Hybrid Work Isn’t a Problem to Solve

It’s an opportunity to experiment.

Alastair Steward
The Ready

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Image: Designed by Alisha Lochtefeld

Figuring out hybrid work is a complex challenge. Anyone still doubting that need only read about the pain, floundering, and flip-flopping even the most innovative organizations are currently experiencing trying to implement hybrid work programs. Some of the discomfort and confusion stems from the fact that when we’re dealing with high levels of messiness and scale and volatility, there is no one right answer. Silver bullets and cure-alls just don’t exist. To make matters worse, most organizations approach hybrid work from a false dichotomy, asking themselves: “Should we impose a policy on everyone or let people do whatever they want?”

Don’t get us wrong, we understand how tempting it is to try to install a one-size-fits-all solution that will work across an entire function, division, or organization. That temptation is especially potent when we need folks to make decisions based not only on their own needs and preferences, but also on the needs and preferences of their team, other teams, and the broader company. If everyone’s making decisions based on their own personal and professional interests, who’s looking out for the health of the organization?

The problem is that when we’re grappling with a complex system — like a collection of teams, each working on different challenges in different contexts — one approach simply won’t cut it. Implement a single solution across contexts and it will likely prevent many or most teams from working in the way best suited for them and their goals. Water down a single solution to avoid disrupting any one team and you’ll be left with something that has limited upside and impact.

The good news: These choices — either implementing a universal policy or leaving decision-making up to individuals — aren’t the only ones available. There’s a third way worth exploring and it’s called distributed team experimentation.

When we say “distributed,” we mean teams across an organization carrying out various experiments. When we say “experimentation,” we mean the act of making an educated guess (aka a hypothesis) about what will work for a given challenge in a given context. For example, a team whose members work independently might try working remotely except for a biweekly in-person retrospective, while a team whose members collaborate daily might try being together in-person three days a week.

Essentially, “distributed team experimentation” means lots of teams trying different experiments to figure out what will help them tackle a shared challenge — like hybrid work.

This approach has multiple benefits. First, it allows teams to set themselves up for success in their context. Second, it enables distributed team experimentation and learning that’s focused on a specific challenge facing the entire organization. That means you can quickly figure out what works, where it works, and how to adapt if and when it stops working.

Remember, though, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution in a complex system; distributed team experimentation’s end goal isn’t to land on an organization-wide fix. Instead, the end goal is for teams to figure out what works for them while the whole company gains insights about different approaches.

Hybrid work is especially ripe for experimentation because almost no one has figured it out. If your organization is like most others right now, there is no stable and highly-functional hybrid work status quo you risk losing. And the stakes are incredibly high because ineffective approaches to hybrid work can wreck productivity and frustrate employees. Distributed team experimentation means sharing with employees both the authority to decide how they work and the responsibility for figuring it out for themselves. That matters because hybrid work is here to stay. Distributed team experimentation is, therefore, your chance to flip the script and turn hybrid work into a meaningful opportunity rather than a thorny challenge happening to you.

Ready to give it a shot? Here are the steps:

1) Create parameters for the experiments.

Decide what is expected of each team and the constraints they should work within. Here’s a starting set of parameters to consider:

  • Each team commits to running at least one experiment focused on testing an answer to this problem statement: How can we use remote work and co-located work to have the greatest positive impact on our team’s work, the organization, and our quality of life?
  • Each experiment should be complete within four weeks
  • Each team commits to filling out a copy of the Hybrid Work Team Experiment Design Template and posting it in a shared location where every other team can see it
  • Each team commits to publicly sharing back to the rest of the organization (a) what they learned and (b) what they’re going to try next

Pro Tip: A great constraint acts as a guardrail to help everyone move in the same general direction and mitigate unacceptable risk while leaving plenty of room for teams to explore, be creative, and adapt.

2) Decide which teams will run experiments.

  • Option 1: Ask for volunteer “pilot teams” to design and run experiments within the agreed-upon parameters. If you want to make this really safe-to-try, ask only one team to run an experiment and share what they learn
  • Option 2: Propose that a set of teams design and run experiments within the agreed-upon parameters and ask those teams if they consent (the set could include only a handful of teams or every team)
  • Option 3: Mandate (or propose and get consent) that all teams design and run experiments within the agreed-upon parameters

Pro Tip: Choose an option that aligns with how quickly your organization wants to figure this out. If navigating hybrid work is a top priority and teams are already relatively skilled at trying new things, Options 2 or 3 are solid. If you want to reduce the disruption of experimentation, Option 1 is a good choice. Remember, you can always start with Option 1 and then scale toward Option 2 or 3 over time.

Bonus Pro Tip: If you aren’t in a position to organize experimentation across several teams, you can still suggest this approach to your team.

3) Support teams as needed while they design and run their experiments. That support could look like:

  • Providing facilitation support for teams that would like help designing their experiment
  • Sharing a broader view of factors (such as organizational strategy and how other teams are working) to inform experiment design
  • Providing air cover for teams running experiments, so other areas of the business neither passively block an experiment’s progress nor actively push for old ways of working

4) Facilitate conversations across teams that ran experiments to reflect on what was learned.

A retrospective or User Experience Fishbowl are great format options for this sort of conversation.

5) Make insights and lessons learned available to every team.

Think outside the box on this one. Emails and Word docs are fine, but letting each team communicate their insights in their own style (e.g., a document, a slide deck, a screen recording, or an audio recording) will result in richer information. Ideally, these insights will also be easily searchable, so they can be referenced in the future.

6) Identify next steps. Those steps could include:

  • Running a new set of experiments
  • Adjusting cross-team policies based on lessons learned
  • Helping teams that work closely together make shared agreements about how they want to collaborate

While hybrid work is a great candidate for this approach, the truth is that distributed team experimentation is highly effective for almost any complex challenge — from navigating a crisis to disrupting your industry to fostering a healthy work culture. Layering on more and more global policies, SOPs, and rules tends to make organizations increasingly brittle and slow-moving (bureaucracy, anyone?), while distributed team experimentation and adaptation within constraints can make them more resilient. And these days, with uncertainty and volatility at all-time highs, resilience is the name of the game for organizations hoping to not only survive, but also flourish.

If you’re looking for help designing your own hybrid work approach, we’d love to hear from you!

The Ready is an organizational design and transformation partner that helps you discover a better way of working. We work with some of the world’s largest, oldest, and most inspiring organizations to help them remove bureaucracy and adapt to the complex world in which we all live. Learn more by subscribing to our Brave New Work podcast and Brave New Work Wednesdays newsletter, checking out our book, or reaching out to have a conversation about how we can help your organization evolve ways of working better suited to your current reality.

Zoe Donaldson contributed significantly to this article.

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Alastair Steward
The Ready

Org Design & Transformation @ The Ready. Complexity enthusiast. Advocate for helping people and systems fulfill their potential.