One Awful-Sounding Idea That Will Actually Fix The Flaws Of Hybrid Work: “One Virtual, All Virtual”
Welcome to your new normal.
We spent the first 14 months of COVID consistently discussing “The New Normal.” Now, as some offices have reopened and others have shifted their once-stated policy on remote work, we’re beginning to actually arrive at The New Normal.
Team members will be dispersed everywhere. Managers must build conversational rapport as opposed to micromanaging tasks. Executives will need to take the big assumptions about hybrid work and realize most are falsehoods. And, even more complicated right now: until we get variants under control, there will be discussions about mandated vaccinations.
You can’t solve all the concerns about hybrid with one approach, but there is a concept that helps you get close. There is one guideline that tackles the engagement issue, and the productivity issue, and creates inclusion. We call it “One Virtual, All Virtual.”
I introduce this concept to executives with a warning and a promise. “Here’s an idea you will absolutely hate at first. But you will come to love it and understand why it works.”
The idea is this: if you have even one person who works remotely, you design meetings and the general culture around everyone being virtual. And when you have a meeting, even if a few people are in the same location, they each and join the call virtually, different rooms. No one is clustered together.
It’s a tough pill to swallow, because it feels like it has so many downsides. Weren’t we all excited to get off all those virtual meetings? Aren’t we supposed to be trying to minimize Zoom Fatigue?
And if you have a team of six, with four physically in the office, logically it feels more right for the four to meet in person and let the other two join using other options. That’s how we’ve always done remote and dispersed work.
The trouble is, if your firm has a good proportion of people working virtually, other options turn out to be even more terrible. Conference calls (“Did Jan just join?”), speakerphone, and video chats with one person in their bedroom and 10 others together in a conference room are all bad options for ideation and employee connection. The quality of communication, collaboration, and creativity all plummet.
Now think about inclusion and exclusion: If you’re at home, and see four people in a conference room laughing and having side conversations, you feel left out. It’s not the intention of those four people to exclude you, but it happens. It’s painful to feel excluded, even if everyone in a room together had best intentions.
With what feels like only bad options for running meetings, you enter a long-known concept known as “Buridan’s Ass,” or in lay terms, the ‘Lesser of Two Evils’ (or, for Russell Crowe fans, a lesser of two weevils).
Why technology may not be the fix we hope
At NLI, we went hybrid around 2017, specifically because it was producing better work and a better company to not force anyone to work in an office. At first we thought the way to integrate a dispersed workforce was with technology. We spent a lot of time and money setting up conference rooms so that people could hear and see well, both in the room and those who were remote.
After a lot of experimentation, we realized that making this work required tremendous conscious effort, and ongoing vigilance. A number of human habits kept rearing their heads. To name just a few:
- People kept having side conversations
- People did not speak loudly enough
- People were not speaking at the right distance from a microphone
- People kept forgetting to mute their laptop, resulting in an ear splitting echo
It turns out all the technology is useless if the humans using it keep doing the wrong thing. It was one thing to spend a lot of money setting up some specialized rooms. It was another thing to notice that it took many weeks of regular usage of the room for people to build the right habits, and every new person in that room also took significant time.
Now try to imagine scaling this to every team in an organization, with a constant flow of new employees. We realized it is just radically easier to have people follow a really simple rule — one virtual, all virtual.
The unexpected upsides to one virtual, all virtual
There are actually big upsides to everyone being on a platform if the meeting is run well. To begin with, good use of the chat can make meetings faster, more inclusive, and less biased.
This works best on a video platform, e.g. Zoom. Use the chat feature for sharing ideas and feedback. Have everyone in the space they do their best work in, and pause the meeting periodically with a focused question for people to answer in the chat (“What do we think about the road map right now? What are the best and worst elements?”).
Consider also using a “parallel processing” meeting, where everyone takes 10 minutes to review a document, adding insights/comments as they go. Or someone can present an idea, and everyone in parallel can add thoughts in a new document about its strengths and weaknesses. With everyone sharing, the best ideas rise to the top, instead of the most confident voices, and everyone feels equally included.
The most important aspect is the location element, though: if one person is virtual, everyone should be separate and virtual. “As one goes, so we all go” is the essence of teamwork. Any successful team is built around principles of psychological safety, and putting everyone on the same playing field meeting-wise helps team members feel safe, included, and connected.
Some awesome other consequences we saw
First, people came into the office less. You can see that as a demerit if you’re paying a lot for your space, but offices are not where most people do their best work. We’ve been surveying orgs on this for years; one study of 6000 employees found that only 10% of people did their best thinking at the office. Look at revenue numbers of multiple companies from 2020, and it’s easy to argue that being at home more increased productivity. Offices are noisy and brain-distracting. Let people have the autonomy to work where they do their best, most innovative work.
People scheduled shorter meetings. Almost all 30-minute meetings became 20–25, and virtually every 1-hour meeting became 50 minutes. This gave people time to recharge, gave their brains space to refocus. On top of this, good meeting design literally makes virtual meetings shorter, by nature of how quickly the conversation can move around, and the use of the chat function. Plus, now you don’t have all the downtime of finding your next meeting room, which on some campuses can be a long way away.
One unexpected upside of this rule was that when people were in the office, they weren’t running from meeting to meeting: they were talking to each other about life, work, families, etc. Employees used the time in the office to build relationships, they didn’t just complete tasks or attend meetings. They spent time with other humans, and did different kinds of activities — having lunch and thinking about big ideas for example.
Mitigating biases and fostering inclusion
This one virtual, all virtual approach removes some of the sting of distance bias — our natural tendency to favor things closer to us. This approach allowed people to work where they wanted, but at the same time we got a diversity of voices on important topics.
Choosing this option, as much as it might feel like the lesser of two evils, also reduces expedience bias. It’s an approach that fosters autonomy and relationships across your team. Right now we’re seeing a good chunk of companies rushing headlong into mandated decisions (“We all come back in November,” etc.) and that’s not going to work. You will lose talent.
In the past few years, we’ve had countless discussions societally about inclusion, both in the workplace and more broadly. Inclusive cultures are achieved with a series of small, repeatable actions done over time. You have to take small steps constantly. One virtual, all virtual is one of those steps — it makes everyone feel as if they’re part of the bigger team, even if they might be sitting 1,500 miles away from the majority of their core team.
One Virtual — All Virtual. It’s a simple idea that sounds terrible in theory, but ends up being beneficial to nearly everyone in practice. To top it off, this habit will ensure your company is maximally adaptive, should we suddenly all go back to work from home, which we’re beginning to realize may be something we need to keep in mind for the future.
This article originally appeared in Forbes.