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Preparing For Tomorrow’s Hybrid Workplace

In the last column, I illustrated how differences in mindset have made the difference between surviving and thriving during the recent months of work-from-home. This mindset difference captures what people are doing in their personal lives and work to turn the constraints of social distancing into opportunities for expansion. I recently spoke with an experienced portfolio manager who has used this period to intensively learn new, quantitative methods for identifying opportunities in financial markets. His point was that the old office facilitated breadth of focus. At home, the focus has greater depth and he can more readily engage in intellectually stimulating and rewarding deep dives.

The question I’ve asked many of the team leaders I work with is, “What is your team going to look like once we’re past the need to work from home?” Almost to a person, these seasoned professionals insist that we are not going back to the old world. We’ve learned too much and gained too much working outside the office. The future environment, they insist, will be a hybrid one, combining the advantages of face-to-face teamwork with those of commute-free work in environments that we structure.

Interestingly, we’re witnessing a parallel development in the mental health world. Even before the onset of the virus, there was a shift toward telepsychiatry and the online provision of counseling and therapy services. As Drs. Peter Yellowlees and Jay Shore have found, the online medium has proven quite effective in delivering effective services cost-effectively. Indeed, for many clients, the online medium is more convenient, private, and comfortable than coming to a therapy office. The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Canada describes the current period as a “digital moment” in health and mental health, where services are delivered flexibly across live and virtual modalities. This hybrid model promises new synergies, such as the integration of care in complex cases, allowing clients to meet simultaneously with several specialists working as a team.

The managers I speak with look forward to similar synergies in the new hybrid workplace. Flexibility of work environments will change teamwork, and it will change the leadership of teams. Similar to the example of integrated healthcare in the virtual medium, where a primary care physician, physical therapist, cardiologist, pain specialist, psychologist, and dietician could meet simultaneously with a heart attack survivor, the hybrid teamwork model can flexibly facilitate meetings across teams and various team members. On the fly, for example, analysts from different work units could share notes on a topic of mutual interest, such as emerging markets. This would facilitate an integration of monetary and fiscal perspectives with views from commodity, equity, and currency markets. Membership across multiple teams becomes doable in the hybrid world, creating a real-time, ever-changing matrix organization.

This flexibility creates new challenges and horizons for team leaders. Speaking of leadership in remote work teams, Kevin Eikenberry stresses in the Seapoint Center blog that having a conversation about expectations isn’t sufficient for success. Such conversations need to be ongoing and integrated into one-on-one communication, continually adjusting for evolving circumstances. He points out that expectations change with the shift to a different work mode, requiring ongoing needs for communication and collaboration. A recent example from my work with a provider of virtual internships for college students provides insight into the potential of the hybrid workplace. A student in the U.S. engaged in a project for an organization in Africa needed to answer questions from her work team. She quickly turned to me for sources of research and information. Because of my academic background, I was able to direct her to leading scholars and research on the topic. At that moment, her work team in Africa intersected with her educational team in the U.S., creating a new level of collaboration and higher order of teamwork. For leaders, this means that assessment of teamwork and team members must become multidimensional, embracing inputs from outside traditional team boundaries.

What is becoming increasingly clear is that tomorrow’s hybrid workplace will require new skills, fresh perspectives, and expanded priorities. Increasingly, this will mean that team will be a verb and not just a noun. Teaming across boundaries will accompany the boundaries of teams, and organizations promoting career readiness among new professionals, such as NACE and NAFSA, will find themselves evolving in exciting ways. In such ways, periods of crisis can become opportunities.

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