As new vaccines emerge and political transitions move forward (deep breath), I still hear many talking about “going back” to the way things were.  Instead, I suggest we might look at what opportunities 2021 will provide us.

Are you hearing “going back” conversations?

The “going back” conversations take many forms.  Certainly, some would like things to go back to exactly the way things were before the pandemic.  Other “go back” conversations now take on a more subtle tone.  One conversation proposes “hybrid remote” as the next big move for teams of office workers.

Hybrid remote can mean many things to different people.  For simplicity, I’ll define “hybrid remote” as having some in the office and some out of the office for certain periods of time.  This form of remote work now is being heralded as the way to safely re-enter the offices as we emerge from the coronavirus pandemic.

Hybrid remote also happens to be the remote work environment that many struggled with long before the pandemic.  Are we going backward or forward when we plan for hybrid remote?

A tale of remote team types

In previous blog posts and in our book on successful distributed agile teams, we describe four basic types of distributed teams that tend to stand out:

  1. Satellite Remote Teams – where one or a few are remote and everyone else is in the office
  2. Cluster Remote Teams – where you may have sub-groups of a team in certain locations
  3. Multi-Hybrid Remote Teams – a mix of Satellite and Cluster team where some are isolated and remote and others are in small clusters in a shared physical space
  4. Nebula (or cloud) Remote Teams – where everyone works in a separate physical location

The first three types of teams proved the most challenging in my remote coaching well before the pandemic.  You had some people in the office and some people outside the office.  Those who spent time outside the office of more than a couple of days start to feel less connected with those in the in the office all the time.  They miss out on the hallway conversations, and bumping into the boss, or coming across a new idea randomly shared with team members in the team’s space.

In other words, (1) – (3) represented the horrible hybrids of our past and are now being proposed as a solution for the future.  Are we going backward or forward when we plan for hybrid remote?

What do we need?

Some cannot wait to return to the office and it’s not just the extroverts.  Some just want to be around people.  They want to feel like they can move freely from their homes.

Some have started to appreciate the freedom and choice of working remotely.  They appreciate having more time in their day instead of spending hours on a commute.  They value that freedom.

The business need the team to remain aligned, focused and delivering value.

So what do we need to address all these needs?j

Functional Hybrid Remote Teams

So some will go into the office and some may wish to rotate in and out.  Let’s look at what some options might be.  

Notice in the figure that we have a team of six that work in pairs.  Note the color of their shirts.  The blue pair are in the office (A), the purple pair work from home (B), and the green pair are working together in a coworking space.  They may only be in contact with their pair mate.  This would reduce any transmission risk to their other team members. 

These pairs may select how they wish to work together.  They don’t all move into the office to protect their co-workers.  They may remain in these same pairs to form a sort of pseudo-quarantine.  

This approach has a few benefits:

  • It protects your team and your company.  It limits exposure to the virus to a pair within a team.
  • Using a buddy system to pair team members together helps them feel connected with the work.  Previously, I’ve applied the buddy system to have connection with one person remote and one person in the office.  But sometimes connection with just another team member can help with a sense of connection.
  • As team members receive vaccinations, you could rotate the pairs.  One rotation might be one pair moves into the office and another pair moves out.  This allows other team members to have time in the office and feel connected with the rest of the organization. This can at least build empathy with each other when they work remote.

Challenges of the Functional Hybrid Remote Approach

Some pitfalls remain with this approach

  • “If one is remote, all are remote.”  You hear this often when researching remote work because it helps think about the best way for the hybrid remote team to work together.  This means you absolutely must keep as much of your work and interactions online.  No physical whiteboards or sticky notes needed. 
  • Also, socializing is a problem.  If you wish to remain socially distant and still have events in the office, why not be remotely distant and include the entire hybrid remote team in social activities?  I’ve seen this done well and poorly.  Poorly would be providing food, beverages, and gifts for those who can be in attendance for events at the office, and nothing but a bad audio connection is provided for the remote people. Done well would be providing gifts to all in advance of the meeting so you can have a group “unboxing” and share the event together with video and photos.
  • You might need to buy additional equipment if team members start to rotate.  Until immunity increases, sharing desks may not be best.  This means you may need duplicate monitors, keyboards, and other equipment at the home office and company office.
  • This arrangement is just painful for everyone.  Hybrid has always been difficult because it works against two different communications approaches.  One approach developed over thousands of years as we learned to work together as humans.  The newer approach still is “in development” as we seek ways to work in unusual situations permitted by the technology. 

There is another (option)

Are these hybrid remotes the only option for working together in teams?  No, there is another. (as Yoda might say)

What has our experience with 2020 really taught us? What will the technology coming in 2021 allow? More on that next time.

However, if you still feel hybrid-remote work seems the best for you, I encourage you to dive into the Gitlab article: Hybrid-Remote: understanding nuances and pitfalls.