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Cosmic Conference 2021 - Key Takeaways: Unpacking the Challenges of Hybrid Work with Mark Mortensen

In this year's inaugural keynote of “Future of Teams Conference”, Professor Mark Mortensen and Marilyn Zakhour unpacked the challenges of hybrid work and discussed what Mark has learned from studying remote and hybrid working models over the years. Mark dived deep into the challenges and offered frameworks to follow while developing solutions.

To watch the full session, visit our YouTube channel.

About the speaker:

Mark Mortensen is a Professor – and former Area Chair – of Organisational Behaviour at INSEAD. He speaks, consults, and publishes widely on how to design collaboration at both the team and organizational levels – drawing on over 20 years of experience in the field. His work focuses on the changing nature of collaboration, with a particular emphasis on remote, global, and virtual work as well as new forms of organizing like Agile, Holacracy, and the Gig economy. He pioneered research on the effects of multi-teaming (staffing employees across multiple projects) as well as dynamic staffing. Mark uses his consulting experience as well as data-driven scientific research to help executives and organizations understand the complex dynamics of organizations as social systems. His focus is on applying scientific knowledge to distil that complexity into concrete actionable tools that create value.

Mark publishes regularly in practitioner outlets like Harvard Business Review, Sloan Management Review, and IESE Insights as well as popular press outlets both in print and online. His scholarly work has been published in top-tier academic publications and his contributions have been recognized through academic awards as well as leadership and editorial board positions.

Below is a summary of the 5 key takeaways from the keynote. You can check out the full transcript here.

Five Key Takeaways:

  1. The future of work is somewhere between remote and in the office. It has to be hybrid.

  2. Three conversations must occur when transitioning into a remote/hybrid working model. They are about effectiveness, staffing and social fabric.

  3. We need to rethink job design and not who does what work.

  4. We need to break work down to the level of the task and think about what people are actually doing. Common sense should be the guide. “It's not the thing, it's the experience of the thing.”

  5. “The answers to the problems are in the history of our organizations.” It’s nothing that we have to invent.

The Future of work

Mark started his keynote with a clear assessment of what the future of work will look like. We are certainly not going back to the way work was organized before COVID-19 and we’re definitely not going to end up in a completely new configuration. “I think anybody listening to this is going to recognize that reality is somewhere in the middle. It has to be hybrid,” said Mark.

The 3 dimensions of a remote/hybrid working model

According to Mark, the reason the decision to transition into a remote or hybrid working model is difficult is because it creates tension. It's a three-way tension and three-different conversations around Effectiveness, Staffing, and Social Fabric need to be had. “This is where the challenge comes in because in a lot of organizations, those trying to think about this are having three different conversations without realizing it. They think they're having one,” said Mark.


Mark explained that “It's basically saying can I deliver what I need to deliver to whoever my stakeholders are? Whether that is internal stakeholders in the organization or my clients.” According to him, if the business can’t deliver, it shouldn’t be operating in the first place.


“A lot of surveys ask you, will you quit your job if you don't get remote? It's easy to say yes, of course I will. It's much harder to actually quit your job. Thinking about and talking about a big game are not the same thing. We are not going to see as many people leave their jobs as is reported, but we will see some, there's no question,” said Mark. “I'm not willing to go back to exactly what I was doing, but I know I'm going to have to do something in the middle. That seems to be the modal reaction of a lot of people.” He added, “We are optimizing on two different dimensions (effectiveness and staffing) and there may be solutions that are ideal for attracting talent, but don’t allow us to deliver. Or, actually deliver really well, but scare off all the talent that we say people are our most valuable resource we need. ”

Social Fabric

“When you're in an environment that is virtual, remote or hybrid, it's not clear how exactly we deal with challenges and issues like isolation and loneliness, feelings of connectivity that are being dissolved... Bringing someone onboard and integrating them into the organization has been very difficult. I can't walk a new employee down the hallway and say, look, here's Marilyn, she's super awesome. Let me introduce you. Here's Tala. She's equally awesome. Those conversations are really important and this is the social fabric piece,” said Mark.

To clarify the relation between these three dimensions, Mark commented, “All three of these are not wholly independent, but do operate independently. They are driven by what are arguably almost ideological beliefs about what creates value for a company. I am sure you can think of somebody who views the way you create value in the organization as all about what you do, or somebody else who says it's all about the people and maybe another who believes it's all about that intangible stuff in the ether.”

How to think through the transition to remote/hybrid work

Mark advised us to think contextually: “You have to think about how different people and tasks are. There's not a one size fits all kind of solution”.

To contextualize, Mark gave an example, “I was having a conversation with a friend of mine at Amazon. She said the problem that we have is that somebody who works in a fulfillment center can't work remotely because they don't have boxes and products that they can send around. What do I do when I have two people, hired at the same level, with the back office employee getting to work from home whenever they want and the person in the fulfillment center not. Remember, we said working from home is a perk people are looking for now. And for those who say working remotely is only for intellectual work, the same thing happens in biotech. Most biotechs don't say here's a pathogen, go home and play around with it in your basement.” So the solution according to Mark is “To think about maybe not only who gets to work from home, but even rethinking job design. The solution for the folks at Amazon is to instead of splitting the job based on you work in the fulfillment center, you work in the back office customer support, slice them sideways. You work in the fulfillment center two days a week and customer support three days a week.”

Coming back to the staffing discussion, he continued, “The argument here is saying that the talent market wants to work from home. A nice piece of data coming out of HBR verifies that. But, remember the experience is not the same for everyone. Stress is not felt evenly by all people and that affects the way in which they're able to deal with remote virtual work. So when you think about how you fix something like work from home, it's not about work from home versus office. It's about the experience of work from home versus the experience of the office.”

The perks of working from the office

For those who want to continue working from home, Mark said, “Remind them about what they're losing when they're not in the office. It's not just nice to have. The connections and conversations there are the oil that keeps the organizational machinery going.”

Then, he gave an example to clarify his point. “Let's think about commuting, the big win that I've heard from people. Ask yourself what you did in that hour of commuting. I'm sure some of you caught up on email, read a book, maybe listened to some audio books or even just decompressed. Those were actually important things.”

On the crisis of trust and psychological safety

“Number one, we have seen what we're calling a crisis of trust because when working remotely, we're missing a lot of the information that we would normally use to build trust.

There's a second piece around psychological safety that Amy Edmondson and I were looking at in Harvard. It’s about a new conversation that's being had as the boundaries between work and home are being brought down. Now, I have to be on the table because home life is involved in the scheduling process. So, we give some recommendations there.”

On loneliness and isolation within the workforce

Commenting on the loneliness and isolation within our workforce, Mark stressed that it’s not a COVID-19 effect, but a result of the way in which we are designing our teams and work. Moving to the last thought around power dynamics in hybrid environments, Mark explained, “This one ties in with all the other pieces as we are seeing lots of issues where power is coming up because we have different amounts of FaceTime interaction and access to resources for different people. That's one of the big challenges that we've got.”


As the pandemic is somehow easing, Mark issued a final warning, “It looks really bright and sunny, but don't forget to stop and try to understand how this whole process has affected you and your people. We're hearing more and more conversations around burnout. Don't get lulled into the false trap of good, we can put this behind us, but we need time to make sense of what has happened to deal with it and understand there's a lot more to talk about.”

The right industries for remote/hybrid work

To answer an audience question about the right industries for remote work, Mark said, “You need to break it down to the level of the task and think about what people are actually doing. Common sense is the guide as long as you remember to stop and go through that process”. He went on to elaborate that when you are designing organizations, you have to ask yourself: where are the breakdowns and failure points? Your organization has to somewhat map onto the process. If the pieces of the process are run independently, you can run those as independent units. If the pieces are interdependent, you will adjust the work accordingly, so that they do not go out of sync.

The answers to our problems are in the history of our organizations

Moving on to the second question, Marilyn said, ”You gave us the example of LinkedIn getting a bit creative on how they divide jobs. Are there any other examples, historical or not, where we can observe interesting decision-making around forms of flexibility?”

“The problem is what makes something interesting is usually because it's idiosyncratic, hard to replicate and doesn't apply as well. Think instead about shift work. It is the same thing as working across time zones. It's just that the people are in different time zones in the same place. We actually have many of the answers to these tasks, problems and challenges in our organizations and in the history of our organizations. We just haven't been used to thinking of it that way,” he answered.

On psychological safety in distributed teams

Moving to another question, “How do you build an environment of psychological safety in teams that are distributed and organized in complex ways?”

Mark responded, “I'll cheat in the sense of encouraging you to take a look at the article I wrote with Amy Edmondson on psychological safety in hybrid environments. [...]Psychological safety has to be an open conversation, it has to be a discussion. Here's a chicken and egg problem. You need psychological safety to talk about having psychological safety. What you need is for the people who are psychologically safe, based on their position or their character to step out there and say, I am going to show real vulnerability. It's one of the things that we counsel leaders on all the time. Real vulnerability is the critical first step towards getting the people who don't feel as safe to open up. You need to be quick when you see an infraction because trust and psychological safety take a long time to build, and seconds to break.”

On the importance of vulnerability

To elaborate more on this topic, Marilyn asked, “What kind of experience do you have that you can share with us around this concept of vulnerability? There are some cultures where being vulnerable is complete self destruction, I come from one of them. How do you see this variation across cultures and how can you help navigate that? That's my first half of the question. The second half is, as you said, sometimes, we’re all going to break trust, safety and protocols without even realizing it. Could you talk me through how you return from a point where you've broken trust?”

“There is a massive range throughout the world in how quickly people feel able to trust and have psychological safety,” said Mark. “Though, that doesn't mean that they can't be vulnerable. That just means it doesn't come naturally. I have had conversations about real vulnerability within cultures where that is not okay. But it takes some time. Part of it is also about getting people to say that me admitting that I don't know the answer is actually not a sign of vulnerability, that's a sign of strength and confidence.

Moving to your second question, you don't unbreak trust, you rebuild it. The most important thing is to be open and to address it. You need to say, let's be honest, here's what you said and here's why. And do not forget the why piece, because you want to make sure that people don't internalize it in the wrong way as well. We're seeing people hype about ‘cancel’ culture, you can't say anything because people get worried. No, what you need to say is here's what you said and here's the reason this was a problem for me. And the person who has the problem also has to be psychologically safe. Give the person the benefit of the doubt. Maybe you didn't mean to, maybe you're not a horrible person. Psychological safety is a collectively owned thing. We need to build and maintain it. As a leader, there's some stuff that you can do extra special, mainly because you’re a leader. But as a group, you need to work together to create it and to ensure that it survives. There will inevitably be drops so we need to make sure that we cover that,” he explained.

On loneliness and isolation caused by job design

After pointing out that the data around the impact of loneliness not just on physical and mental health, but also on societies, communities and economies is huge, Marilyn asked Mark to elaborate more on this topic.

He explained, “Loneliness has been in the news everywhere. The one thing I want to show is that the challenge when it comes to loneliness, is not just that I'm working from home and I don't get to see my office and my office mates. A big piece of this puzzle is pre COVID-19 as we have been putting people on teams and in projects where they are constantly moving in and out. Plus there's this idea of what we call commoditization, which is “I don't actually need Marilyn, I need someone who can do what she does for two hours this week”. If it's Marilyn, great, if it's not, I don't care. That's a tough thing for many to swallow.

Coming back to the question. We now know where the loneliness is coming from, what do we do about it? The first step is to have a conversation with people and try to help them to understand what it is that's going on. Again, remember this whole point about it's not the thing, it's the experience of the thing. When we talk about isolation, we talk about loneliness. One of the things that we found was an effective tool is the idea of a home team. As we work on four or five different teams, we often are in a situation where we don't feel grounded somewhere and so, you have to make sure people have a home.”

On dealing with the uncertainty of change

After commenting that “Humans haven't evolved as fast as this pandemic has,” Marilyn said, “One of the audience members asked, are we just going to go back? Is this just working now because we're all afraid of the virus and we're staying put? Someone else is asking, is there really an end to the continuous adaptation and transformation? What are your thoughts around our ability to cope with change and how we can support people in building that muscle?”

“The answer to all the questions is yes, which gives you a sense of how messy this whole situation is,” Mark said. To clarify, he explained, “Are we going to go back? Whenever I teach about change, I always remind people that it's like a pendulum, it swings back and forth. What happens when you swing a pendulum? It hits the stuff that's underneath it, right? That's the heads of the employees. This is why change hurts.

So, are we going to go back to where things were before the pandemic? Absolutely not. I would encourage people to stop thinking in terms of the black and white, are we going to go back or are we not.

For how we help people deal with change, we have to recognize that it’s difficult. Change triggers uncertainty which is one of our most uncomfortable emotional states. That's what has made COVID-19 so difficult. One of the things you can do is you can help people find some stability. That doesn't mean you don't change things, but that means you're conscious and cognizant of what doesn't and you remind them of that. I often use a boating sailing analogy. We often think an anchor holds us in place. But you can also use a dragging anchor to move. An anchor just means you have something that's solid. When you're in a storm, it's reassuring to know there is an anchor, either a physical thing or even a point on the horizon or a lighthouse that anchors you spatially. It matters a lot.”

Rapid fire questions

At the end of every session, a series of rapid fire questions was asked to all our conference speakers:

Q: What's the skill that every leader needs to have today that maybe wasn't as important before?

A: Perspective taking or your ability to put yourself in the shoes of the other. It has always been important. It is extra important now when you lack as much information about what the other person is doing.

Q: What is the one book that every leader needs to read? A: Fearless organization by Amy Edmondson.

Q: What is your perfect song to work on?

A: My range goes from listening to the Record Company, which is kind of Bluesy Rock to Lamento Dylan Infa which is Choral. I like variety so my playlist is a mix. I'll give you Rita Mae by Record Company and Carmina Burana by Carl Orff.

Q: What is the perfect team size?

A: This is the most common question I receive having taught about teams for the last 20 years. I'll give you the most obnoxious answer which is, it depends. You need it to be as big as it needs to have the skills required to do the task, to have some amount of diversity, cognitive and intellectual diversity and then no bigger. Resist the urge for team creep because as teams get bigger, you get more social loafing, less interaction overall, less diverse communication and you get an exponential growth in coordination complexity. The most common answer people give is seven.

Q: The future of teams is?

A: Uncertain


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