In 2013, Marissa Mayer announced that Yahoo employees should quit working remotely and return to the office. The cheers from traditional business leaders were deafening. With much less fanfare a year later, Lean Startup put on a conference entitled “Office Optional.” Each of the speakers were chosen because they ran or worked for a company that had no physical footprint. None. The speakers weren’t talking about the conceptual idea of remote teams, but the actual day-to-day challenges of onboarding, building a culture, managing individual performance, and working together in a distributed environment. The insights from the conference have stuck with me because, as much as the prevailing narrative is what Yahoo boldly declared back in 2013, organizations and employees have largely ignored that message as the world of distributed work continues to grow.
The Hybrid Workplace
Physical and digital spaces work together to power today’s workplace. For example, if an organization doesn’t have enough physical space to fit its people, the team will require more operational tools and technology to support a distributed model. Organizations should consider how their physical and digital environments influence employee behavior, and what ideal behaviors will drive business results. As more workplace environments become hybridized, companies need to focus on developing a strategy to understand the connections between workspace and human behavior.
However, there are some real challenges to successfully implement this way of thinking. Although physical and digital workspaces are functionally and experientially similar—they are places where ideas are exchanged—the budgets for workspace projects tend to be separated between Facilities and IT departments, without an overall strategy for the whole hybrid environment. Each department runs their projects along separate logical paths until they reunite the week before move-in to hash out their (often quite significant) differences. Unfortunately, key opportunities are lost along the way to consider how physical and digital infrastructure might augment each other to support higher levels of employee performance.
Creating a Performance Strategy
Existing research on performance indicators can be used as a framework to guide our thinking for optimizing employee behavior in a hybrid environment. In 2013 and 2014, a research team formed by Advanced Workplace Associates (AWA) and the Center for Evidence-Based Management (CEBMa)1 set out to learn about measuring knowledge worker productivity by looking at more than 800 individual research papers and performing 32 meta-studies. Although they found no clear indicators for individual knowledge worker performance, they did find that business results were impacted by indicators for team productivity:
- Social cohesion
- Perceived supervisory support
- Information sharing
- Vision and goal clarity
- External communication
We can begin to think holistically about how environments support ideal employee behaviors by examining these performance enhancers across each environment (physical, digital, and hybrid) relative to the desired business outcomes. Given the list, the questions we must ask ourselves are:
- How might we optimize social cohesion in a physical, digital or hybrid environment?
- How might managers demonstrate support in these environments?
- How might we make information sharing between team members easier?
- How might we communicate vision and goals clearly?
The Future of Work
To me, the most interesting idea presented at the Lean Startup Office Optional Conference came from Automattic. At the time, they had 248 employees (now 417) spread across the globe, with no physical footprint. They had discovered that, despite all of their success with remote teams, real camaraderie came from physically being together. Every year the entire company spends a week together in one place. That week is mandatory for all employees and includes meetings, projects, workshops and social activities to help would-be strangers work, learn, and play together. In an effort to achieve social cohesion—that top indicator of performance—Automattic has added a physical presence component to their fully distributed work environment.
This is the future of work—a combination of physical and distributed workspaces embodying cultures created from physical space, digital tools, and human-centric culture building programs. It is time for workplace design to approach an infrastructure that supports all of these as one solution— designing outcome strategies that improve the quality of our interactions with our work and each other.
My challenge for you is to consider an overarching strategy (physical, digital and cultural), to achieve those top six indicators of high performing teams as you implement your own hybrid workplace.
1. Allsteel sponsored the report authored by Karen Plum, Director of Research & Development, and Andrew Mawson, Founding Director, both with Advanced Workplace Associates.