I’m revisiting this 2018 assessment (of mine) of the hybrid model for working remotely to consider how the experiences of 2020-21 might revise that assessment and, more importantly, inform how such a model might be effective going forward.
In Part 1 of this series, I reflected on the rapid move to remote working necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic. In Part 2, I looked at the lessons learned during the pandemic work-from-home situation. In Part 3.1, I looked back at the original four arguments about working remotely and reconsidered the first one – the economic argument. In this post, I’ll look at the next argument – teamwork. There has certainly been a lot to learn.
The teamwork argument: collaboration and teamwork happen when people are comfortable, so letting them work remotely frees them to be more independent and actively seek out collaborative opportunities.
In my 2018 assessment, I argued against this:
“…the co-location of staff is one of the main factors in building team camaraderie and facilitating collaborative work. While independence and collaboration are not mutually exclusive, they certainly are counter-intuitive.”
I could not have been more wrong.
Also known as the collaboration or culture argument against remote or hybrid working, in many cases this is less about actual teamwork and more about change and resistance to it. In a hybrid model, how organizations establish and realize their culture and teamwork will be different than it was pre-pandemic, when remote work was either the exception or just not allowed.
The pandemic situation forced everyone to adapt to remote working, regardless of company culture, and in some ways reinforced some elements of existing culture and led to changes to others. This is true for both those who had to work remotely and those remaining in onsite roles. Now that we are looking at how to have a hybrid model more permanently, some employers may see a return to exactly how things used to be as essential to getting back to that original culture.
Good and effective teams and collaborations can be fostered through co-location, but co-location does not guarantee collaboration and teamwork. If the organization’s culture was primarily driven by the shared physical space and proximity of employees to each other and their managers, then perhaps the culture was less about collaboration and more about control (more on that in a future blog post about trust). Being enforced, it’s hard to know if co-location was better or necessary, or just “the way we’ve always done it around here,” For some people, that enforced proximity and ongoing social interaction may have actually stymied their productivity and creativity rather than stimulated collaboration. There also limits to how much co-location and density the team can have; too many people in too small a space can feel less collaborative and more punitive.
There are some types of work that require specialized tools, materials, or facilities that cannot be replicated remotely or taken home, so these need to remain onsite, for both safety and efficiency. Depending on the work, onsite training for new employees may also be required, orient them to the organization and familiarize them with the workplace so they know who and what are where. There also need to be different considerations for work with a significant training or mentoring element, such as graduate students or other academic trainees. Academic supervisors have a higher duty of care for both the training and the well-being of the trainees, and trainees, by virtue of where they are in work or life progress, are more likely to lack the experience or maturity to function well or safely entirely on their own. For these exceptions, co-location is could be considered essential, but perhaps it doesn’t have to be everyone, or all the time. For example, for the trainee environment, is it reasonable to require that all other staff be onsite with the trainees? Or that all trainees and supervisors be onsite all the time? Perhaps not.
While it is true that not everyone thrives in a remote work situation, it is equally true that some (perhaps many) do. Also, it would be incorrect to assume that, in the pre-pandemic workplace of co-location, everyone was thriving. Some find the noise, stress, and distraction of an active workspace with many other people around to be difficult if not challenging to both their productivity and their mental health. Things like anxiety, depression, or introversion can make that type of workplace almost threatening to wellbeing, and for these individuals, the past 18 months may have been a wonderful and transformative work experience. Truly collaborative, supportive, and engaged teams and organization can be enhanced by co-location but should not depend on that as the driver for collaboration and camaraderie. Especially as we emerge from the pandemic period, during which many have established new paradigms for themselves and their teams for working together effectively, it is important to identify and capitalize on the individuals, teams, and work that has thrived during the pandemic.
Co-location does not guarantee an engaged or productive workforce. With the right people, tools, work, and space, it can promote or enhance collaboration, but not guarantee it. And for those who are not engaged or enhanced that way, it can have a negative effect, especially now that many of had a chance to try on hybrid work for size – enforced co-location can result in disengagement and departures, perhaps of key individuals who, with some accommodation and hybridization, would have remained.
The spectrum of natural diversity in approaches to work in teams and organizations strongly suggests that a hybrid model – neither all remote nor all co-located – is worth considering to get the best out of everyone, as well as the best for everyone. If we want everyone to thrive – and we should – we need a model that can work for everyone, not just the majority of employees, not just managers, and not just the organization.
In the next parts of this series, I'll be looking at the remaining arguments about remote or hybrid working: trust and work-life balance. I'll conclude by suggesting some tools and approaches to make work and communication effective in a remote or hybrid work set-up.
What has been your experience? Have you found that remote working works for you? Are you finding creative ways to use virtual interaction tools to build relationships and enhance collaborations? Please comment below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with your questions and comments.
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Who is Robyn?
My career as a research project manager is rewarding, dynamic, challenging, and fun. I'm looking forward to sharing my knowledge and experience in communication, organization, and common sense approaches in research management and leadership, and to enabling others to learn and grow in this exciting career.