How Hybrid Can Work For Everyone

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Karen Mazer leads Deloitte’s US Executive Accelerators team which includes C-suite executive programs aimed at helping accelerate careers.

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In my previous article, I talked about how the past two years have transformed how we work. We know it’s essential to help your employees feel valued, included and engaged, which isn’t always easy in a hybrid workplace. However, the hybrid model has allowed us to create an even more inclusive workplace that can incorporate a variety of preferences that accommodate personal circumstances.

As we settle into whatever our not-so-normal routine is for the next couple of years, it’s interesting to observe the gravitational pull to return to in-person interactions. This may be driven by the pent-up demand to socialize, along with deeply held views that the more effective way to build relationships is in person. I would like to challenge this orthodoxy and suggest that there are many moments when virtual interactions may be the better way to build quality relationships.

What is the purpose of the interaction, and is it worth the travel?

Having spent my career in professional services, I’ve attended—and traveled to—thousands of in-person meetings. However, when the pandemic hit and the travel stopped, I realized how much more time I had throughout the day when I wasn’t in transit or dealing with travel mishaps.

Despite less face-to-face interactions with colleagues and clients, I’ve personally been able to forge deeper connections by having the ability to meet virtually and not have to work around travel plans. While many of us are just as busy as we were before the pandemic, the virtual nature of today’s workplace means we don’t have to book conference rooms, plan meals or work around travel schedules. With more productive time and collaborative technology, I feel I’m creating fewer disruptions and inconveniences through virtual interactions.

Are you using collaborative tech to your advantage?

It wasn’t too long ago that many likely considered a video conference call to be “high tech,” and yet today, many of us spend countless hours on camera. While the early days of the pandemic were simply a myriad of faces on computer screens mimicking what might have occurred around a conference table, a new discipline has emerged around virtual experiences that are engaging, interesting and productive, allowing participants to build connections.

Often, many virtual meetings start with thoughtful design, where interactions are part of the equation. While the basics include polling questions, annotation features, chat and breakout rooms, the art lies in facilitation skills that bring the virtual room to life and stimulate the conversation. A skilled facilitator will be an expert at bringing out all the voices “in the room” in a way that is easier to navigate than when dominant voices dictated the conversation in an in-person meeting.

Starting with the intro, a good facilitator will leverage icebreakers to engage the team. Posing simple questions—such as “beach or mountain?” or “favorite video mishap?”—warm up the conversation, help attendees learn about one another and set the tone for participation. Icebreakers can also double as a quick tech assessment, helping teach some in the group how to use platform features.

There’s an abundant supply of fun things to do virtually, ranging from a chocolate tasting, game nights and group fitness. Unique experiences that were once prohibitive because of distance, logistics or cost are now easily accessible. These activities can be used for team building in the workplace and in our personal lives. Virtual also allows for more wellness activities like finding a 30-minute slot for a walk-and-talk conversation that allows you to get some fresh air, step away from your computer and accomplish something meaningful.

Are you observing visual cues?

We’ve all been on video calls when someone’s child interrupts, a dog barks at the mailman or a cat struts across the keyboard. Of course, unexpected interruptions occur, but these moments tell us something about our colleagues that we may not have known otherwise. The backgrounds that we show behind us tell stories about our travels, passions and dreams. There are clues all around that can allow us to find common ground, laugh and form strong bonds.

As an introvert, I often found myself knocking out a few emails before in-person meetings started while my extroverted colleagues worked the room. However, with virtual meetings, I’ve found it easier to connect with colleagues from the comfort of my own home. In addition, the startup chit-chat may be more relaxed since many of us might be more open about the challenges of daily life when the workplace formalities have been left behind.

As we saw with the omicron variant, work policies continue to change and evolve. Although some of us prefer working from home, others are excited to return. Whatever you prefer, make the most of the interactions in front of you, whether in person or through a screen. Leaders should strive to be deliberate and be thoughtful about the type of meetings they plan, considering the tradeoffs while also incorporating the team’s personal preferences.

Virtual meetings won’t replicate the intimacy you feel when sharing a meal with a colleague, client or team, but they have many wonderful benefits. Of course, there is a time and place for in-person meetings. Still, I believe that we’ll continue to leverage virtual ways of working and interacting well beyond the eventual end of the pandemic, getting to know each other even better.

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