Will Reduced Overlap in the Hybrid Workplace Prevent Success?
People talk a lot about the hybrid workplace these days. A term not widely used until recently, it blends people working from home with those who work in an office on any given workday. It’ll be the norm for many employers soon, some more so than others.
What people aren’t talking about is what I call overlap between coworkers. Overlap reflects the percentage of time any two people work onsite on the same day. In a way, it’s a measure of opportunity to do things that require people to work together in person.
I find it helpful to think about this overlap as an average across an organization or single office location. Although many organizations operate in multiple locations, we can ignore it to explore the hybrid approach’s effects.
In a traditional workplace where everyone works together in the office, the overlap is close to 100%. As employees work more days from home, their overlap falls. For the case of a fully teleworking organization, where every employee works from home every day, the overlap is zero.
Hybrid work blends these two extremes, so the overlap between employees will be greater than zero and less than 100%. If every employee in a workplace begins working half of their time from home and office days are randomized, the mean overlap is around 25%. One way to think about this is the probability of finding any two employees in the office on any given day.
How Does Overlap Affect Work?
Human communication is simply most efficient in face-to-face situations. In-person meetings are an immersive experience complete with body language and the sound of voices. In most cases, people can express disagreement or interrupt without even speaking. We pick up subliminal cues from voices and expressions without consciously doing so.
Despite being efficient, in-person meetings are also rife with challenges and pitfalls. Speaking skills are essential, but so are skills related to listening and observing. Barriers stand between us and our goals in every communication situation. Sensing and overcoming them are critical skills that high-performing employees refine over time.
Technology, including the tools that enable telework in the hybrid workplace, introduces new communication barriers. Text-based conversations prevent us from seeing body language and hearing voices. Audio meetings deny reading body language. Video meetings allow us to see facial and other expressions, but certainly not from all participants at any given time.
Technology can add another barrier in the form of anxiety. I’ve seen many excellent communicators fumble with the tools they need to succeed working remotely. Their challenges compound other frustrations with meetings that many of us know well: poor audio, people talking simultaneously, difficulty hearing anyone, noises from any participant that disrupt the meeting, and more.
Faster, better, and cheaper?
It’s tempting to think that hybrid work combines only the best of both office work and telework. We almost expect the hybrid approach to solve the riddle of faster, better, and cheaper workplaces. As the axiom goes, you can have one or two but never all three.
Conventional meetings are effective but trade away the efficiency of telecommunications. Audio and video meetings fit more readily into work schedules and minimize the time spent getting to and from meeting locations, but time in rooms before and after meetings also presented networking and relationship-building opportunities. Productivity is reportedly higher for those who telework, possibly at the expense of serendipitous encounters that happen naturally in traditional work. The impact of innovative ideas from such meetings isn’t easily measured, but chance meetings are less frequent when the overlap between employees is low.
However, hybrid work isn’t just a mix of office work and telework. Instead, both are used simultaneously on any given day. Teleworkers don’t exclusively use technology to connect with individuals. They also join meetings where they’re effectively invisible and where others have the advantage of speaking face-to-face. Those working in offices aren’t only meeting and collaborating with others in person. They’re also now engaging with technology specifically to accommodate their coworkers or customers working from home any given day.
A hybrid workplace may combine the best of both worlds, but it also brings along the worst. To me, this includes the many barriers created by introducing technology into interpersonal communications. Meetings won’t be purely online, nor will they be predominantly in-person. Instead, most meetings will be hybrid.
The Hybrid Challenge
I’d hate to understate this challenge presented by hybrid work. Imagine we’re meeting in-person to brainstorm solutions to a complex problem. In a traditional workplace where overlap between employees is close to 100%, coworkers toss out ideas around the table. A facilitator writes each of them on an oversized notepad. As the conversation progresses, the group narrows the solutions down to one or a few. Someone remembers something that others have forgotten, and the tide shifts toward a different family of solutions. Ultimately, everyone has their say, and the group agrees they’ve surfaced an optimum solution and considered most obstacles to success.
The same scenario in a workplace with an overlap of around 25%, where half of the participants attend by audio or video, plays out differently. People attending meetings from other locations are mainly invisible to those in the room, even if connected by video. Drawing out their ideas takes deliberate effort by a skilled facilitator. The facilitator must also manage notes using a collaboration platform and project them for the room, adding an unwelcome sense of formality. Conversations around the table get interrupted by the invisible participants. Every transition between speaking in the room to speaking from another location is awkward, with false starts and stops as people try to avoid talking over one another.
Hardly a stretch for the hybrid workplace, many of its meetings will involve some critical participants in a room while others attend by audio or video. Those in the room need to manage the technology and assure equity for participants while not disrupting the meeting. This challenge likely falls to one person, possibly the meeting organizer. In other cases, particularly for meetings called by upper-level managers and leaders, there may be one person identified as the facilitator.
Using Overlap as a Measure
The significant decline in the overlap between employee schedules in the hybrid workplace presents new communication barriers and challenges to work. The situation is upon us now. We aren’t debating if workplaces will be hybrid. We’re discussing how hybrid they are or will become. Using the overlap between employees may be an indicator, with 0 representing a fully teleworking organization and 100 describing the traditional workplace. As overlap falls between these extremes, workers will need to develop new skills to succeed. Organizations must prepare with appropriate training, management, and other approaches to develop the necessary people skills.