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Managing while Remote

Hybrid is coming – how do I make meetings inclusive for remote workers in hybrid setups?

If one of us is working from home, everyone is remote.

As COVID19 vaccines start to be rolled out, more teams are wondering what it means for them, and more leaders are preparing for a life of hybrid office and remote work setups.

Some teams will be going back to an office for the first time in a year. Other teams will stay working remotely, often with hybrid setups where some of the team is going to the office, and others are staying home.

Before we move on, let’s face the elephant in the zoom call: hybrid setups are like playing in the hardest mode. They are harder to keep running smoothly than a remote-first setup, and they are harder than office-first setups, too.

To do Hybrid Remote work in a way that doesn’t completely obliterate your culture, you need to prepare. You may not like this, but the way hybrid works, or the way I and many others I’ve talked to have seen it work, is that you operate as if everyone was remote when it comes to communications, meetings, and decision making processes.

The good news is that in the last year, you developed some mechanisms to make remote work feasible even if you had no experience with it before. The other good news is that this time you have the luxury of preparing for the changes ahead of time.

The bad news is that just like it happened in 2020 for office/not-remote workers around the world, you will be thrown in the deep end, and you’ll feel like you have to learn a new skill every day to keep your team engaged and operations running smoothly.

Joining hybrid meetings.

Everyone joining from the office should join with their own laptops, their own camera, and their own microphone. This will seem terrible. You will probably not like it. It’s still necessary, because the minute you allow a meeting to prioritize office workers talking over each other and as if everyone were in the same room, you will alienate remote workers who will end up missing half of what is said and unable to get a word in.

Why can’t I just buy an Owl and be done with it.

The temptation to buy an Owl or other similarly cool gadgets for your conference room will be sky high. Unfortunately, once you buy it, people will pressure you to use it. There is a non-financial cost with buying great gear that costs a lot of money; the sunk cost fallacy will hit you and your bosses, and you’ll “experiment” with that gadget until you decide to kick it into the sun or leave it for client meetings only (I have less opinions about client meetings and owl-like devices, in that I don’t care).

If you want the least confusing and more reliable setup for hybrid meetings, you will have to pretend you are all working remotely.

A hand drawn (badly done) picture. It has 4 houses and an office building. All the homes are also offices and are noted as such.
If you manage a hybrid team, you should be switching between home and office based work periodically to test the process out.

But having everyone join with their own laptop/mic/camera seems annoying!

Yes! I know. Been there, done that. I used to run some confidential team meetings with a central microphone while having some well positioned cameras for video streams, because we wanted the privacy of being in the conference room… while it’s a workable compromise, it was still really frustrating for the remote workers on the other side.

I’ve also been on the other side of every hybrid setup I can come up with. I promise you, it’s a lot more frustrating to be the sole person working from home and having to listen to a conversation where you only catch about 50%, can’t see anyone despite them seeing each other, and have to wait for 30minutes to say a word because nobody is paying attention to you at all (if everyone in the office is sharing a microphone, the remote worker will end up forgotten).

Mute by default.

Seriously. I am guessing your team is already used to having to mute themselves, but now it’ll be more important than ever to be good at this.

Have everyone practice their meeting etiquette, and set up agreements to ensure that this doesn’t end up as a forgotten “Hybrid meetings” process that nobody actually uses. Muting by default, and only unmuting to speak, is the way you avoid your remote colleagues from having to listen to a bunch of background noise, getting confused by side conversations, and having the people in the office become even more confused by echo issues.

Avoid bad meetings by test-driving your meeting habits.

Practice. Practice the setup. Remind yourself and others about muting when not speaking. Ensure everyone knows how the meeting will be ran.

You know how remote teams often have meeting guidelines for how to raise your hand, if you should be unmuted or not, and who’s taking notes? You will have to do that for your hybrid setup, too.

Nothing can change the fact that having a distributed meeting feels awkward at first, and doubly so if half the team is next to you and the other half are in their home offices. Despite this, testing the setup makes it less likely that you will fail.

So, do a few practice rounds and adjust. It’s better to get good at hybrid meetings early on. Attempting to use your new setup for the first time when an important topic has to be discussed is a recipe for bad meetings and low morale.

Managers who work primarily from the office need to practice working from home.

If you are primarily working from the office, you will need to find a way to practice being remote, too. It’s important that you don’t just listen (but of course, please do listen) to what remote workers in your team have to say, and what it’s like for them, but that you try to experience it first hand to understand what you are missing, and what you would like to ask people about.

Imagine this scenario. You have been working from the office for a month, and you think it’s going well. Remote workers aren’t complaining too much or at all , so you are feeling confident. You decide to take a week to work from home. When you come back, you find that you missed a critical discussion your team had about the product, because they all had an adhoc, undocumented meeting about it. Now, instead of guessing, you know that the team is struggling to keep their habits, and you can try to fix it.

If you had not taken that week, maybe you would have heard about it a month later, and bad habits would continue expanding, or remote workers would feel increasingly isolated from the decision making processes. Because you did, you can test out the processes as you go.

A word of caution: if you don’t find any issues, this doesn’t mean you’re in the clear. When the manager of a team is remote, people may be adjusting to ensure they include you specifically because of the power imbalances instead of because it’s the default. Be careful of becoming overconfident, and always check with remote workers.

You are still on the hook for note taking.

If you don’t already have a note-taking habit in your team’s meetings, this is the time to get good at it. You can use a rotation to ensure nobody ends up being the unofficial note taker forever, of course. Meeting notes bring more clarity to what was discussed, enable people who were not there to catch up, and help eliminate useless meetings by making it painfully obvious when a meeting could have been a simple 10 minute conversation over Slack/whatever IM tool you use or an Email, or a comment on a ticket somewhere else. If your meeting notes are a literal status update, you will notice. If nobody can agree, the notes will make that obvious. If nobody thinks the notes matter, that may be a sign that the meeting could have been avoided.

If one of us is working from home, everyone is remote.

Get your team aligned on how things will work as you move to a hybrid setup. Don’t wait until the first sign of trouble starts to arise before you have the team about remote-hybrid setups with your team. It’s better to have set clear expectations and involve people in the process. By bringing everyone into the design of this process, you and your team will be better prepared to adjust your meeting etiquette and habits as you go.

For hybrid to work, you need to break old habits. Team wide decisions cannot be made by running into someone near the coffee machine, and decisions need to be documented so that there’s a record to refer back to. Everyone who is working from home will be unable to participate unless you explicitly call them, so keep that in mind before you call for an ad-hoc meeting with 3 out of 5 of your direct reports who just happened to be around.

Fewer meetings. More asynchronous conversations. You are all tired of meetings by now. Try more asynchronous communication as the default. Ensure you aren’t doing status update calls that make everyone feel like they are wasting their time.

If one of is us remote, everyone is remote. Remote hybrid setups will be hard to pull off. You will need to run retrospectives on the setup itself, and to keep an eye on how both remote and office folks are feeling.

You will be tempted to prioritize the people who come to your office. Please don’t. This isn’t “Remote vs people who come to the office”. This is you and your team working out the problems that come up and being open about trying new ways to make your time at work better.

Write down a plan.

It will change. That’s okay. You still need to write down your basic processes and a plan for operating in a hybrid setup. Do that right after you close this tab, if you can, and involve your team in the discussion as soon as possible so that they can help find solutions and bring up problems you didn’t think about yet.

Good luck

Hopefully, this article prevents you from running into some of the mistakes I’ve seen and made myself.

Good luck. 🙂

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