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While organizations are preparing to return large numbers of workers to offices this fall, many senior leaders have questions about how to lead a reassembled workforce when not everyone is together. In a recent article, we put forward a principle to guide the reimagination of hybrid work post-pandemic: Take a virtual-first approach and bring people together physically only when it adds value to do so.
Our research shows that bringing people together adds value when there is deep teamwork — that is, work that requires collaboration (meaning the deeper integration of knowledge), innovation, acculturation (which requires face-to-face connection to develop shared understanding), and dedication (meaning interpersonal bonding and commitment to a shared purpose).
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Based on these findings, we envision a future in which geographically dispersed teams will come together periodically to engage in these four dimensions of impact. They otherwise will operate virtually doing the shallow teamwork of coordination, information sharing, and straightforward decision-making. To support this work, offices as we knew them pre-pandemic will cease to exist, replaced by collaboration spaces used by many teams on a rolling basis and designed to facilitate deep teamwork. Put another way, onsite meetings will be the new offsites.
To us, hybrid work means team interactions in which some meetings are in person and others are virtual, but everyone is participating in the same “mode.” As discussed in our article mentioned previously, hybrid team leaders need to learn to lead effectively in both in-person and virtual modes.
But what about situations where some participants in a meeting could come together physically, but others would be participating virtually? We call these mixed-mode meetings to avoid the confusion caused by labeling them hybrid. Mixed-mode meetings are those in which some participants are in in-person mode and others are in virtual mode.
To some, it seems obvious that if some meeting participants can quickly come together physically, they should. Why not take advantage of proximity and shared space to enrich the in-person experience? In fact, this may have been the default experience for many organizations before the pandemic.
However, there lurks a hidden danger in such thinking. If mixed-mode meetings become the norm in intact teams (it’s not so much a problem for ad hoc meetings), then the risk of creating two tiers of participation, access, and influence rises dramatically. This is especially problematic when some team members are already disadvantaged by being far from a core colocated team.
Consider, for example, the experience of leadership team members of a U.S.-based global consumer products business (a real case in which one of the authors coached the CEO). About half of the leadership team lives close to the corporate headquarters located on the East Coast of the United States. The headquarters is in a modest-sized city, so there are no significant costs to getting to the office. The rest of the team is scattered across the globe in the Latin America, EMEA, and Asia-Pacific regions. Because of time zone differences, team members in the Asia-Pacific region participated virtually late into the night, creating a doubly negative effect for the mixed-mode meetings the group attended.
Recognizing the risk, the CEO decided to level the playing field. The leadership team would meet together in person a few times a year to work on strategy, talent development, and other enterprise-level issues. Otherwise, team meetings would be conducted virtually, where everyone is a (Zoom) tile. Critically, the CEO decided that much of the “together time” would focus on interpersonal connection. The priority would be to create and sustain a foundation of mutual understanding and trust, which is a challenge for fully distributed teams.
However, every rule is honored in the breach. As the situation evolved, it became clear to the CEO that there were circumstances in which mixed-mode meetings made sense, such as when dealing with emerging contingencies or potential crises. Here, the benefits of rapid and thorough coordination and action planning override the risks; there is real value in having some team members together in one room.
Meetings involving subsets of team members or non-team members presenting or participating can also be exceptions to the general rule. Here, too, the risk of creating a two-tier team is lower.
But beyond these more exceptional cases, when does it make sense for leadership teams to have mixed-mode meetings? We developed five fundamental principles to help guide leaders’ decision-making based on our experience working with leadership teams and running mixed-mode leadership development programs.
1. Avoid mixed-mode meetings unless there is a strong foundation of trust and connection for the team. These qualities are built and sustained through regular investments of together time. By their nature, mixed-mode meetings tend to erode this foundation, so their frequency should reflect that: If more mixed-mode meetings are being conducted, the investment in sustaining the foundation by bringing the whole team together should correspondingly rise.
2. Convene mixed-mode meetings only when having some people together physically creates business value, not just because of proximity. Falling back into the proximity trap creates fundamental inequity in the team regarding opportunities to build relationships and exert influence. Situations in which mixed-mode meetings add value include follow-on work from initiatives launched collectively, when it’s not possible for everyone to be together but collaboration and innovation are required. In such circumstances, having some people together in the room can enhance creativity and commitment.
3. Enable virtual participants to have a powerful presence in the meetings. Having agreed-upon best practices for inclusion and showing respect for virtual participants will establish an essential foundation, lest virtual attendees feel ignored or marginalized. Then there is technology. The CEO mentioned above mandated investments in the best available virtual and mixed-mode meeting technologies. Screen size also can help. In the mixed-mode leadership development programs we lead, for example, the classrooms are set up such that when remote participants speak, they show up on a large screen at the front of the room, which gives them a more commanding presence. Of course, preferences for “being large” are likely to vary and need to be considered.
4. Build time into mixed-mode meeting schedules for informal connection between the in-person and remote participants. This could take the form of scheduling breaks in which all participants are on their computers and come together online in pairs or trios for connection and catch-up discussions without prescribed agendas. Such interactions also have the virtue of reminding the in-person team members of the challenges of operating remotely.
5. Recognize the risks of creating a two-tier team, and strive to mitigate them. This requires leaders to establish ground rules that encourage balanced participation and to ensure that the remote participants are minimally disadvantaged as much as possible. Scheduling some meetings within regular working hours for the remote participants, even when it inconveniences the team members at headquarters, also helps. It’s hardly fair that remote employees must always come to leadership team meetings late in the evening when they are likely already fatigued from a long workday.
In sum, the key is to be clearheaded about the true benefits and costs of mixed-mode meetings and strive to maximize the former and minimize the latter. Responsibility for doing so rests mainly with team leaders. They are the ones who can build and sustain the foundation, make good choices about when and how mixed-mode meetings are run, invest in shared practices that facilitate a powerful presence for remote participants, and establish meeting ground rules that create a level playing field to the maximum extent possible.