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Hybrid work isn’t working: Here’s a better approach

Management professors share a detailed example of adopting ‘both/and thinking’ to move beyond a simple yet often destructive formula and develop more creative and productive solutions. 

Hybrid work isn’t working: Here’s a better approach
[Photo: Luis Alvarez/Getty Images]

While we want the best of home and work, too often we end up with the worst of both. Employees show up at the office for a scheduled number of days only to find a ghost town. They commute long distances to spend their time alone and on Zoom calls. Likewise, work-from-home days can feel robotic and blur the lines between work and life. Without clear boundaries, work takes over home, and high-performing employees can burn out.

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Leaders think they are implementing a hybrid approach that values both sides. Instead, middle-of-the-road options are just splitting time between locations, and rarely doing it well. 

Having studied what we call “both/and thinking” for the last 25 years, we know there’s a better approach. Rather than bland compromises that become worse for everyone, both/and thinking enables creative integrations in which each option benefits the other. 

Joe Lemay (CEO) and Jacob Epstein (CIO) knew that they wanted this kind of integration when they launched Rocketbook (now a subsidiary of BIC). The Rocketbook team is on a mission to transition the world to reusable paper. They know that serving their customers and the world best means having exceptionally talented, high-performing, energized, and committed people. They also know that the where as well as the how and why of work matters. In fact, their hybrid approaches started well before the COVID-19 pandemic. 

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Lemay and Epstein value working from home. They love the flexibility. They prize WFH as space for deep, “put your head down” work. They also treasure its opportunities for more time with kids and life partners while minimizing commuting and providing autonomy over schedules. 

They offer employees ample time to work from home because they recognize the value in that approach. Yet they also ensure that home time is truly flexible.

At Rocketbook, people are measured by their output, not their schedules or office face time. Team members make their calendars transparent to one another. They work together to set collaborative meetings around team members’ needs.

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Outside of those meetings, people can do what they need to in the middle of the day whether it’s run errands, pick up kids, or take a nap. Early birds can start work at dawn, while night owls can work late and limit early meetings.

Employees keep everyone updated with extensive communications on collaboration apps such as Asana, Google Docs, and Slack. Virtual work also has many company benefits. As Lemay shared: “Companies have a better competitive advantage if they can source talent globally.” 

Lemay and Epstein also know that fully virtual work can be draining. Epstein noted, “It’s dehumanizing if we reduce our team members to Slack channels.” The company’s best ideas emerge when a group of people brainstorm together around a whiteboard. More importantly, in-person interactions build trusting relationships, a key ingredient for productivity and for employee happiness. 

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With a global workforce, Lemay and Epstein decided that they needed to bring everyone face-to-face on a quarterly basis. A good number of employees live near their Boston headquarters. They started to have Wednesday all-hands meetings in the Boston office and offered free lunch on those days. With more people in the office, Wednesdays became prime time for team meetings and collaboration. They also know that trust and relationships strengthen through social bonds. They created plenty of opportunities for people to connect socially, from ping pong tournaments to karaoke and Red Sox games. 

The solution Lemay and Epstein found may not fit every company. Yet our research suggests that the both/and thinking process they applied works across challenges and contexts, helping leaders develop more creative and lasting solutions. 

Embrace the tensions

In our research, we find that companies come up with better solutions when they name the tensions they face and value their tensions as opportunities for growth. Viewing tensions as paradoxes—persistent interdependent contractions—they can then lean into the yin-yang of opposing forces, recognizing that the organization has to engage with both rather than choose between.

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Epstein and Lemay were clear that choosing all virtual work could be dehumanizing and demotivating, while all office work could be rigid and limiting. But to really embrace both, they needed to want their synergies.

As Epstein summarized, “There are so many benefits to being remote; there are so many benefits to being in person; but the sum of both give you far better options than either individually.”

Change the question

Lemay and Epstein stopped asking if they should be a virtual company or an in-person company. Instead they asked, “How can we make virtual and in person work best?”

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Research shows that shifting to a both/and question motivates us to think more creatively about the possible outcomes. In fact, both/and thinking pervades Rocketbook. Lemay and Epstein sought to connect old and new, the rigid and the flexible. Rocketbook offers traditional handwriting and physical products that are cloud connected. They combine traditional in-person connections with digital connections. 

Understand differences and find synergies

In our research, we find that better integrative solutions start with first pulling apart and understanding the different options. We talk about that as separating. At Rocketbook, the executives listed all the upsides and challenges of working from home. Then they did the same for office work. It wasn’t rocket science, but they found their yin-yang.

They realized that working from home meant that people had more control over their own schedules. So they made sure to give them as much flexibility as possible.

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They also recognized that the challenge of working from home was collaboration, and did all they could to create tools and cultures to make that better. Same for working from the office. The collaboration power of working together benefited from intentional opportunities to come together in the office and socially.

By being clear on the differences of these options, they could find better ways to implement each and leverage the synergies between them.

Be willing to experiment and change

Situations change. That means that the way we work also continues to change.

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Our research shows that both/and thinking depends on experimentation and agility. As Lemay stressed, “Being experimental is core to the business and the culture.”

He and Epstein are constantly surveying their people, looking for feedback and then asking how they can adapt. For example, they tried various things before coming up with the idea of “dial-down days.” They found that with such an energized and committed workforce, people were not taking breaks. They were burning out.

One thing people asked for was a set of days when everyone was off so that no one felt like they had to join a meeting from vacation. They tried mandatory vacation weeks, but found that these times were hard to coordinate with people’s personal schedules. They tried a policy of no meetings on Fridays, but that did not work either.

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Finally, they settled on dial-down days. The company picked several days each quarter, often connected with other holidays, when there were no meetings and people were not expected to respond to communication. If people took those days off, they didn’t miss anything. If they had a lot of work to catch up on, they could do so without disruption. 

Hybrid work options are the new normal. They are here to stay. The question is not whether to be hybrid, but how we can use both/and thinking to work from home and work in the office better.

Adopting both/and thinking helps us move beyond a simple yet often destructive formula and develop more creative and productive solutions. 

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Wendy Smith is the Dana J. Johnson professor of management at the University of Delaware’s Lerner College of Business and Economics. Marianne Lewis is the dean and professor of management at the University of Cincinnati’s Carl H. Lindner College of Business. They are the authors of Both/And Thinking: Embracing Creative Tensions to Solve Your Toughest Problems.


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