things with life after covid, this was just another lesson. Whilst people spent a lot of time talking it was generally around the domain of work, in the engineering teams I witnessed people excitedly sharing technology knowledge both at the core and on the periphery of our work domain, learning from each other over serendipitous conversations the energy of which carried over to the following few weeks. These things do happen online in lots of Direct Messages and small hangouts but the network effect isn't as great and is far less inclusive.
Natural behaviour was allowing us to see the shape of a solution.
Why Being together matters
At Hive Learning, we lived in that space for a while, mostly remote with occasional days in the office when we could/wanted to. We’ve been struggling to establish a purpose for face to face time in a world where we can successfully operate, without any friction, in our own space.
It turns out there's a bit more to those serendipitous conversations. The late Tony Hsieh (CEO Zappos) had a well-publicised approach to creating serendipity. Tony felt strongly that success is enabled by increasing the number and quality of serendipitous conversations, he called these moments ‘Collisions’. Hsieh was so bought into the concept of collisions he closed side exits at Zappos to make people all go through the main door, moved furniture at company parties to create more ‘collisional’ space, set himself a goal of 1000 hours of collisions a year and created metrics to track them (RoC return on collisions) for his company Zappos which went onto become the world's most successful online shoe retailer with legendary service levels and fanatic employees. The science behind collisions is really interesting. Research done in the late 1970’s by Thomas J Allen from MIT connected the performance of engineering teams directly to their frequency of communication and his research found that the probability that those engineers will communicate in a given time period reduces dramatically over distance. Engineers who are located 2 metres apart are 4 times more likely to communicate than ones located 20 metres apart and almost never on separate floors. This research was done before digital comms, but subsequent follow-up studies have confirmed that the decay happens across all communication channels. We email, text and chat more with people we meet, whilst it's absolutely possible to operate effectively remotely, teams that spend time located together communicate more.
Why Allen might be wrong:
Since the pandemic began, the debate on how to implement these serendipitous connections in an online world continues. For many, there will be a return to fixed days in the office and for some organisations, it’s been difficult to accept the rapid change. Communities like online gaming have ‘lived’ online for years, their collisions happen mostly through established digital communication patterns and channels many of which were in place long before the pandemic. Large organisations can run effectively online, it shouldn’t be missed however that even these communities still often choose to gather together physically to increase connection - often at annual events or ‘summits’.
The Allen curve won't disappear for a long time but technology might flatten it out more. How long or even if general business life might become as permanently online as these communities remains to be seen. Whilst many communities thrive in an online-only environment, it is still largely alien to many of us and the organisations we work in. If you’re passionate about learning you might also have felt this missing in your organisation, great people benefit from ‘knowledge’ feeding each other. It's been really hard to get right online and will likely take a little time.
The ‘Hive Learning’ Way
Here at Hive Learning, we’ve come up with a few ideas that we’re implementing to drive collisions in a hybrid world, we’re not asking people to be in the office any number of days per week, per month etc, we’ve spent time thinking and talking with the teams about how to embrace their feedback and create valuable time together.
The simple headline is that we are planning to focus more face to face time together on collisions. The feedback when we come together is that teams get value from being creative, learning together and connecting. So that's what we are going to do, this means the future of face to face is team practice, team learning, team innovating and team creating. One other thing we have done is ban hybrid meetings (as much as possible!) no more ‘big heads’ on a screen at the end of the table - we found those people far more engaged when everyone was remote and so did they. We go remote even if some of us are in the same building.
Lessons from our Collision days
At Hive Learning we have run a number of collision events of different types, usually a day or half-day at a time. I’ve picked 3 key lessons that we’ve learnt from different events to share along with the event description. Where we have run them again I’ve included how we iterated and improved.
Team/Company Learning Day - Conference of employee-led talks - At Hive we ran our first one of these in a whole company ‘hybrid’ format, the lesson we learnt when doing these hybrid events is to try to do everything you can to level the experience. The results were great but we received feedback that the experience wasn’t equitable, we didn’t have an online ‘compere’ which would have helped when the physical space was not active (e.g. breaks). The second time we ran this we made it remote for everyone to be more inclusive and the results were still great. If you’re going hybrid, don’t invite everyone for a drink in the ending summary unless you have an equally exciting remote version!! We are also considering regional versions with travelling teams where people want to visit other spaces. Our recent learning day threw up some amazing stories and talks, went deep into sustainability, technical architecture and network science but also included topics such as the world's loneliest whale and home automation with node-red.
Hack-a-thon- These can run anything from a couple of hours to a few days. Most recently we ran a half-day whole company remote hack to create ideas focused on bringing our values to life. We have also run them hybrid and in-person as a big org and small team. The results? 40% of the ideas being currently worked through our platform teams came directly from a team Hackathon and are creative ideas to move key business metrics. These events do generate a bit of post-event work if you’re serious about taking work back into the day-to-day but can be framed around any interesting opportunity.
“Code” Retreat- A retreat is simply the idea of a team taking time away to practice together. At Hive in the engineering teams we chose to use Conway’s Game of Life for our first Code Retreat, each 45 min session involved solving the challenge with a different constraint each time starting from scratch with a new coding partner, it really helped us to connect across technical boundaries, but this is a technique I’ve used with great results in sales and support teams too. The key lesson learnt here is to challenge conventional thinking. We ran a coding event and had a number of people in the team that had never coded before who specifically wanted to come and enjoy the day. They were open to learning and willing to throw themselves into it with amazing results. They didn't learn to code but they learned a lot about the intellectual enterprises of computer science and the art of programming. The engineers who paired with them also enjoyed and benefited from the challenge of communicating across diverse ideas.
The key to these events is framing the time together - Run any of these events with a focus on your technology stack, your proposition development, or your organisational challenges I guarantee will achieve great results. Be clear about the goal, bring people together to solve problems in a creative way and let the magic happen.
For us at Hive Learning, when we add in optional, ad hoc trips to offices for lunch, 1:1’s, pairing etc (we allow budget for that too) it feels that we’ve landed on a happy compromise, for now, some of the team will be in the office more than others, but we all commit to being there together because we appreciate the energy, connection and innovation that happens when we do, most importantly nobody is travelling into work wondering why.
I’d love to hear if anyone is already using a similar approach, what you’ve tried, what worked and what hasn’t, or maybe you’ve got other ideas for ways to change the conversation around the use of the office from ‘must’ to ‘good idea’.