Illustration by Olenka Malarecka

Work Culture

Why hybrid remote teams will be so hard to get right

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Published on November 20, 2020

Illustration by Olenka Malarecka

Workers and managers will need to pull together to keep teams from coming apart.

The software industry is going WFH for good: 74% of CFOs and finance leaders surveyed by Gartner said they plan to shift part of their workforce to permanently remote. Microsoft, Twitter, and many other leading companies have already announced that most workers sent home to ride out the pandemic can stay there indefinitely. 

It would be a mistake to presume tech CFOs are simply grabbing a chance to cut operating expenses and reduce salaries. Most of the push is coming from the people at the desks: Our study with the Economist Intelligence Unit found nearly half of tech-sector staff and two-thirds of management don’t want to go back to the office full-time when COVID-19-related restrictions are lifted. Most report better focus when working at home, despite its new distractions. They love cutting back on the time and energy lost to commuting. Separately, many enjoy the cumulative benefits to the environment—the improved air quality in big cities by April was obvious to all.

And with COVID-19 forcing their hands, the move to remote work isn’t only in software: A report by McKinsey details retailers, fast-food chains, financial services companies, and others exploring ways to create a post-pandemic workforce now rather than waiting to go back to their old “normal.”

What is hybrid remote?

Most companies will adopt a hybrid remote model for their workforce: The office is still there when you want it, but attendance is optional. Many of tomorrow’s knowledge workers, though, will never set foot in these buildings or meet their coworkers in person. “Hybrid work is the new remote work,” a ten-author report from Boston Consulting Group declared in September. Everybody wins, right? Not necessarily.

“Hybrid creates two fundamentally different employee experiences to manage.” —Sid Sijbrandig

In theory, this dual structure is the best for most organizations. In practice, it’s the hardest to get right. Sid Sijbrandig, CEO of GitLab, a software startup founded with no home office at all, detailed in Wired in July how he thinks “Hybrid Remote Work Offers the Worst of Both Worlds.” He writes, “Hybrid creates two fundamentally different employee experiences to manage.” It’s hard, maybe impossible, to find a credible expert who’ll argue that it’s not going to be a rough ride.

At Dropbox, we’ve declared ourselves a Virtual First company—a top-down makeover that treats remote work as the default and the norm, and aims to blend remote culture and sometimes-in-the-office culture. Importantly, we intend for all employees to have roughly the same mix of remote and in-person interactions. The goal is to merge the best of both worlds rather than split the company into two kinds of employees. We’d be kidding ourselves to think we’ve got the answer, but we’re putting a lot of thought and effort into adapting to this distributed future.

The risk of second-class citizens

In our study with the Economist Intelligence Unit, we found more managers than managees eager to stay at home once pandemic restrictions are lifted. Managers feel more productive without in-their-face interruptions, but many front-line workers listed “feeling disconnected from colleagues” as a major impediment to their ability to do work. Loneliness, in other words, ranked as high a disruption as household and family distractions.  

Those of us who’ve worked years as WFH freelancers have seen that hybrid teams can perpetuate a two-tier class system—a ship aboard which if we’re not Captain’s Table, we’re Steerage. “Left out and ganged up on,” as Harvard Business Review put it.

Companies that go hybrid will need to pay attention to buildups of power or groupthink by their in-office employees who are clustered together eight or more hours every day. They can become reluctant to defer to colleagues who “aren’t in the room,” and whose at-home lifestyles they may resent. 

Losing sight of remote talent 

Even with this year’s explosion of video conferencing, remote workers can feel like outsiders. They’re right, says Johnny Taylor, CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management and USA Today’s “Ask HR” columnist. SHRM’s research over the years has found that many work relationships and promotional decisions are built on face-to-face interactions. 

“We must be very intentional if we want to minimize the unintended negative consequences of remote work on these untapped talent pools.” —Johnny Taylor

“I worry about the long-term impact of remote work on women and underrepresented minorities—especially when it comes to their career,” Taylor says. “A lack of visibility with senior management, coupled with limited opportunities to build mentoring relationships with senior executives, are all too often barriers to their success. We must be very intentional if we want to minimize the unintended negative consequences of remote work on these untapped talent pools.” 

Curate talent to combat turnover

It’s easy to empathize with talented-but-isolated individuals. But hybrid remote throws a new challenge at top-level management as well. They can tout their savings on overhead, their broader options in hiring, their reduced vulnerability to (let’s not forget this) future pandemics, but the tradeoffs aren’t trivial. Taylor’s phrase “untapped talent” should pique any manager’s worry.

“Being all remote from the start is much easier than making the transition later.” —Sid Sijbrandig

“Being all remote from the start is much easier than making the transition later,” GitLab’s Sijbrandig tells us. At companies that don’t take a thoughtful, intentional approach to hybrid models, he wrote in Wired, “Remote workers will find that they are not getting promoted at an equal rate, because they are less visible, and the productive remote employees will leave for all-remote companies that invest in their remote team members.” 

As much as Microsoft and Twitter believe hybrid remote is the best for them, the specter of talent turnover will loom over their transitions. Rare is the manager at any level who views their immediate reports—even the temps—as interchangeable parts, easily replaced.

Action now, answers later

The Internet is already flooded with advice on how to work remotely, manage remote teams, and of course how to set up and run a hybrid remote company. Dropbox has its own Virtual First Toolkit, authored from our firsthand experiences in 2020. But it’s too soon for anyone to claim proven expertise. We can only be sure that work won’t go back to what it was, and that fear-of-failure procrastination is itself the most guaranteed way to fail.

McKinsey’s advice is hardly shocking, but at least it comes from a globally-distributed team of senior management consultants: Get specific and take action on building a culture that fosters employee engagement, both in-office and remote. Flatten your management hierarchy, which has likely become too overwhelmed dealing with 2020’s tag team of crises. Encourage rapid decisions even though they may be more imperfect—keep moving forward rather than be left behind. 

But first, stop to envision

While move-fast-and-learn-things is a good idea, companies should first pause to set their intentions. They need to envision and define what kind of work climate they want to see in order to guide their approach, keep priorities in sight, and see how the workforce responds to signals.

At Dropbox we defined a few principles to help us stay on course as we learn: Support the company mission, and give employees the freedom and flexibility to find their best means to our mutual ends; Preserve human connections and company culture, which means socializing outside of agenda-focused meetings (I’m scheduled for a coffeeshop-like chat with three Dropboxers from other teams later today); Sustain the long-term health of our company; Most important, we need to retain a learning mindset—we aren’t even sure of all the questions, let alone the answers.

McKinsey’s report says, “Treat talent as your scarcest resource.” That includes managers who can lead a hybrid team to work in harmony. The all-on-site office isn’t coming back. A no-office company isn’t possible for most human endeavors. Your future workplace is likely to be hybrid remote. Without a whit of Seinfeld-era sarcasm: Good luck with that.