One half of the team in an office, the other one globally distributed. The hybrid approach to remote work is gaining popularity – but is it the best way forward, and what are the caveats of this type of remote work?
The hybrid remote approach is what usually happens when a previously co-located company starts hiring remote workers, so a major office exists with remote workers mostly playing a minor or equal role. While other definitions may be closer to what we call WFH, we classify hybrid remote work when one major part of the company works from an office – either full-time or part-time – and another major part is fully remote. If going to the office is optional and the exception, we would classify it as remote-first, while having a small number of remote workers or even just local people working from home is closer to "Remote OK" or a Work-from-Home scheme.
What advantages does hybrid remote have?
Hybrid remote is so popular these days because of its easy adoption. A company that already has a sizeable office can set up workflows for remote workers, and build their remote presence right away. For teams that either have specialized hiring requirements or simply big scale hiring requirements, this can be a lifesaver. In many edges of the world, access to remote talent is far greater than their local pools. If you are working with technologies or methods that require specialization, hiring people remotely can be the only way to success.
Going hybrid remote is also a great starter for a good remote, async and knowledge exchange strategy for the whole company. If done properly, it can force people into being more serious about documentation, more aware of timing and thoughtful messaging, and finally can allow employees in the office to take advantage of the benefits of remote work, by being more flexible with their commute and Work-From-Home time.
With all of these points combined, it is also the easiest starting step to seriously evaluate a full all-remote transition. If you are tempted to close down your office entirely or make it optional for people to come there, it helps you know whether your workflows can hold up, whether employees are generally open for it and how communication works. The best time to go all-remote is as soon as nobody is showing up to the office anymore!
What challenges does hybrid remote have?
The hybrid model is often criticised because it can stand to the contrary of a remote-first mindset. That means that there is a constant danger that remote employees can become a "second-class citizen" and need to prove themselves extra strongly to be taken into account for promotions or positions that may be given out.
It's also quite common that the leadership of a company is based in the majority office, bringing more influence to local workers, as they have more opportunities for exchange and more visibility. That further leads to a divide between office workers and remote workers.
Last but not least, it creates inequality amongst employees. The remote employees have more flexibility in their time and organisation, but office employees have access to office benefits. Remote employees might need to join out-of-working-time meetings, but office employees spend time on their commute. It all levels out eventually, but you will always get into awkward positions where some employees would prefer the benefits of the other party, which is difficult to solve.
How can I overcome the challenges of hybrid remote?
The fact that this model can work out is proven by many large-scale companies, such as Stripe. However, some ground rules need to be set. At its core, a company should strive to get towards a remote-first mindset as closely as possible. Let's go over what that exactly means.
Adopting an async form of communication
It's a universal truth that communication across timezones and the barriers of the web is best done through async communication. In its essence, async communication channels consist of mediums that do not require or even expect instant replies. Formally, they are defined as having the ability to deliver messages, even if the counterpart is not online. In today's world, it's also a factor whether the recipients are expected to be online to receive a message like it is often the case with instant messengers.
Async communication comes in many forms: You can adopt email as your central way to communicate, you can use a forum-like software like P2 or Basecamp or use a specialized piece of software like Twist. More than the tool, it's important to stick to the async workflow:
- making sure that messages are complete, not fast
- not expecting immediate replies
- using rich text, links and emojis to give background information and show emotion
The reason for doing asynchronous communication is that it's easier to follow a discussion and decisions after they have happened. While instant messaging software like Slack tends to lose histories or make them hard to follow, async communication usually follows a strict flow which can be archived and read even days after a decision was taken.
Making decisions and stakeholders accessible to remote workers
A major error that hybrid companies tend to make is to have remote workers, but never let stakeholders, founders and managers work from home. To build an environment where remote and in-office workers are equal, it's also important that key people in an organisation are mixed between the office and remotely, even if it's just for a few days per week.
This also removes the feeling of missing out: Suddenly, decisions have to be discussed online or written down to be able to discuss them. If key people in an organisation work together from an office, it's easy to make decisions and lead discussions in that limited circle. If people are remote, they miss out on that.
Finally, meetings are a big point of discussion. Especially if meetings are a mix of a big meeting room and single remote workers, things can get hectic and messy. You can counteract that by establishing best practises, making people join from their own devices, have meetings exclusively online and adopt online tools to brainstorm, conceptualize and discuss.
Fair compensation for remote workers
There's a big chance that your in-office workers have access to perks that your remote workers don't: be it snacks in the office, exciting break rooms, maybe even catered lunches or an in-house gym. Especially when it comes to fully remote workers, you need to be able to match them in some way or another.
In some cases, that means putting more cash in your remote employee's hands, in others that means pre-defined budgets or a different set of perks where needed.
Especially once it comes to international remote work, things get even more complicated: Be sure you talk about your employees about their expected compensation, about the deductions they have to expect and the key benefits that are usual in their country.
How should I start with the transition of going remote?
If you've made it up until here, it's great to know that you are playing with the thought of building a partially remote team. By now, you should know more about the benefits that a remote workforce can bring you, but also the challenges that will be in your way, and hopefully a first way to overcome them.
Now it's time to start the transition to remote work. The best way to start it by sending people home today (especially managers and key stakeholders) and see where things are rough. As already mentioned, the great thing about being hybrid-remote is that you can experiment with things, see how they work and prepare yourself to a full transition like that.
To reiterate, it's important that remote and in-office folks can see eye-to-eye. It's crucial not to rely on meetings or having people online to get things done, and that employees are on board with the changes that are coming. If you have those things in order, nothing can stop you!