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How to build a better hybrid work routine

Brendan Suh

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This post originally appeared in In Real Life, one of our founder’s personal blogs.

Earlier in this blog I've made the case for why our physical environment matters -- how it changes our ability to create, and the joy we get from working in an environment aligned with our intent. I also shared my thesis for the future, which is that in the long run, work will get done where it's done best: organizational practices will evolve over time as we learn more about what optimal looks like.

So what does all this mean in the near term? What should companies be thinking about today?

Starting with yourself: understanding your optimal environment

The place to start is by understanding the actual tasks being done each day by your team-members. Before doing that, I find it worthwhile to take a look at the environments you work out of -- what's working, and what's not.

Think about the main activities you did over the last couple of days. Here's an example of a few activities from my own life:

  1. Prepped for and conducted 4 sales calls, walking customers through the product demo and following up to help move them along our sales funnel
  2. Built a sales forecast using data from our company Salesforce; prepared a deck for our leadership offsite coming up
  3. Sent emails to 12 candidates in our interview pipeline; held one interview.
  4. Responded to a myriad of one-off requests from our product, marketing and operations teams on email and Slack

Then, I ask myself, what was the hardest part of each activity?  Listed in order as above:

  1. Listening attentively to understand true customer needs
  2. Focusing my attention to separate out the data that matter from the data that don't
  3. Connecting with each candidate through thoughtful / genuine messages
  4. Executing as quickly as possible with minimal brainpower

Next, I think about examples of other times where I have conquered these same difficulties and felt like an absolute champ doing it:

  1. I recall meeting with some sales prospects in person at their office. We connected instantly talking about the neighborhoods we lived in and sharing favorite restaurants. I felt giddy and had an easy time engaging with them throughout the meeting.
  2. I have some memories alone on plane rides where I've had no WiFi, no distractions, and a set clock to get it done. Knowing my time was limited, and with nothing better to be doing, I laid out the problem and cracked it with ease.
  3. Feeling graceful after dinner and a glass of wine, I've shared notes of appreciation with my colleagues.
  4. Setting aside an hour after lunch, I've tracked down the info I needed and walked over to my colleagues' workstations to quickly deliver on their requests, saving time on long and overly-perfected emails.

From each of these emerges an ideal setting: a place, an environment. The lighting, the mood, the time constraint, the physical presence (or lack thereof) of others.

Through this exercise, I begin to compartmentalize my work by optimal environment and lay out my work schedule around this. Of course it's not perfect -- for one, tasks are multi-dimensional with multiple "hard parts" that may necessitate different environments. And sometimes, something just has to get done, now.

But the thing to stress here is that the difference between a ‘mediocre’ environment and a ‘good’ environment is enormous.

If I don't listen and engage well with my sales prospects, they might take twice as long to close, or not close at all. If I am distracted working on my data project, it could take an entire week. If my emails to candidates aren't sincere, they may not take the job.

Fundamentally, the pieces of my work that are most difficult are the creative, type 2 tasks. And for these tasks, where I do them has the greatest impact on what I am able to produce, how quickly, and how enjoyably.

Asking myself to do each activity in the wrong place would be like asking a professional athlete to drop their pre-workout nutrition routine. It won't kill them, but in a competitive field where winning and losing aren't so far apart, it certainly makes success a whole lot harder.

To perform at our best, we must be conscious of the environment in which we are working.

I do not need a perfect setting for everything — a little bit of optimization can go a long way.

Extrapolating to the office: establishing work-setting norms

So if each individual has their own activities and their own preferences -- and if some of those preferences require integration with others' work preferences (like my activity #4) -- how are we possibly to coordinate a working norm at an organizational level around this?

The simple answer is that it will be hard. It's a jigsaw puzzle that will require new work-location policies and new management styles. Here, I'll be focused primarily on the former, though I’d argue the latter is equally as important, from which I expect a new area of academic discipline to emerge.

Two dimensions of the puzzle to think about are:

  1. Team-level coordination: how we can optimize so the tasks that require in-person togetherness are done when everyone is in person, together.
  2. Individual costs & benefits: how we can account for the costs of working in-person (e.g., commute time -- including for out-of-towners) as well as the non-task benefits (e.g., spontaneous interaction with colleagues leading to stronger workplace friendships).

Let's say you have gone out to all your employees, you've surveyed them on the main work activities they do, you know when and how frequently they do them, and you understand the ideal environment for each.

The next step is to start running experiments -- short, 8 week long trials of different work routines.

Start by developing a 'best guess' hypothesis of how you can maximize outcomes on the two dimensions above (simpler put: group output and individual cost).

That hypothesis could be as simple as this:

  • Each week we have about 2 days-worth of activities for which being together in person would be beneficial
  • People prefer the ability to work from home closer to the weekend (M and F)
  • We will therefore test out having everyone in-office on Tuesdays and Thursdays
  • On those days, we ask all teams to host any team-wide meetings of more than 4 people (weekly standup, etc.). We will do the same for company-wide meetings / all hands.
  • We will also ask teams to prioritize those days for ideation sessions and any activities requiring significant creative/collaborative work - brainstorming, whiteboarding, etc.
  • Finally, we will ask that Zoom calls are limited to client meetings only on these days, to ensure equal meeting engagement

Try it out and see what happens. Collect data from managers on team output, and from employees on the individual costs. You may consider asking questions like:

  • What activities did you do at home this week, and what did you do in person?
  • Rank each activity vs its WFH-counter: what you ended up with (output) and how involved you felt (process)
  • Describe the costs imposed on you of coming into the office and their significance
  • What iterative changes would you suggest for our next 8-week work-setting trial?

The more you can include your teams, the better. Make this experiment a company-wide initiative — run workshops and ideation sessions, (where possible) make the data public, and leverage the crowd. The more everyone is bought in, the more likely the routine, once established, is to stick.

It won’t be solved easily — and of course this will take time. But the outcome will be much better. And, importantly, because each company’s needs will differ, there’s no use in waiting around for someone else to figure it out.

I’d suggest finding someone in your organization to champion this process — someone excited about the problem and wanting to invest time and effort to crack it.

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