Everyone has a theory on hybrid work effectiveness. We have experience.
NeuroLeadership Institute’s newest product, FLEX: The Neuroscience of Hybrid Leadership, is, like all our solutions, rooted in science.
FLEX, though, is also deeply rooted in our internal experiences.
The NeuroLeadership Institute has been a hybrid workplace since 2017 (not a typo) with 60% of our client work delivered virtually and most of our employees working virtually about 60% of the time. What inspired early adoption, you may ask?
When I joined NLI in late 2016, the company was already outgrowing its Manhattan office space and, as someone familiar with the benefits of flexible work schedules, I was eager for us to expand our hybrid approach to the workplace.
Hybrid is not new.
Before NLI, I worked in the Israeli high-tech industry. Israel regularly faces the same challenge as NLI in Manhattan- it’s a small country which means talent — and clients — are often sought beyond its physical borders. We also recognized that people need focused, uninterrupted time, so we had flexible schedules where people could work a half day from home once or twice a week.
Hybrid is also the way many sales professionals and consultants operated before the pandemic – with lots of travel, working wherever they were, with little in-office time.
So while hybrid is not new, it’s now vastly improved and more deliberate. More people are affected and finding their way in — and loving the benefits of — a hybrid workplace.
Back when NeuroLeadership Institute was making its first deliberate forrays into hybrid in 2016 and 2017, I was confident we would greatly increase our talent pool by looking beyond neighborhoods near Manhattan. I also knew we would expand our client reach if we could get clients more comfortable with virtual. I knew our managers could improve their capabilities and employees would be happier sans commute, with a lower carbon footprint, increased autonomy (within boundaries, of course), and other benefits.
So we pursued that strategy: hire great people wherever they were, and let them work wherever they chose – as long as we facilitated a professional, productive work environment, prioritized availability for client calls and team meetings, and met state and federal guidelines.
There will be resistance!
Initially, we had a handful of managers who were opposed to having team members where they couldn’t see them. It was difficult for them to understand that what matters is not the number of hours employees spend in the office or on a task. What matters is what those employees accomplish.
Especially with knowledge workers, performance can be independent of location, and a “surveillance” style of management prevents managers from realizing – and leveraging – that. We needed managers to approach their roles with the attitude “I don’t care where you are, as long as we see high-quality output and you’re fully present and available for client calls.”
From The NeuroLeadership Institue’s research, we knew managers would need to mitigate the biases that made them resistant to hybrid work: the expedience bias that had them choose what’s easy and familiar; the experience bias that made them think that the way things have always been is the way things always have to be; the distance bias that made them prefer those who are co-located in the office.
The solution was to help them cultivate a growth mindset about hybrid work. One part of a growth mindset is to see challenges as opportunities — we needed managers to seize the opportunity to become more effective- to manage by output, not input (e.g. hours in an office). As an organization that prides itself on having a growth mindset, we required those resistant to working with a dispersed team to experiment with just one or two employees at first.
Here are some additional ways to overcome the resistance, smooth the transition, and unlock hybrid’s benefits:
- Recruit for hybrid. Develop specific interview questions to assess a candidate’s comfort with hybrid work and how well they’ll acclimate. For example, one of the questions we ask is “please share one strategy that helps in successfully working from home?” with an emphasis on the “work from home” qualifier.
- Onboard for hybrid. Onboarding isn’t just about the remote worker; it’s about the in-office worker or workers in other locations understanding how to interact with and include their colleagues. For example, use chat platforms to replicate office interactions — to say hi to teammates and to let others know what you’re working on.
- Plan for hybrid. The brain’s natural tendency is to create in-groups and out-groups. We’ve seen that inclusion can be one of the big benefits when hybrid is done well. But it doesn’t happen by accident. Hybrid can actually prevent us-vs-them thinking when we find common ground and intentionally foster relatedness. A sense of belonging creates a virtuous cycle of cooperating to accomplish common goals. We’re all on the same side, and everyone is a part of the in-group, We had a new leader join in 2019. I remember he shared that he had written a reminder to himself to “first call on those not in the room” to ensure inclusion in our hybrid workplace. Think about — and communicate explicitly about — the habits your organization, teams, and individuals need to foster success in a hybrid workplace.
- Meet for hybrid. Maximize synchronous time together with meetings. Even the people in office conference rooms are on video and dialed into the platform to be part of the chat. That same practice and the same technology work for informal meetings, too, those “oh by the way” quick questions. To avoid video and meeting fatigue, we adopted “speedy meetings” (that, too, we did before the pandemic but it’s even more critical now) where 30 minutes becomes 25 minutes and we insist on an on-time (or early) arrival. That combination helps ensure people the breaks they need to manage their cognitive capacity, ensuring space for insights to develop.
At the Neuroleadership Institute, the results of a hybrid workplace are clear. Fiscal Year 2018 positioned us for a seamless transition in FY21 from 87% virtual to 100% virtual. And we’re confident that seamless transition contributed to making FY21 our best yet in terms of revenue and profit.
Reach out if you’d like to learn more about how to FLEX your workplace.