A number of the big tech companies—including Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Uber—all recently announced plans to return to in-person work this spring. They plan to have limited capacity with safety protocols in place such as mandatory masks, social distancing, and intermittent COVID-19 tests.
Of course, these tech giants would be joining the many companies whose employees have returned to work already, or at least partially. Due to limited occupancy and the phased processes by which these companies are reopening, the reality for most is a hybrid model in which some employees are working entirely in person, some are working partly remote and partly in person, and others are continuing to work remotely.
The reopening announcements are good news in the sense that one of the themes to emerge during the COVID-19 pandemic was the importance of informal communication and the difficulty of maintaining it with a remote workforce. Remote work removes many of the day-to-day opportunities present in physical workplaces that allow informal communication to unfold so naturally, that it’s virtually invisible.
Because of its invisible nature, very few people thought about informal communication until the pandemic suddenly took it away. Given the many important functions of informal communication, this naturally led to all kinds of challenges. But there are also challenges inherent to the hybrid model of work as well, some of which are actually unique to it.
Understanding these challenges will help organizations to address them more effectively and prevent problems down the road.
Recognize information “haves” and “have nots”
A big part of what we mean when we talk about informal communication is the spontaneity that comes from running into and interacting with people in the shared spaces of a physical workplace: the hallways, kitchens, break rooms, offices, and the extended spheres that orbit the workplace such as restaurants, bars, and coffee shops. Not only is the information from formal communication further spread through such informal pathways, but these pathways also facilitate new, innovative ideas and creative solutions to old problems.
While the potential loss of new ideas and innovation affects both remote and hybrid workplaces, something unique to the hybrid model is the possibility for schisms to form between the information haves and have-nots. The “haves” are those who are physically present in the workplace while those who are not physically present are at risk of becoming the “have-nots.” Since effective communication (both formal and informal) is significantly correlated with organizational commitment, coworker camaraderie, satisfaction, and organizational citizenship behavior (OCB), such a schism could create real disparities among employees for these important organizational metrics.
How to plan for unplanned conversations
It’s important to fully recognize that informal communication is vitally important and needs to be addressed directly. Now is the most opportune time to do that. Most organizations likely did not address this last year as they were too busy putting out fires and just trying to keep the wheels turning. As remote and hybrid teams have now become the norm, it is time to review lessons learned and identify the best practices for moving forward.
The other problem not unique during the pandemic is that informal communication apart from formal broadcast communication is rarely something that’s ever addressed with analysis and strategy. It just happens. Sometimes this works well enough and sometimes it doesn’t, but generally speaking, information more or less moves around because there are no physical barriers. People in the office are in the physical space to potentially receive this information, however unevenly. People working remotely, though, are not.
Before addressing these communication gaps, deliberate and detailed thought needs to be given to what exactly a hybrid work environment will look like for an organization since no two situations will be exactly the same. For instance, will there be occasions when everyone will be in the office at the same time? Or will there be people who, for various possible reasons, will never be in the physical office? And even for the employees who regularly come into the office, will they all be doing so every day or will there be a rotation system so as to limit the occupancy? These kinds of questions must be asked and answered with clarity.
Create opportunities for magic to happen in person and on video
Once the particulars of a hybrid arrangement are worked out, organizations can then try to facilitate informal communication within that structure as much as possible. One way to do this is to designate certain days when all members of a team will be in the office at the same time. This doesn’t mean everyone in the entire organization, necessarily; just all the members of a coherent work unit, at least. The exact specifics will, of course, depend on the needs and situation of the organization. It could be once a week on Fridays, for example, or every other Wednesday, or for the entire first week of the month.
Magic happens when a team is together physically, and once that magic is created it can be sustained during the periods when they are working digitally. But, conversely, you can’t create that magic when some team members are always digital, all the time. Or, at least, it’s much more difficult to do so and extra attention will need to be given to those fully remote employees to keep them in the informational loop.
On the occasions when everyone on a team (or most of them) is brought together in the physical workplace, informal communication can be facilitated by creating opportunities for people to gather and interact. There are many potential ways to do this such as by encouraging people not to eat lunch at their desks, or making sure there aren’t coffee makers or water coolers in anyone’s office so that people inevitably go to a common area to refill their coffee mugs and water bottles.
The key is to provide opportunities where interaction and informal communication can occur naturally, not to impose rigid structures and requirements for people to interact. Even with good intentions, this can actually discourage informal communication.
Any behavior that leaders wish to encourage needs to be modeled. So if they’re encouraging more informal interactions, they should mark time on their private calendars to walk around, poke their heads into people’s offices or cubicles and ask them how well the hybrid arrangement is working out for them.
Since there may be some employees who never come into the office at all, managers should set up periodic Zoom meetings in which the sole purpose is to update these fully remote employees on things they may not have seen or heard about due to being out of the loop. This can also trigger other kinds of conversations which can also help employees who don’t come in at all feel more like they are a close part of the team despite the physical and communicative barriers.
Speaking of Zoom meetings, there is a way to make them more conducive for informal communication. Say you have a meeting set to take place at an appointed hour. As participants begin to join the call, have them enter randomly selected “breakout rooms,” which on Zoom you can do as the host, where they can just chat before the meeting officially begins. The trick here is to intentionally let these breakout rooms go on for a bit longer than the participants may be expecting (without telling them that). So, for example, if the meeting is set to start at 2 p.m., even if everyone had made it on time you let the breakout sessions continue until 2:10 p.m. or so. Much like informal communication itself, not every instance of this will lead to a perceivable impact, Rather, the impact will gradually unfold and make itself known over time.
Provide personalized training
Next, employees need education and training on what it will take to make their hybrid teams effective and engaged. The training should also incorporate employees’ ideas and feedback from the initial planning stages of the training to its execution. Otherwise, there is a real risk of defaulting to cookie-cutter approaches that fail to address the unique needs of an organization or team. For the same reason, the training must also be synchronous, not asynchronous, and the number of participants in a given training session or program should be limited to allow for maximum participation and engagement.
Set clear expectations
Finally, organizational leaders need to pay close attention to how they set expectations. Employees need to understand what it will mean to work on hybrid teams in ways that incorporate deeper understandings of the communication challenges that are involved. At the same time, it isn’t necessary to impose burdensome policies and procedures on them. People want to communicate and don’t need to be coerced into doing so. What they need are clear expectations, guidance, tools, and opportunities for doing what, in pre-pandemic times, came naturally. Organizations that provide these things will be on solid ground to meet the challenges that lie ahead in our brave new world of hybrid work.
Rebecca Weintraub, PhD is a clinical professor of communication and director of the online Master of Communication Management Program at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California.
Steven Lewis is a renowned entertainment industry strategist and news and documentary Emmy Winner.
They are currently co-writing InCredible Communication, to release in 2022, that brings the combined experience of more than 75 years of real-world, evidence-based knowledge to the art of effective business communication.