Building a Hybrid Workplace: What We've Learned
The return of office life is on the horizon. For many, it’s already here. But it won’t be the way that it was in February 2020. As we reopen, many workplaces will be using a hybrid model between in-person office working and remote working. They will be doing this to reopen offices gradually and because the past year and a half have shown many of us that we can work from anywhere and that not commuting to an office has a number of benefits (not least of all getting our commuting time back).
It’s also what many workers want. Not everyone wants to work remotely forever, but they do want the option. According to a report by Citrix, 88% of polled knowledge workers want flexible jobs. This desire for flexible work arrangements has increased as a result of COVID, according to a report by McKinsey.
So, not only is hybrid working going to be a part of the reopening process, it will also likely be part of our working lives in the years to come.
Fractured Atlas has been fully remote since the end of 2019. But we have had years of experience with various hybrid models where some people are in the office and some are working from elsewhere. As offices go hybrid, we want to share some of what we’ve experienced and learned along the way in hopes that it will help other organizations think carefully about the best way to work when you are no longer fully remote and no longer fully in-person.
Hybrid Culture is Unique
The first and most important point to note about hybrid workplaces is that they are unique. Hybrid offices aren’t just in-person offices smashed up with remote offices. They demand to be considered on their own terms and crafted with care.
Hybrid workplaces will have distinct norms for internal communication, sets of expectations for knowing who will be where at which times, structures to determine who can work remotely and when, and tools to help everyone get their work done most successfully.
As my colleague Tim Cynova observed to me, the mass shift to remote work changed the employer/employee relationship. It changed our expectations about what work was and how we related to it. Going hybrid changes that relationship again. It could change relationships between coworkers, between a worker and their workplace, and the expectations that someone can have for leadership or HR. If you don’t acknowledge that hybridity will change an employee’s relationship to their job, you aren’t setting yourself up for success as an organization.
Fractured Atlas’s History of Hybrid Working
Fractured Atlas started incorporating a hybrid working model into the way we worked back in 2010.
Back then, it was to accommodate one particular employee who didn’t yet live within commuting distance of our New York office. Soon after, our hybrid model allowed everyone at the Director tier to request to work from home on Fridays. This was in part because everyone below that tier needed to be able to answer phones as part of their daily responsibilities and we hadn’t yet figured out how to do that outside of an office.
Next up, associates could work from home one day a week if they had enough tasks that didn’t require them to be on the phone for a whole day.
Working from home wasn’t intended to be just for people who were higher up on the food chain, we just hadn’t figured out how to solve the tech problems that working remotely created. But, in effect, it was a perk for people who had been there longer and who held more senior roles.
Then, in 2013, another big shift happened. We acquired Gemini SBS, a software company that had a fully virtual team of developers. We brought this entirely virtual culture into Fractured Atlas’s pre-existing hybrid work culture. These developers brought with them tools for virtual collaboration like Trello and Basecamp that we started to implement more broadly.
We also figured out some technical limitations to making remote work possible across more of the org. We figured out how to receive phone calls using VoIP phones (Voice over Internet Protocol) that we called SpacePhone. The whole staff switched to using laptops instead of desktops.
At this point, we started to see some challenges.
There were several distinct cultures at Fractured Atlas. We had our development team who was still fundamentally a remote team. We had folks who were still coming into the office every day, and we had people who were flexing their time. It was challenging to feel like everybody worked for the same place and with a shared purpose because everyone’s work lives were arranged so differently. These cultures were team-based. Our engineers were fully remote while our FinPops and Programs teams were very much based in the office.
In this era of hybridity, there would be 25 people in a conference room for a meeting and a few assorted folks tuning in via video. There would be little side conversations and jokes that would happen in the conference room that just didn’t translate to people who were calling in, leading to isolation and disconnection between the people who worked in-person and remote workers.
With these challenges in mind, we decided to make the slow leap towards being a fully remote organization. We spent a year transitioning everyone out of the office, finally completing the process at the end of 2019.
During our transition to becoming a fully distributed team, we had specific days that people were expected to be in the office and when they were going to be working remotely. We talked a great deal about the process and how different members of the staff felt about it. We moved slowly and tried to put a lot of care into the process. Then, we made the leap and haven’t looked back.
What Worked About Our Hybrid Office?
The flexibility of a hybrid workplace gave us a number of benefits that we are still reaping today.
First of all, it let us retain staff even as they moved. When Jillian Wright, VP of People Operations and Controller left the NYC area, we didn’t have to lose her as a Fractured Atlas employee just because her life went in a direction that moved her away from the office.
We also had more freedom to hire. Co-CEO Lauren Ruffin was never going to move to New York, but because we were able to hire remote candidates, she was able to come aboard without having to uproot her life.
The most successful era of our long experiment with a hybrid office was the period of time in which we knew that it was ending. The year that we took to go from hybrid to fully remote was the time that we were most purposeful about how we worked hybrid. Expectations for who was going to show up when and how we were going to communicate with each other were clearest during that year.
But, most importantly, our long experiment with hybrid work made us more resilient. It made us more flexible and better able to adapt as the world (and as work) changed. It gave us the shared workplace value of experimentation and openness and iteration, which has served us well in the years since.
What Didn’t Work About Our Hybrid Office?
The biggest challenge we faced during the long era of our hybrid office was the fact that we had several office cultures happening at once. We had the culture of people who were fully remote, people who were fully in the office, and people who moved in between. Teams who were fully remote didn’t necessarily feel like they worked for the same organization or towards the same goal as the teams who were working together in person every day.
It was also confusing for people to know what was expected of them and what they could expect from others. Say someone decided to work from the office on a given day, would their team be there? Would there be desk space for them? If someone that they work with didn’t show up should they just assume that that person was working remotely or should they alert the People team to check in and make sure everything is okay? Hybridity without clear communication and expectation led to some challenges for our team.
Plus, it was sometimes frustrating for folks who worked in the office to know that there were people who worked remotely and were getting compensated at a higher scale. The labor of the remote workers wasn’t always clear to people who were in the office and occasionally led to resentment that some people didn’t have to commute, didn’t have an output that was clear to other workers, and got paid more. In the earliest days of our hybrid model, remote working was only available to people in more senior positions, making it a form of inequality in the office. This was an unintended result of our technical challenges, but it did happen.
Advice for Hybrid Teams: 6 Tips
Here are a few pieces of advice we want to share with teams that are currently using a hybrid model or soon will be going hybrid:
Approach it with intentionality: Like any kind of workplace design, hybridity deserves to be treated with care and intention. Think carefully about the way you are designing your hybrid office. It’s more than just a few bits and pieces from remote work and in-person offices mashed together.
Make expectations clear: Ensure that people know how often and when they are expected to be in the office, who they should tell their schedules to, and with how much notice. Make sure that people don’t have to worry whether there will be space for them (especially if you’ve downsized office space recently). Making these expectations clear can build psychological safety, even as your office might be in a changing environment.
Have set in-office days: We saw the best results from our hybrid days when there were set days when either specific teams or the whole staff would be in the office at the same time. If you aren’t using in-office time to take advantage of in-person communication and collaboration, why come into the office at all?
Don’t make it a perk for higher-level staff: As you move towards a hybrid model, don’t just make it available to people with the most senior positions. You will end up stratifying your team unnecessarily and likely creating resentment. Focus on building a hybrid model that works for entry-level positions and the customer-facing positions because if you can design a hybrid workplace for the folks who are most often treated poorly by workplaces, you’ll be building a workplace where everyone can thrive.
Ask what the staff wants and needs: What does your staff want from their workplace environment? What do they need? Create open lines of communication including the option to leave anonymous feedback so that people can express what would let them thrive at work. If you work in HR, you might not know what someone in the marketing department needs to do their job well.
Accept that it’s a process: Like all aspects of workplace design, you won’t get hybrid workplaces right the first time. Don’t be afraid to iterate and to change if something isn’t working. But be aware that if your team doesn’t understand why you’re making the changes you’re making or if they feel like it’s all happening too fast, you risk them leaving for more stable pastures. It’s a fine balance to create a workplace culture that’s resilient and safe enough to handle uncertainty, experimentation, and change.
Incorporating Anti-Racism into your Hybrid Work Model
We are able to move at a slower, more intentional pace as we reopen and return to offices. It doesn’t have to happen overnight. We’ve all learned a lot about our relationship to work and we’ve discovered that lots of jobs can, in fact, be done from anywhere.
In the midst of this, we have also lived through huge uprisings for Black liberation across the country. In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, we saw new conversations about how anti-Black racism manifests at work, in the arts, and how it pervades our whole society.
As you think about hybrid workplaces (or any workplace!), build anti-racism into your approach to organizational design.
Consider the different needs people have related to the office. For many Black and POC folks, no longer going into the office was a reprieve from daily microaggressions. How do you build that knowledge into your hybrid model while also working to minimize those microaggressions that your colleagues face on a daily basis?
How do you give people the freedom to work remotely some of the time without passing on the cost of an office life to individuals? One challenge of remote working is that it often is easiest for people with the biggest homes, who have the disposable funds to buy a nice ergonomic chair, standing desk, or other home office supplies. This means that remote work home office setup costs negatively affect people who make the lowest wages. As a function of racism, this means that Black people are disproportionately negatively affected.
Anti-racism at work isn’t just about whether you have race-based caucusing or what the demographics of your leadership team looks like. It needs to be woven into every consideration you make for how your workplace is set up, including in a hybrid reopening plan. It’s all part of determining what an ethical reopening looks like.
About Nina Berman
Nina Berman is an arts industry worker and ceramicist based in New York City, currently working as Associate Director, Communications and Content at Fractured Atlas. She holds an MA in English from Loyola University Chicago. At Fractured Atlas, she shares tips and strategies for navigating the art world, interviews artists, and writes about creating a more equitable arts ecosystem. Before joining Fractured Atlas, she covered the book publishing industry for an audience of publishers at NetGalley. When she's not writing, she's making ceramics at Centerpoint Ceramics in Brooklyn.