Remote or physical presence? Hybrid!

How can hybrid meetings be structured in which everyone feels equally included? © Getty Images/alvarez

Two things provided more pep in my monotonous everyday life during the lockdown last winter. These were residential viewings and discussions on hybrid working, in other words the combination of working in an office and from home. My flat hunting was admittedly entertaining, but always had the same result – a lot of money for little quality. I encountered greater dynamism when it came to hybrid working.

It all started with a run. A friend and I were jogging across snow-covered fields and complaining about the isolation and digital exhaustion. ‘One of these days their attitude will end up getting us dragged back to the office full time’, he called out. His prognosis didn’t refer to management, but to the employees who prefer working in the office five days a week. They feel they’re better informed when they’re wedged in there, are seen more and form alliances with other office regulars which remote workers can’t form.

So I asked myself, will we soon have a divided society: on the one hand the employees who work from home, on the other hand the office regulars? I took this question to an internal network meeting at Siemens. Unequal communication opportunities for those in the office and those at home were only one piece of the puzzle. Some saw the desire to be back in the office as very understandable. This includes for instance employees who cannot concentrate at home – surrounded by the noise of the washing machine and screaming children – and who long for the office as a place of retreat. Concern was also expressed about women who tend to be the ones taking charge of any care work and therefore spend more time working from home thus becoming more invisible. And what about the risk groups who have to stay at home until herd immunity? Hybrid working therefore raises many questions.

Office transformation

After a year of working from home, I ask myself ‘why do we need days in the office?’. The office previously flicked an invisible switch in our head telling us ‘now it’s time to work!’. During the pandemic we’ve learned to work productively without this framework. Working in the office could in future look quite different under the hybrid model: loud, with more group work and more exchange about everything and everyone. No other place of communication – virtual or physical – will connect us more with colleagues and the company. Many companies are reacting to this. Siemens for instance has converted many individual workplaces in its office buildings into meeting places. After the long break, employees are also asked to be more creative in their personal communication on site. How about experimenting with new meeting formats in the fresh air, at a table football match or in the park next door? The new world of the office is all about coming together in a lively way.

Trust and the culture of physical presence

We’re gradually getting away from the question: ‘Are you working today or are you in your home office?’ Remote working is effective, . But it does create disadvantages in terms of visibility. The logic is simple: the more often I see someone, the easier it is for me to remember him or her. And that brings advantages when it comes to awarding projects or any other form of advancement. Being seen on the ground is therefore an understated but effective career booster. Is the desire for visibility driving us back to our office desk again? In my view there are two aspects that help here: trust and understanding. Trust is the currency of all those participating in a hybrid model. And trust based on a positive view of humanity allows this ‘new way of working’. Those who frequently work from home are just as diligent as those in an office. We also need to update our understanding of the culture of physical presence. It is self-evident that we do also exist outside our office building. And companies also have to consider this when it comes to meetings. 

Hybrid meetings

A few years ago I attended a hybrid meeting. The majority of participants sat in a conference room and two people dialled in without a video link. The organiser started the web meeting a few minutes earlier than the official start. The purely virtual guests dialled in and remained silent; we in the room were still chatting pleasantly, drinking coffee and leaving biscuit crumbs on our tables. The meeting was punctuated by the odd giggle or two, which those who dialled in couldn’t follow. They also weren’t aware of quiet two-way conversations or facially expressed reactions to the discussion points. One of those who had dialled in typed me a chat message at the end of the meeting: ‘I’ll be joining you next time. I felt so excluded today!’ Such a situation could become the norm for hybrid working. How can all-encompassing hybrid meetings be structured in which everyone feels equally included? So far I’ve come up with three potential solutions.

  1. Everyone in the office should continue to dial into the meeting from their own desk. This would create equal starting conditions for both remote and office employees.
  2. If those in the office are actually sitting in one room, then the room camera should be switched on so that remote participants can follow the action. This does however require having the technology available.
  3. We could also accept a natural inequality and make the best of the situation by giving priority to remote colleagues. They could be allowed to dial in earlier, be the first to be asked for feedback or to suggest topics and be actively included in the discussions. This solution requires masterful digital moderation.

The debate on ways of hybrid working indicates that the transition is not automatic. We need an open conversation, enough time and clear communication. 

Read more articles by Aigul Zhalgassova on the Alumniportal

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