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Wrongheaded thinking about remote work and how teams can optimize for hybrid

Virtual teams are the future of the workplace, writes Keith Ferrazzi, but they must reboot to incorporate asynchronous collaboration.

Wrongheaded thinking about remote work and how teams can optimize for hybrid
[Source image: eugenesergeev/iStock]
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As we move into this new paradigm of business post-pandemic, the hybrid workforce—where some team members work remote and some from the office—is our new reality. Yet today’s thinking about remote work is full of wrongheadedness and failed use cases rather than best practice.

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Many business leaders are still locked into thinking that the best form of collaboration to achieve fast and bold transformational outcomes is an in-person meeting. It’s not!

Through our applied research efforts with Dell Technologies at Go Forward to Work, and in partnership with Harvard Business School, we’ve been holding research focus groups with 2000 of the world’s top C-Suite business leaders on practices they are proud of and how they do not want to go back into old ways of working. Remote teams are the new work norm, we must do them right.

A recent McKinsey survey of 100 C-Suite executives across industries and geographies found that nine out of ten companies will combine remote and on-site working. And the disruption does not stop there. According to Dell Technologies’ 2020 Dell Technologies Digital Transformation Index, 79 percent of the 4,300 senior directors and C-suite executives reinvented their business model as a result of the disruption caused by the pandemic. We need new work practices to meet the new work world.

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That said, our research also showed that the tools of remote work were significantly underutilized by most teams in 2020. What most companies did this past year is export every meeting of 15 people into a virtual room of 15 tiles and follow the same old rules. There’s not enough stopping to think: Do we even need a meeting to solve this problem?

Same as before, not everyone felt they were being heard in meetings, and most teams used the same sub-optimal solutions: calling another meeting to give people another chance to be heard, crowding out already overloaded schedules.

Our “old work rules” no longer apply. To be a high-performing team in this hybrid work world, teams need to work together differently.

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In our work coaching executive teams at Ferrazzi Greenlight, we’ve identified two best practices for blended teams: First, teams must start with asynchronous collaboration, and second, only after they’ve made the most of asynchronous collaboration should they have a virtual meeting. Meetings should be a last resort, not a default. Second, virtual meetings must be better optimized with new structures and strategies.

Taking bad habits remote

At Ferrazzi Greenlight, we are currently applying this thinking in our work with one large industrial manufacturing company on its radical transformation to compete with the world’s leading software companies—yes, software companies. A top complaint from their team was wasted time in too many meetings. With operations mainly virtual, Zoom fatigue and mental well-being are valid concerns. So we re-engineered their systems to cut the number of meetings by 30%.

We used this great inflection point of 2020—this historic shift in work culture—as a laboratory to test the hypothesis that physical meetings are not better than virtual meetings. Our research institute, Go Forward to Work, convened virtual discussion groups (thanks to faculty members like Dell) where we had business leaders share their experiences and hopes for the future of work. We heard examples of bold thinking from companies like Unilever, which adopted the following policy for its hybrid team meeting structure: If one member is working remotely, everyone must switch to virtual for meetings.

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When teams do meet, an upgrade to the way they interact is critical. We have been tracking data on the performance of high versus low performing teams since 2000. It shows that meetings have always been a broken forum for collaboration:

  • 74% of team members in traditional meetings are conflict avoidant. They do not speak up with the courage and candor that is necessary to mitigate risk in projects or spark the bold thinking that ignites innovation.
  • 72% of team members do not believe that they and their peers collaboratively engage in the most important business problems.
  • Only 20% of team members believe their teams are reaching their full potential.

As 2020 came to a close, our research also showed that there are simply too many meetings in either environment. Even with coaching to virtual high return practices, we realized that we need to leverage asynchronous collaboration first. That is the solution for transformative collaboration and bolder outcomes.

Engineer for asynchronous first

If you break down the specific problem that needs to be solved, what is uniquely valuable about gathering people together at the same time to solve it? Could a bolder outcome, a better decision—and, ironically, a faster path to get there—be taken by the same team without having to meet? Here are some behavioral golden rules to move collaborative projects forward asynchronously—and one asynchronous practice, Video Bulletproofing.

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Rule 1: Proactive simplification

This is about UX-thinking at a leadership level. You might be dealing with complex issues, but you need to make the user experience of asynchronous collaboration as simple as possible for your team. While that might take some work on your end, they will repay you with clarity of insight and abundance of bolder ideas. That means being deliberate about your choice of platforms, format, how information is presented, contextualized, and linked (hyperlinked) to other sources.

You need to agree on a taxonomy for each project, so you speak a common virtual language, and make each communication searchable and indexable with tags. Group and sort communications by type into channels. Don’t make it a struggle to understand what you want for someone who cannot query in real-time.

Rule 2: Clarity over who is responsible for each decision

Create a Google Sheet that makes decision making responsibility clear. Include the principles guiding the decision to help resolve disagreement.

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Who are the collaborative decision makers (CDs) and who is the ultimate decision maker (UD)? Who has authority? Innovators invited? Associates for execution?

Rule 3: Default to transparency

Every team interaction should be in the open; no one works in isolation. Team members must know they see all sides of comms about the collaboration. Everyone re-contracts to candor and the integrity to be open. As per Rule #1: Protocols apply to make it easy for team members to understand who is meant to act and who is meant to be informed.

Rule 4: Nothing is worse than virtual silence

A team must commit to giving a yes, no response to every idea, suggestion, and comment.

Rule 5: Time matters

Give appropriate time for the team to review material you are sharing—and block regular time in your own schedule for review.

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Video Bulletproofing

For many years I have railed against report-outs in meetings. It is the greatest waste of time when a team of bright minds sits around and gives status reports to each other. Most colleagues are not really engaged, because there’s a social contract at play to not get too critical of each other. Most teams coexist and only collaborate when they need to get something from one another. In response, I introduced a High Return Practice called Bulletproofing.

Bulletproofing is when one team member presents a business strategy they’ve come up with to the team for feedback and constructive criticism. It makes team members commit to a new social contract: Everyone has to sit up and listen intently because they will all have to break into smaller groups to challenge and point out risks, and offer innovations as well as help.

In a virtual world it is simple and easy to do this. At a push of a button, we could send teams into groups of three for five to eight minutes and open a Google document (use a form if you want individual feedback credited and logged for follow up). We worked with many companies that used agile teams and we bolted on Bulletproofing at the end of each sprint to assure the stand-up or sprint report was thoroughly roughed up and discussed by the team. Companies who had done agile for many years saw this as a huge innovation.

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But there was still one problem for global teams doing global meetings: finding a time for the daily stand-up or sprint report that accommodated both Los Angeles and Shanghai. We incubated an asynchronous adaptation that was even better: the sprint report on video. These rules apply:

  • Report lasts no more than five to 10 minutes: What we did, where we are struggling, where we are going.
  • Report is posted for everyone on the team to see and weigh in on: challenges and risks/innovations and suggestions/offers of help and support.
  • Everyone has 12 hours to add their comments and see each other’s comments.

If you think this is a hypothesis rather than hard practice, check out pioneers like GitLab and DropBox. DropBox announced in October 2020 it was going “Virtual First and Async by Default.” DropBox even published a language guide to advise its team on how to politely decline meeting invites and suggest an asynchronous alternative.

We need to get collaboration rules for virtual teams right. As our research continues, we are designing new interventions and team practices. We are determined to crack the code.

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Keith Ferrazzi is chairman and founder of Ferrazzi Greenlight, a team consulting and coaching firm. He is the author of The New York Times best-seller Never Eat Alone and Who’s Got Your Back. His newest book is Leading Without Authority. Visit FerrazziLearning.com/HybridTeamSuccess/ to learn more about the latest research on best practices for hybrid teams.