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.