Five Ways to Improve the New Hybrid Workplace

Man typing on computer

A framework to keep employees safe, engaged and delivering the best work from any location

I’m not sure which statement is more wrong: that we need to get back to our normal office lives or we need to plan for the new future of work.

We know our return to offices will be different—our way of commuting, working and even collaborating—especially with the Delta variant rising. But the truth is, we will behave like human beings just as we always do. So let’s start with a reminder that we are emotional beings with the ability to make rational decisions—not the other way around.

The other reality is money. Many CFOs planning 2022’s budgets are probably starting to feel the uplift of recent travel and considering how a combination of in-person and virtual can keep them saving.

With this in mind, let’s focus on how to lead our organizations toward a hybrid workplace full of “third persons”—people working remotely, whether in another country or at home:

Commit to a blended, third-person workplace

Third persons can be anyone from your insights director to a project manager to a client—and differ from day to day. Consider the third person’s needs with the same importance as those who are present. Our offices and desk stations were created for individual work in mind and our meeting rooms give a higher priority to those in attendance over those who are not. This needs to change quickly.

Embrace what we’ve learned to do better

Start by acknowledging we’re all a lot more digitally-minded than we thought. All that resistance to video calls, shared folders and shared screens was mostly in our heads. We learned to move easily from Teams to Zoom to WebEx depending on the client and circumstance. Even better, we discovered that second-best alternatives, such as online workshops instead of in-person, turned out to be more efficient.

Now, as Delta upends workplace plans crafted just weeks ago, we need to turn a binary situation—you’re either in or out of the office—into a more fluid, high-performing alternative that blends the office with the third person. This may mean retraining and reskilling employees on how to kick off a meeting and brief or implementing sensible camera on/off rules that turn rigid meetings into work sessions where things get done.

Design kickoffs for iterative collaboration

Before the pandemic, we often began meetings by sharing a deck as one or two people talked while everyone else in the room listened. Maybe a whiteboard was involved. Then everyone went back to their office and worked against the brief. The only thing that changed during COVID is that folks could turn their cameras off so you couldn’t tell who was paying attention or understanding what you were saying.  

Now, nearly everyone understands how to use the tools—from Google Drive to digital whiteboards—that make asynchronous collaboration possible. Ultimately, by connecting the technology and tools already at our disposal we can create an iterative process online that turns idea-sharing into data to organize and optimize our output.

Optimize everyone’s time and temperature

Managing time isn’t about compliance and specific work hours at a desk, it's about getting the most out of our days. A calendar full of video calls is not efficient and replacing the commute with more work is the fastest road to burnout. A recent article in The Wall Street Journal, “The Pain of the Never-Ending Work Check-In," predicts hybrid schedules could make calendars even messier.

During the pandemic, email communication has been increasingly replaced by ongoing check-ins to keep managers up to date on projects and their staff's personal well-being. I advocate sunsetting this practice and instead recasting the project manager role in your company. Upskill their duties from strictly timekeepers and approval seekers to facilitators and moderators.

Invest in next-gen technology and tools

This is the hardest part of the shift to a third-person workplace. Start with understanding the way your people work and then look for the best software that enables that workflow. The differences between options for project management tools, digital whiteboards and cloud working environments might seem small, but small things pile up when scaled to all your people for daily use.

Engage your chief technology officer and chief financial officer as the starting point to funnel some of that unallocated travel budget to higher-quality camera technology so you can get multiple people in the fishbowl. Invest in headphones and sound systems that make it easier to hear and be heard. Invest in second screens so everyone can more easily digest and refer to content while continuing to engage with the boxes of people in front of them. The big leap? Rethink the office space completely. Open plans with a few meeting rooms were OK in the old way of working but don’t work when half the office is in and the other half is collaborating from home.

Using these strategies, agencies and marketers can create a hybrid collaboration framework that keeps employees safe, engaged and delivering the best work regardless of who is the third person on any given day.

- Roy Armale is global chief innovation officer at VMLY&R COMMERCE.

Originally published in AdAge.