Learning from a Hybrid Team: A Case Study in Transition

In this article, we look at a real organization that is evolving into a high-performing hybrid team, to see what lessons we can learn. Here’s the situation.

The Background: Growing Amidst Challenges

At the start of 2020, the All-Star Organization (or ASO) was a fully in-person technical consulting organization of 45 people. Team members frequently traveled to meet client needs, but were otherwise hired locally and were in the office.

When the pandemic hit, the team went fully remote, quickly establishing procedures and processes to work fully from home.  The organization also altered its business model to meet the new emerging needs of its customers, and started to expand.  While many clients were still in the same geographic area as the ASO headquarters, the team was starting to serve a more geographically distributed client base, as client organizations also transformed their approaches to work.

ASO leadership soon realized that, while they still valued the in-person nature of work, they were effectively meeting mission needs with remote staff. As the business grew, ASO started hiring staff as permanent remote employees.  This was a revolutionary change in how ASO saw its workforce. It provided a whole new pool of candidates for jobs that had originally only been available in one city and helped ASO reach a whole new pool of clients, as remote workers could service customers near their homes.


The Transition: Returning to the Office

The transition to remote had been a wild success, but ASO leaders still wanted to maintain an in-office presence, and still had many employees – supervisors, administrative staff and junior consultants – that they wanted to have in the office.  There were many reasons for this:

  • Being away from each other made the managers realize how much they valued face to face interaction, and how much strategic work happened in a room together and through informal conversations in the hallway.
  • Managers and supervisors also realized that new junior staff needed more personal contacts, to learn how to interact in-person with each other, with superiors and with clients. This learning was facilitated best through in-person work.
  • There was still equipment and administrative activities that were best done in the centralized physical office, rather than in a distributed way from home. Having administrative staff in the office made this work easier and more cost effective.

So, in early 2022 after two years of growth and mostly remote work, ASO returned to the office as an 80-person hybrid team and organization. Approximately 65% of the ASO employees are now fully remote, and 35% include a combination of in-office staff and teleworkers.  Here’s how it worked for that first year:

  • Most in-office personnel (35% of ASO), including leaders, were expected to be in the office two to three times per week, and could telework the rest of the time. A few staff and leaders ended up being in the office full-time, for both continuity and based on personal preferences.
  • ASO reconfigured office space, to provide hoteling space for remote employees when they come back to the office, and to provide dedicated desks for teleworkers and on-site workers. The best office spaces are now assigned to those in the office the most.
  • ASO has formalized core work hours across three time zones, for team members to have a consistently available window for full-team meetings. ASO also revised its performance management system to focus on results that were not tied to an in-office presence, except for administrative staff who were there for that purpose.
  • ASO has continued to invest in collaborative online software, and reconfigured conference room space to enable hybrid meetings by multiple teams at once.
  • ASO has invested time and money to bring the entire organization together in-person twice a year; these week-long meetings also include a dedicated day for smaller team in-person meetings and teambuilding events. Smaller teams also engage in regional in-person meetings every quarter for training, strategic planning and performance feedback meetings.
  • ASO holds fully virtual “All Hands” meetings every two weeks. Even people in the office attend these meetings remotely to provide a level playing field for participation and to simplify logistics.  However, right after that meeting, in-office staff have an in-person-only social hour over lunch to connect interpersonally, and have ongoing face-to-face interaction with peers and the management team.  Most people come on that day, which makes for a crowded office.
  • The organization hosts several smaller optional and mandatory hybrid meetings as well – trainings, team meetings and brown bag lunch-and-learns – and has the facilities to allow a group of 30 people in the room interact with more than 60 online at once. ASO now occasionally hosts in-person and hybrid meetings for client organizations that have chosen to abandon their office space entirely.

Supporting the Team Through Professional Development

To support the team and its leaders throughout these changes, the ASO team also recognized the need for an effective leadership and staff training program.  As an organization, it invested in Pryor group and self-guided individual training:

  • Communication skills, emotional intelligence and leadership workshops and self-guided videos, to help people manage themselves and the teams more effectively
  • Change management classes to help navigate the shift in client work and in workplace dynamics with the return-to-office initiative
  • Hybrid team management and participation online modules to learn tips for that new reality, and to coach client groups making the same changes
  • Project management, strategic planning and time management courses to focus mission delivery
  • Feedback skills and customer service skills to meet the needs of its growing client base more effectively
  • The Accountability video series, to learn tips for holding each other accountable for results

Assessing Progress: Successes and Challenges to Address

After a year, ASO took a strategic pause to consider how things were going in this new normal. Here were the observations:

  • From a mission perspective, the system was working well – ASO was able to hire highly qualified staff across the country; the business continued to grow with more and better clients, and continued to diversify its services; and the team continued to deliver high quality services at competitive prices. Retention was up and workplace climate surveys reported high engagement and professional growth levels.
  • For the local staff, different functional and administrative teams within ASO were handling telework differently – some all came in on the same two days each week, while some teams distributed their days across the week. The teams generally liked the flexibility of determining how this would work, but after a year, started to recognize the trade-offs.
  • The benefit of everyone on a team coming in on the same day was that everyone regularly saw each other, and face-to-face meetings were more common. However, there were service gaps on days everyone was on telework, and other teams were getting called on too much for those physical needs.
  • The benefit of people coming in on different days was that there was full coverage for in-person needs throughout the week. However, because the full team still needed to meet regularly, staff reported being mostly at their desks online for meetings, even when in the office – missing out on some of the face-to-face interaction.
  • Because different teams were coming in on different days, supervisors in different teams rarely saw each other, breaking down some of the leadership connections that had occurred in the shared on-line environment.
  • After a year, the leaders coming in each day felt exhausted from having to meet the in-person social needs and expectations of a different set of people each day, while also keeping mission operations with remote staff going. While they wanted to provide teleworkers and remote workers with valuable experience when in the office, all the needs from the different types of workers were starting to wear down the managers.
  • The ASO financial balance sheet showed that the added transactional costs of travel for remote staff, while also maintaining office space and technology was squeezing profits and left little buffer for emergencies.

Reflection Questions:  What Would You Do?

ASO is not the only organization experiencing both the benefits and challenges of being a hybrid organization, and the configuration described above is among the more complex.   What would you do to maximize the team’s strengths and lean into what is working well, while also minimizing the negative effects of the current practices and set-up?  Here are some categories to consider:

  • Work week structure and percentage distribution of remote, telework and in-person staff
  • Other options for bringing teams together for in-person interaction and junior staff development, while reducing travel expenses
  • Time management for the leadership team, to maximize its effectiveness in the hybrid environment while minimizing burnout
  • Other ways to consider the on-site presence of the team

Importantly, we do not think there are right and wrong answers here – like many organizations, ASO is learning and making choices as it navigates a new normal, and acknowledges the trade-offs involved.  Many talk about the “new normal” with a sense of relief, with the hope it will bring some consistency. However, many others are coming to recognize that the additional options that a new normal offers can create their own challenges. As this ongoing work unfolds, Pryor stands ready to offer your teams and leaders the training they need to address these challenges with both skill and compassion.