Tackling the Challenges and Obstacles of Hybrid Work

Hybrid work is becoming the new normal. Learn how to adapt and thrive despite the challenges of remote and hybrid work.

Table of Content

    Hybrid arrangements are fast becoming the “new-normal.” Well, at least for companies that have the ability to work remotely.

    Still, developing an effective hybrid strategy remains a major struggle for business leaders.

    A recent Gallup survey interviewed 8,000+ remote-capable employees to understand what hybrid teams think of this new arrangement post-COVID lockdowns. Participants reported the following as the top challenges of hybrid work:

    • Accessing the tools needed to be successful on the job (35%)
    • Less connection to the culture (32%)
    • Diminished team collaboration (30%)

    Of course, this is just one survey. But, it’s worth noting these same themes keep showing up across a range of polls, papers, and industry reports. And, there’s no shortage of articles that use these challenges to make the case against hybrid and remote work.

    That said, Gallup researchers are optimistic about the future of hybrid work. Despite the challenges, most survey participants felt that the benefits of hybrid outweighed its negative aspects. 

    People want to keep working this way, it’s just that business leaders need to invest in making it better. And, fortunately, in this case, they can do this by addressing a few very fixable problems. 

    In this chapter, we look at hybrid’s biggest challenges and what it takes to overcome them.

    Dismantling Old Ideas RE: Productivity & Accountability

    Employees and managers are still really far apart when it comes to what they think work should look like, where it happens, and how it’s measured.

    Per Microsoft’s New Future of Work report, even the word “productivity” means different things to different people. 

    Tackling the Challenges and Obstacles of Hybrid Work

    To be clear, there’s a pretty clear correlation between how a person defines productivity and where they fall in the org chart. 

    In the 2022 MS Work Trend Index, 80% of workers reported that they’ve either been more productive since shifting to remote or hybrid work. Or — that their output has remained the same amid all the pandemic-related turmoil they’ve endured since 2020.

    For many of those workers, remote work came with a whole new perspective that revealed new truths about their role — and work in general.  

    When COVID hit, teams were forced to move faster and work asynchronously in order to meet new challenges.  Suddenly, they were focusing less on process and more on the bigger picture. And, with that shift, employees came to realize that many of the tasks they used to “just do” delivered no real value.

    Conversely, 85% of business leaders say hybrid work makes them less confident that their teams are productive. Evaluating individual performance and ensuring accountability is more challenging in a hybrid environment. 

    But, managers also face the challenge of bringing employees back into alignment without undermining the hard-won autonomy they’ve enjoyed for more than three years. All that in mind, here are a few steps you can take to get ahead of these common problems:

    Focus on Outcomes

    When managers can no longer see what people are doing, they need to find new ways to manage teams and measure performance.

    While many leaders understand this in theory, old habits can be hard to shake. Often, they end up falling back on the problematic processes they know, then measure them with vanity metrics. 

    What ends up happening is, some employees get rewarded for how much time they spend chatting up colleagues or answering emails. Others get punished for toiling away on important projects from home because no one can see them.

    MIT experts advise leaders to focus on outcomes over output. Leaders must measure productivity and performance across many dimensions to foster greater alignment under current conditions. Think – collaboration, performance, financial outcomes, and efficiency. 

    Set Clear, Measurable Goals

    You’ll want to clearly define all roles and responsibilities — as well as their connection to the bigger picture. This helps ensure that all team members understand exactly what’s expected of them – and why it matters. 

    You might then set SMART goals for each role to track individual and team progress, and continuously refine your game-plan as strategies evolve and conditions change. 

    You can adapt the framework for hybrid by focusing on the right OKRs simply by choosing the right metrics. So, maybe that’s looking for the data points that provide transparency and visibility into all work being done across the company. 

    Once you’ve defined your objectives, you can make it official in Viva Goals by linking goals to the right metrics and taking steps to drive OKR adoption.

    Define Fair & Consistent Evaluation Criteria

    Microsoft experts advise setting clear policies that give people agency over how, where, and when they work.

    Use your updated goals and OKRs to establish fair and consistent evaluation criteria. In Viva, you can track employees’ progress toward individual objectives and shared goals – allowing you to collaboratively solve problems and deliver better outcomes in context with individual roles and goals. That data can then inform strategic choices about coaching, training, resources, and evaluation criteria. 

    Ultimately, shifting away from relying on gut-feelings or old biases for critical management decisions, not only creates a healthier environment, it allows you to proactively deliver the right outcomes.

    Enabling Access to Resources

    Hybrid work hinges on a digital infrastructure that can support seamless communication and collaboration. It’s not only ensuring everyone has access to the right tools and information. But, also making sure they have everything they need to perform at their peak — regardless of location.

    Unfortunately, this can be a real logistical nightmare. To overcome this challenge, orgs must build an infrastructure that accommodates the needs of both remote and on-site work.

    At Home

    Sadly, many companies believe enabling remote work begins and ends with providing secure, remote access to a few basic tools. But, the reality is, there’s a lot more you’ll need to do if you want your hybrid teams to succeed. Consider how different technologies might enable access in different ways. 

    Then, focus on consolidating and optimizing all data and processes

    A few examples from the MS stack:

    • OneDrive provides a centralized space to access and store personal and shared files. Instead of dumping everything in one folder and hoping for the best, you can organize files by theme, project, or whatever. Then, you can set security controls to protect sensitive data and limit access only to those who need it.
    • Teams combines business critical apps in one, unified interface — improving remote access on several fronts. Basic things like meetings, calls, and chat are a good place to start, but you can also use the platform to design thoughtful, remote environments. Cloud Engineer Jonathan Darling says hybrid leaders should “set up and use Teams for different organizational groups.” Once you’re set up, do an inventory of your processes to find out what tasks can be “Teams items” instead. Jonathan says, “you might have morning meetings on Teams video-conferencing. Throughout the day, use chat to communicate about support cases. You can also use SharePoint within the Teams app to collaborate on shared documents.”

    Tackling the Challenges and Obstacles of Hybrid Work

    • Metaverse tech like Microsoft Mesh for Teams and HoloLens can help create immersive experiences and encourage real-time co-creation. Mixed reality can also improve knowledge sharing and training. Forrester research found that mixed reality tools can boost training efficiency by up to 60%, saving companies roughly $1,440 per new hire.

    In the Office

    Enabling hybrid work also means thinking about how to connect the in-office experience to what’s happening at home (or wherever).

    In Microsoft’s guide to hybrid work, experts recommend leaders to think about how they might use tech to transform physical work spaces. A lot of this is about learning how people are using physical space and using that information to make improvements. 

    A couple quick examples of what that might look like:

    Microsoft. MS is embracing a “facilities-as-a-service” approach. The company is using Workplace Analytics, Azure IoT, and Azure Digital Twins to capture and analyze data from physical spaces. 

    Now, users can track things like occupancy and usage patterns of common areas, quiet spaces, and conference rooms. Then, they’re using those insights to inform the choices they make about the workspace moving forward. 

    (If you’re not there yet, you might start with something simple. Say, using data to determine where people should sit.)

    Giant Eagle. “I really love, case study Microsoft did with Giant Eagle,” says Carolyn. For context, regional grocery chain Giant Eagle decided to make remote work permanent for corporate employees after pandemic restrictions began to ease. 

    Shortly after corporate teams started working remotely, leadership began noticing more people were experiencing visible fatigue during virtual meetings. They were logging in, but they weren’t focusing on what colleagues were saying. So, the Giant Eagle team took a moment to really think about how to have better meetings — and how technology could be used to make that happen. 

    Arlo Sivak, the company’s Manager of Modern Workplace, told Microsoft WorkLab, it’s hard for people to stay focused, especially if their cameras are turned off and they’re checking emails or something. 

    They ended up using some of the MS 365 tools already embedded in Teams to drive more meaningful interactions between participants, including: 

    • In-Meeting Polls. For larger gatherings, the company used Forms to engage participants by polling them throughout the presentation and sharing live feedback with the group.
    • Interactive Experiences. Beyond just meeting together and talking, Giant Eagle used Teams to facilitate light-hearted team-building opportunities, including a virtual cook-off. For larger meetings, they also started using Breakout Rooms, which allowed the company to move away from one person lecturing to 150+ attendees, and instead, give people a space to discuss concepts from the presentation in small groups.
    • Unify Digital & Physical Workspaces with Teams Rooms. Finally, the company opted to give up its long-time corporate headquarters and move into a smaller, tech-enabled space in Pittsburgh. The new space is outfitted with meeting rooms designed specifically for hybrid collaboration in Teams. For example, there’s a large screen for streaming in conversations with remote colleagues and digital canvases that enable collaboration with the Microsoft Whiteboard.

    Maire Techimont. Another company, Maire Tecnimont, is also using tech to transform its physical office environment. Behavioral insights and workforce analytics from Viva helped the company build an employee portal for booking desks, parking spaces, and rooms before coming into the office. Employees now have more control over their situation — allowing them to plan for productivity — on their own terms. 

    What’s more, the company is also leveraging behavioral data and portal activity with smart building technology to hit sustainability targets. The system uses sensors to detect when rooms are in use and booking data to see which resources are reserved for that day. 

    Insights can be used to control lights, HVAC units, and other on-site tech based on actual need –  reducing waste without depriving anyone of office comforts. 

    Facilitating Interactions

    Done right, hybrid work has the power to facilitate in-person collaboration and meaningful connections between colleagues. And – at the same time, allows individuals to get things done on their own terms — and their own time.

    But, that’s not how things usually play out. Data from the Work Trend Index mentioned above found that 68% of people feel they don’t have enough uninterrupted time to focus during the workday.

    Tackling the Challenges and Obstacles

    In another recent survey, 38% of hybrid employees told MS analysts that the biggest challenge of hybrid is understanding when and why they need to come into the office.

    One of the big challenges of hybrid work is, it requires far more planning and coordination than many leaders expect. Companies often cope with this challenge by setting arbitrary rules about how often employees need to come in. 

    So, people end up doing the same work in the office they’d be doing at home, while meetings, check-ins, and collaborative work get pushed into WFH time.

    A few things to think about:

    • Tear down information silos. When teams work from different remote collaboration stacks, whatever they gain in inter-team effectiveness comes at the expense of cross-functional collaboration. On top of that, silos inevitably form when people are working from different locations with minimal coordination. Miscommunication, delays, and reduced collaboration may occur, leading to inefficiencies and potential misunderstandings. The MS Future of Work report points out that technology choices play a major role here. When everyone is working from one ecosystem, leaders can bridge silos between teams. This, in turn, makes it much easier to foster org-wide collaboration and alignment. 
    • Be intentional about interactions. Dartmouth professor Geoff Parker says, leaders must carve out space for random interactions. You need to consider all the little things we take for granted in person. So, body language, audio quality, how much the slightest amount of latency impacts daily interactions, and so on.
    • Establish a system for coordinating schedules. Finally, it’s a lot of work to figure out when people are available to meet and who is in the office on any given day. So, you might use the MS Planner integration to track Viva Goals, OKRs, and availability in one place. It’s also a lot harder to effectively lead hybrid meetings when you’ve got some people in the office and others online. Teams offers a variety of solutions – Rooms, Virtual Events, AI-enabled collaboration tools, conferencing and chat, and more – that can help you design better meetings. The challenge, however, is aligning those features with your own hybrid-specific goals.

    Fostering an Inclusive & Supportive Culture

    By definition, hybrid work is neither 100% remote nor fully in the office for the old 9-to-5. Done right, this approach allows orgs to tap the best of both worlds.

    Though, many times, leaders find themselves struggling in this tricky in-between zone. 

    Here, existing ideas about fairness, inclusivity, and what it means to be a supportive colleague kind of fall apart. 

    That, of course, makes it harder to build an inclusive culture where everyone can perform at their very best. Here are a few things you’ll need to watch out for:

    Proximity Bias

    According to HBR, proximity bias describes how leaders often treat the employees who are physically closest to them better than those working remotely. And, these aren’t just perceived slights. Managers really do see in-person and remote employees differently. 

    A 2021 SHRM survey found that 70% of supervisors managing remote workers believe those employees are more replaceable than onsite workers. Another 42% admitted they sometimes forget about this group while assigning work.

    As a result, remote workers are often excluded from important conversations or decisions, and miss out on valuable mentorship or advancement opportunities. 

    HBR experts advise leaders to tackle this challenge by “getting it all out in the open.” Be upfront about the risks of proximity bias, and collaborate with remote and in-house employees to find the right solutions. 

    Lack of Connection to the Organizational Culture

    With employees working from different locations, it’s harder to foster a strong and cohesive company culture. Remote employees often miss out on informal conversations or social interactions that happen simply by showing up to an office every day.

    As such, they often feel isolated or disconnected from their team and may even have lower levels of engagement and job satisfaction than their in-house peers. Building relationships, promoting teamwork, and nurturing a shared sense of purpose takes some extra effort in a hybrid environment.

    Low Motivation

    While technology has made it easy for people to work from anywhere, maintaining employee engagement and motivation in a remote environment is uniquely challenging for anyone managing a team. 

    But, insights from Deloitte’s 2023 Global Human Capital report might offer struggling leaders a glimmer of hope. In it, experts assert that hybrid work offers several advantages when it comes to fostering the curiosity, motivation, and problem-solver mentality it takes to compete amid today’s complex conditions. 

    But, that’s only if managers find new ways to keep employees engaged. For example, removing traditional employment distinctions unlocks critical skills and human potential.

    Focusing on developing skills among “non-traditional” workers can help you fill critical gaps. But, today’s workers have more agency and greater access to resources that can enable them to level up their skills, switch careers, and land a better paying job. That means, this arrangement has to be mutually beneficial or employees will leave. 

    Final Thoughts

    Tackling the challenges of hybrid work requires proactive action and constant adaptation to maximize the benefits of this model, while also minimizing its potential downsides. 

    Leaders must focus on collaboration, culture, and how they measure and improve individual and team performance.

    It’s about establishing a human-centric strategy — with emphasis on inclusion, engagement, and unlocking employee potential. But, it’s also about building the tech infrastructure that allows you to execute on all those big plans.