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The Bottomless Complexity of Hybrid Work
In a hybrid workplace, context is everything, the system is always on the verge of failing, and constant listening is the only way to survive.
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If you’ve ever used your phone to navigate a clunky, desktop-first insurance website, you know how it feels when a large organization punts on solving a complex problem.
There’s a reason so many companies still design products for desktop well into our second decade using smartphones. When you consider the needs of mobile users, too, you’re not just dealing with different types of people. You’re dealing with them in different locations, with different devices, different goals, even a different set of distractions. The context changes everything, and the context is always changing.
Complex systems are brimming with edge cases, which leads to a lot of uncertainty. When every variable is interdependent, any lapse can trigger a cascade of failures. Working parents know this instinctively: when a babysitter cancels, the margin for error drops to zero.
Hybrid work models share this challenge. You have the same issues as before, but now, employees are moving fluidly between very different contexts. They may not even be on the same computer outside the office. And those variables add up to a ton of complexity. In-office schedules can vary based on team, caregiving responsibilities, or individual commute times. Some employees will need to stay fully remote, no matter what, until high-risk groups are safe.
In a hybrid workplace, every employee is an edge case, and every detail matters, regardless of how small.
In a hybrid workplace, every employee is an edge case, and every detail matters, regardless of how small. When employers fail to account for this complexity, they risk what Anne Helen Petersen calls The Worst of Both Work Worlds: employees Zooming with coworkers from their desks, wondering exactly when the “spontaneous interactions” that justify their commutes will actually manifest.
But if the idea of dealing with thousands of edge cases feels overwhelming to you, the software world has some useful lessons.
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Chaos engineers (i.e., the kinds of people who keep Netflix online) sometimes refer to a classic treatise, How Complex Systems Fail. It's a dense document with lessons for many kinds of organizations, from hospitals to air traffic control systems, but three points are especially relevant to hybrid work.
Complex systems run in degraded mode. The only thing preventing constant failures is the work of individuals who can make the system work despite its many flaws. (If you run HR, you might want to ask yourself who’s doing this in your organization.)
Catastrophe is always just around the corner. After-accident reviews nearly always find a history of near misses, which often go unreported or unnoticed by management. (If you run HR, you might want to ask yourself what percentage of those incidents you’re aware of.)
Hindsight biases the postmortem. The old adage that “hindsight is 20/20” means those at the end of a chain of failures often shoulder the blame for outcomes they couldn’t possibly have foreseen. (If you run HR, perhaps this person is you.)
Hybrid work environments are always on the verge of failure, with no way to predict when and where. Just like Netflix engineers, HR teams will need to continually monitor the system for failures and near misses.
In other words, hybrid work environments are always on the verge of failure, with no way to predict when and where. Which means that just like Netflix engineers, HR teams managing a hybrid workforce need to continually monitor for failures and near misses. (Engineering has a whole sub-discipline for this: observability.)
But since people tend to be less transparent about problems than computers, listening to employee feedback is the only way to get consistent, reliable information.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of listening happening right now. Slack's Future Forum found 66% of executives are designing post-pandemic workforce policies with little to no direct input from employees. And while the same number think they’re being “very transparent” with their post-pandemic policies, less than half of workers (42%) agree. This disconnect should be especially troubling for DEI practitioners, since remote work has been an oasis for some marginalized employees, not to mention those living with disabilities.
For hybrid work to be truly sustainable, there are so many strategic questions that are begging for employees’ input:
Are we communicating our plans clearly enough?
Do employees feel they have a say in decisions that affect their work environment?
Does every team feel adequately staffed to get everything done? Or are some of them under more pressure than others?
How are our managers supporting their direct reports? Does that change for workers who are primarily remote, or in-office?
Do our meetings feel inclusive for both onsite and remote workers?
Who feels supported by our current system? Who feels left behind, and why?
While maintaining an office culture is hard, it’s a familiar problem, with plenty of benchmarks and case studies for comparison. But hybrid work, especially in this environment, is different. There’s no playbook, online course, or weekend seminar that can adequately prepare HR teams to navigate an ongoing pandemic.
Hybrid work will take many forms, and every organization will have to chart its own path. Listening carefully to employee feedback will be the only way to stay on course.
This article was edited by Kieffer Katz.
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