5 Lessons We've Learned From Leading a Hybrid Organization for 8 Years
BetterUp's CEO shares insights into what makes a hybrid model work (or not) based on what he's seeing partnering with leading companies and drawing from the company's own experience as a hybrid-first start-up.
As the U.S. and other parts of the world begin reemerging from lockdowns and other restrictions, much of the business world has been engaged in a single conversation — when and how should companies bring their people back into the office, or should they bring them back at all? While gallons of ink (or billions of pixels) have been spent discussing the subject, at the company I lead, BetterUp, it hasn’t been much of an issue at all.
We get asked all the time about our thoughts on hybrid workplaces, given we’ve had a hybrid model since we started, but also because we partner with many of the world’s leading companies. Everyone is wrangling with these questions. They reflect a broader trend, and long-overdue conversation, about flexibility.
Even before the pandemic struck, 40% of the BetterUp workforce was remote, a larger block of our team than was housed in any of our physical offices. A hybrid approach has been part of our DNA from the very beginning, which has given us a unique perspective on the current debate. Here are five of the lessons we’ve learned about the challenges and rewards of hybrid work.
Design from research, data and first principles
As an evidence-based human transformation company, we are firm believers in following the science, where possible, and employing research-validated best practices to get the best results. When weighing whether an in-person or hybrid model will work better for your business, there is an entire field of occupational psychology that offers empirical answers to questions about whether employees perform better in the office or at a distance, or whether they are more creative or happier in their jobs.
Does that mean the published research holds all the answers? No. But it is a jumping-off point to think about what you’re trying to accomplish, how you design to get the results you want, and what indicators you need to stay on top of to make sure it’s working. For BetterUp, having a strong culture was important. We recognized that we needed to be explicit about our values and how they translate into behaviors, given people aren’t together every day. We became very intentional about employee onboarding so that each part of it reflects our culture and reinforces our values from the start.
The data is suggestive that distributed teams, flexible schedules, remote work, and asynchronous collaboration can all work, but the supporting work practices, tools, and processes, and the skill of managers all make a difference. Our own research found that workers report feeling more effective, now, in a remote environment, and report experiencing 56% greater creativity and innovative thinking. At the same time, a large-scale study just released by Microsoft finds that, while productivity is up, conversations are down, bringing implications for the creativity and innovation of teams. The mixed results aren’t surprising: neither going remote nor being in-person, alone, drives creativity and innovation.
Making a hybrid model work requires being deliberate and evolving everything about your business, not just once but over and over. You have to be more explicit about what matters. Because your priorities and considerations are unique to your company, you should use data to help you create the best route to your particular goals.
Own your decision
Different structures will be right for different organizations and can reflect the personal beliefs and preferences of leadership. If you believe in your bones that remote employees are not as dedicated to their jobs or cannot effectively collaborate with their in-office colleagues, it is unlikely that you will be able to successfully lead a hybrid team. At BetterUp, we decided from the beginning that we didn’t want people to have to weigh career progression or interesting collaborative work against enjoying geographic flexibility. Make realistic assessments based on your particular situation, but whatever you decide, own that decision fully.
A lot of banks, for instance, have been blunt in saying to employees: “If you don't show up, you're not going to work here, or you won’t be successful here.” I respect the integrity of being open about that reality. Harsh as it may seem, honesty is preferable to mealy-mouth commitments to “flexibility” that management does not intend to back up with equal treatment and opportunities for remote employees.
On the other hand, a lot of tech companies have made a point of saying, “You can stay remote forever. We don’t care where you do your work.” Some tech talent has been quick to respond, relocating to locales that better fit their needs, lifestyle, and aspirations. Others have merely breathed a sigh of relief at no longer having to structure their lives around a long, expensive commute.
Either way, clarity is key. The murky middle is what confuses and frustrates. That doesn’t mean you have to say “forever,” but carve out a model that you are willing to commit to and be clear about the principles and parameters.
Whether you decide to take your organization fully remote, fully in person, or something in between, you will not succeed unless you believe in the model, commit to iterating your practices to make it work, and communicate clearly (and often) with your team (not just to them).
Follow the ‘Little Mermaid principle’
One of the principal motivations for BetterUp’s original decision to go with a hybrid model was our desire to create a truly inclusive culture. That meant finding (or creating) ways to bring more diverse talent into our organization with opportunities that didn’t preclude anyone who didn’t fit a certain profile. With our headquarters in San Francisco, we found it was incredibly competitive, and difficult, to hire diverse talent — especially technical talent — in the Bay Area.
As Ariel sang in The Little Mermaid, you’ve got to go where the people are. One of the most powerful advantages of a hybrid model is that it allows you to both follow the strategic imperative and live up to your company values by seeking out diverse talent wherever they may be located geographically.
Create ‘adaptive space’
While a hybrid model has been a strength for BetterUp, it also presents real challenges. If you design around the assumption that people are in the same office, remote employees can end up feeling like second-class citizens. Finding effective ways to generate ideas together can also be difficult.
At BetterUp we lean heavily on frequent, intentionally-designed offsites to overcome these challenges. When you have more remote people, you save on real estate costs. We roll a portion of that savings into team and company retreats. Around once a quarter (when travel and gatherings are possible), we get our people together face to face.
Not only does that build personal connections and a sense that we are all one, equally valued team, but it also allows the creation of what author and Amazon exec Michael Arena calls “Adaptive Space.” These “free trade zones” for ideas provide opportunities for conversation and serendipity to spark innovative ideas. With the stronger connections that form and continue to develop after the event is over, those sparks of ideas can be funneled into the corporate structures that can turn them into concrete action.
Remote work is great for focused concentration. It’s not always great for connection and creativity, so companies must be intentional about engineering ‘adaptive space’ and team cohesion.
Middle managers are all important
When I hear leaders arguing about remote vs. in-person, I often want to tell them the whole conversation doesn’t matter. Success is less about which option you choose than it is about ensuring managers are skilled at whatever paradigm your company goes with. Being at home or not being not at home is going to be equally subpar if your manager doesn't know how to manage you there.
Whichever format your company goes with, middle managers are going to face the same set of questions: How can they drive top performance? How can they effectively develop and include everyone? Create psychological safety? Catalyze energy in the workforce? Choosing a hybrid or in-office model will change how managers answer those questions, but the end goals they’re shooting for are the same. Whichever path they take will require training, coaching, and reflection. Worry less about the question of how remote to go, and more about equipping your managers to succeed, with whatever design you land on.
Eight years in and now with more than 500 employees, BetterUp is living proof that a hybrid model can work for a fast-growing, innovative company. Managing both in-person and remote team members does take care, thought, and commitment, but done right, hybrid work can be a serious competitive advantage for your company.
Entrepreneur Leadership Network Contributor