How to Provide Connection Equity in a Hybrid World

Posted 05.11.2021

Last week I wrote that as we quickly move to hybrid and remote work arrangements, leaders will need to be mindful, creative and deliberate in creating approaches to work that leave everyone feeling valued and essential. This week I want to build on that post by offering three strategies that foster what I could see us calling “connection equity.” By connection equity, I mean that everyone on a team or an organization has equal opportunities to feel connected to and included in the work no matter what they do or where they do it.

Here are three early steps that I think leaders will need to take if they want to get it right on connection equity.

Remind People That Their Work Matters – Perhaps the most important thing for leaders to do is to continuously remind their team members why their work matters and how it fits in with and supports the work of their teammates. As I’ve written here before, my favorite framework for doing that is the Four P’s checklist from William Bridges. You start with what is the Purpose of our work together; who does it serve and how does it make the world better? Then you have a conversation about what the future Picture looks like when you’re all successfully fulfilling that purpose. After that, you get more tactical by walking through the Plan that will create the picture that fulfills the purpose. And, finally, and most importantly for the purpose of helping people feel connected and essential, is their Part to Play in the plan that creates the picture that fulfills the purpose. The message is everyone has an important part to play. This is especially important in a hybrid environment in which people may not physically see each other regularly. As a recent article in the Financial Times shared, Boston Consulting Group has identified four primary types of workers in the hybrid world of work – the Anchored Operator like a lab-based scientist or a janitor whose work will have them in the building close to 100 percent of the time; the Creative Collaborator who will likely be in the office up to 50 percent of the time; the Focused Contributor who needs quiet time to do their work may only be in the office 20 to 50 percent of the time; and the Pattern Specialist like a call center operator may be able to work remotely 80 to 100 percent of the time.  They’re all essential roles and the people in them all need regular connection with each other to stay productive, engaged and healthy.

Invest in Connection – Providing connection equity will require creativity, innovation and investment in workspaces and technologies that make it possible. Workers who are not in the office all or most of the time will require something approaching equal opportunities to connect and work with their co-workers based both in and out of the office. Things will need to move way beyond some people participating via little windows on Zoom while their in-office counterparts are picking up cues through body language and other signals. We’ll need to use technology and solutions that level the playing field for all. As reported recently in the New York Times, an early example comes from Google who is implementing semi-circular “campfire” workspaces where remote employees participate in the meetings via large flat screen monitors that are arrayed around the space. To give remote workers the same opportunity for casual conversations that their in-office colleagues have, I know of companies that are installing flat screens with continuous Zoom feeds in break rooms so they can have lunch with their friends at the office. A few years ago, I participated in an early use of remote presence technology when I delivered a leadership workshop at GE Digital.

As you can see from the accompanying picture, one of the participants was remote and was able to put herself in the room via a remote-controlled robot that was essentially a Segway scooter with an iPad attached to the top. She broadcast herself over the iPad from her home office and was able to move herself around the room using the remote and see what was going on via the camera on the iPad. There are lots of ways to address the challenge of keeping remote workers connected and feeling essential. It just requires some imagination, investment and a willingness to test and learn.

Be Strategic About Connection – The work systems we already have in place have enabled us to optimize the content of the work during the pandemic but have been less effective in helping us build and sustain connection. As COVID vaccination rates rise and infection rates fall, we’ll have more and more “in the room” options for keeping people connected with each other. The question is what will the right mix look like? Like a lot of other questions, the answer is, “It depends.” It depends on the nature of the work, the geographic distance of the group, budgets, etc. What feels certain is that it won’t look like it did before the pandemic. The days of getting on a cross-country flight for a two-hour meeting on content are probably over for the most part because we’ve proven that we can do that just as effectively and with a lot less direct and indirect cost via Zoom. What you can’t do well on Zoom is giving a team plenty of space to get to know each other, have some down time together and establish the informal bonds and connection that make work meaningful and fun. So, leaders are going to need to be much more strategic and thoughtful about nurturing connection going forward. One size won’t fit all. My early theory for most organizations I work with is that around 70% of the work will be about content and that much of that will be handled remotely or in a hybrid mix. The other 30% will be about connection and most of that will need to be in person. Answers and approaches to how to do it will vary from organization to organization, but I think a good starting point for leaders is to ask some broad questions that can drive a strategic game plan for keeping a team connected over the course of a year. I’d start with Why? Who? When? Where? and How?

What about you? What are your predictions for the best practices in the hybrid work era of the present and future? What have you seen working so far? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Please share them in the comments if you’re reading this through LinkedIn or send me an email if you’re reading this directly on the Eblin Group blog.

If you liked what you read here, subscribe here to get my latest ideas on how to lead and live at your best.