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

In this year's inaugural keynote of the Future of Teams Conference, our second annual edition of the Cosmic Conference, Professor Mark Mortensen and Cosmic Centaurs CEO & Founder 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 dove 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.

To kickstart, Mark shared a few slides about the challenges of hybrid work. According to him, the landscape of collaboration is changing. “When I talk about the changing landscape, it's a broad framing and that's intentional because there's a lot going on and it’s all interconnected. Of course, we all know that people have been working remotely because thanks to COVID-19 we haven't had any choice”, said Mark.

According to Mark, the remote model isn’t new. Rather, the pandemic made it surge in popularity. “One of my old friends did research on Hudson Bay, a company that currently is a fur retail business group. Before that, in the fifteen and sixteen hundreds, it had trappers in the Northeast of Canada and the United States hunting furs. They were working as a distributed organization with each hunter working individually from their respective locations.”

He went further in his explanation and said that we are now morphing, “It's not just remote, it's also working hybrid”.

Mark continued speaking about different working models, “We now have to deal with the fact that we also move in and out of projects dynamically and fluidly. I'm not working on one project with you the whole time. We're moving in and out and adjusting over time.”

But he also made sure to point out that, “The types of things that help you understand and function well in an agile or in a holacratic environment are actually many of the same tools, tips and tricks that help you when you're working remote or hybrid. It's the same basic skill set.”

Diving deeper into the perplexity we live in now, Mark continued, “ We know the times are changing. Bob Dylan said it a long time ago and it was true and it still is. Now, it's different things that are changing.” He explained that we now have a wide range of opinions on how the workspace of collaboration is changing and the impact of this change. “For example, Reed Hastings, (CEO of Netflix) said there's really no positive. I [also] don't see any positives about people not getting together. It's really a pure negative when people are spread further apart. But, we have people on the other end that say we've done really well working remotely and data shows that it's been successful. There's a huge range in opinions and part of that is leaving people a little confused.”

According to Mark, “What we see is polarization. It's important that we separate truth, science, and fact from rhetoric and hype. On the one hand, there are those who believe the office is dead and think we will forever work in shorts and a t-shirt with no shoes on the beach. On the other end of the spectrum, there are those who believe that we will all return to the office. They would argue that we're forcing you back into the office or you're all missing the conversation, the collegiality, the informal interactions...” But Mark then put an end to this debate by commenting: “I think anybody listening to this is going to recognize that reality is somewhere in the middle. It has to be a hybrid”, he said.

“I think anybody listening to this is going to recognize that reality is somewhere in the middle. It has to be hybrid.”

His definition of hybrid is “Any environment in which we are constantly mixing between having somebody right here next to me and somebody who is in two dimensions or on a flat screen. The number of people, the composition, the balance, the amount of time, what the times are, all of that may be in flux. But” that's still not easy. The number one question I’m getting is why is the hybrid model so tricky?”

Hybrid work is: “Any environment in which we are constantly mixing between having somebody right here next to me and somebody who is in two dimensions or on a flat screen is a hybrid environment. The number of people, the composition, the balance, the amount of time, what the times are, all of that may be in flux.”

How to approach a hybrid working model?

To clarify the right approach, Mark pointed out three dimensions to consider while dealing with hybrid working models:

“In my conversations with a number of leaders, something became very clear. The reason this is difficult is because it's a three-way tension and three different conversations. This is where the challenge lies because in a lot of organizations, those trying to think about this are having three different conversations without realizing it. I want to tell you about what those conversations are.“

1. Effectiveness:

“The first one is a conversation around effectiveness. It's basically asking, can I deliver what I need to deliver to whoever my stakeholders are? Whether that is internal stakeholders in the organization or my clients. The important thing to keep in mind is this is a conversation about productivity, but effectiveness. We've seen lots of articles examining whether people are more or less effective when they're working from home. What's the answer? Is it four? Is it seven? We need a number. It is critically important, because if you're not delivering, there's no real reason to be in business”, he said.

2. Staffing

Moving to the second dimension, Mark explained, “The second conversation is about staffing, the one that's being hyped a lot in the news. You see these studies that argue three out of four employees will quit their job if they're not offered flexible work.” Mark advised everyone to take those with a grain of salt. He continued, “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 quit as is reported, but we will see some and there's no question.”

Mark added, “I used to travel at least three times a month. I went through about a year of not traveling and it turns out my family likes me and I actually like being home. 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.

As you can see, we've got two conversations optimizing on two different dimensions: Effectiveness and Staffing. 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.”

3. Social Fabric

Last but not least, he explained the third tension to consider: the social fabric of the organization. “When you're in an environment that is virtual and remote and hybrid, it's not clear how we deal with challenges and issues like isolation and loneliness, feelings of connectivity that are being dissolved…” he said. “The most common question I got amidst all the pandemic was how do I socialize a new employee?” In this context, Mark is not referring to socializing as one would with friends, but rather, about bringing someone onboard and integrating them into the organization. “They tell me I don't know how to do that if they're not actually here. I can't walk the 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”, he clarified.

How to implement this 3-dimensional framework

According to Mark, these 3 dimensions are interrelated. He explained, “ I do it as a Venn diagram not by accident. 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. Think about your organization, 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.”

Diving deeper into the three dimensions

Starting with effectiveness, Mark mentioned the questions he typically gets asked when thinking through this dimension, “Does work from home kill innovation? What are the kinds of employees that can produce remotely? Can you give me a questionnaire that I can share to find out what is a remote able employee? Or they ask about jobs: What are the jobs that can be done remotely or not? What's the optimal ratio of home and office? How long can you sustain effective remote work?”

“A lot of people have survived working remotely, but then after a while this whole process starts to wear on them. It starts to get difficult and tricky. Recognize, working from home introduces new challenges.”

I've heard lots of people say we kind of nailed the virtual transition”, Mark continued. “But it comes with risks. We have lots of data that show people are working longer hours. There’s a great HBR piece by Sarah Green Carmichael that looks at the data and shows working longer hours overtime is not effective. Recognize that just because you've survived well through COVID-19, does not mean you have a sustainable model for delivering value going forward.

That brings us back to our questions. How do we think about it? You have to think contextually, about how different people and tasks are. There's not a one size fits all kind of solution.”

“You have to think contextually. There's not a one size fits all kind of solution.”

To give context, 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 has to be on site? 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 remotely, 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.”

“We need to think about maybe not only who gets to work, but even rethinking job design.”

Coming back to the staffing discussion, he clarified, “The argument here is saying that the talent market wants to work from home. But, remember the experience is not the same for everyone. Stress is not felt evenly by all people; being a parent or having older parents that you're taking care of for example affects the way in which you're able to cope with remote virtual work. So when you think about how you deal with something like work from home, think about the experience of work from home versus the experience of the office and not work from home versus the office.”

“It's not about work from home versus office. It's about the experience of work from home versus the experience of the office.”

To simplify his idea, Mark said, “Let's think about what happened in Silicon Valley amidst the big boom. Everybody had to have the coolest office, this was the competing ground to hire talent. But here's the problem now. One of the things that I'm seeing a lot of companies wrestling with is people saying, I need to be able to work from home because I love working from home. Remind people about what they're losing when they're not in the office. The office is not just nice to have. The connection and conversations there are the oil that keeps the organizational machinery going. Don't just think about trying to fix the problem, think about owning the narrative around what work from home or working hybridly actually means.”

What remote workers are missing out without knowing

“I'll give you a story to round this out,” he said. “Let's think about commuting, the big win that I've heard from people. They would say ‘I saved so much time. Commuting was the bane of my existence and now that I'm working from home, I don't have to do this. Here's my pushback.’ Think for a second and ask yourself what you did in that hour. I'm sure some of you caught up on an email, read a book, maybe listened to some audio books or even just decompressed. Those were actually important things.”

He shared a second one, “A friend of mine who works at Total said, look, one of the things we realized that we were losing, that we hadn't even recognized, was normally after every meeting grabbing coffee together. If you don't like coffee, you can have whatever you want. The point is we all go together. We meet and we talk. The question is what did we do in that conversation. Two things that they hadn't realized were happening in those meetings. One, for example Marilyn and I can disagree. We can get into a fight. We can argue and we can really get into it. Sometimes what we would then need is to leave that meeting, go have a coffee and while we're sitting there say, well, here's why I was annoyed and we have that debrief, directly afterwards we both say, okay, now I get it. Collective construction also social facilitation, relationship repairs, collective sense-making, all these things were happening in those meetings. They realized that now that they were doing a bunch of meetings, remote and virtual, they didn't have that time. They actually built it back in with fabricated time to do this stuff.”

A crisis of trust

In his closing, Mark shared some thoughts with our audience to consider, “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 HBR. 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.

The third has to do with the loneliness and isolation within our workforce.” However, Mark stressed that it’s not a COVID effect, but a result of the way in which we are designing our teams and work.

Moving to the last one around power dynamics in hybrid environments, Mark explained that “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 face time interaction and access to resources for different people. That's one of the big challenges that we've got.”

“The loneliness and isolation within our workforce is not a COVID effect. It’s in the way in which we are designing our teams and work.”

And finally, he said, “I have one last thing for you to think about. I've been hearing a lot of people looking forward to getting back to normal. I want to issue a 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.”

“Don't forget to stop and think about and try to understand how this whole process has affected you and your people. This is something I'm seeing a lot. 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.”

Who gets to work hybrid?

After thanking Mark for his insightful keynote, Marilyn moved to asking him questions from the crowd. Taking the first audience question, she asked, “What industries are the right ones for remote work?” Before handing the answer over to him, Marilyn shared the way Cosmic Centaurs helps organizations think through this question, “One is what you brought up around dependency on machinery, we ask do you have a dependency on objects? In fact, in the history of the office, manufacturing is one of the reasons why people started coming together. The other is we talk them through analyzing roles and figuring out if there is task complexity and interdependence. Then, we figure out how much time people have to spend together.” She then moved the question back to Mark but added, “What are some frameworks or questions that can constitute the beginning of an assessment of what makes sense for each organization?”

Mark replied, “You hit the two main ones that I would certainly start with, I'll add one more. One is a requirement of any concrete artifact that isn't easily translatable. But there's a process component as well where certain tasks, as you mentioned, are interdependent. Choosing to work remotely is not about being in a manufacturing industry or not. You need to break down to the level of the task and think about what people are actually doing.” According to Mark, “Common sense is the guide as long as you remember to stop and go through that process.”

“I find that reassuring because these are all fundamentals of organizational design”, said Marilyn. “It's not like we had to invent them for the pandemic and it's also why I spend so much time on academic research because there is so much to be learned from the past. There are decisions that have been made before.”

Flexibility beyond the ‘workplace’

Moving 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 not only where people work from; that's only one form of flexibility, but also when they start or end work, what their contract looks like, how they contribute to an organization.”

“One of the challenges here is everybody always wants the cool story,” Mark said. “The problem is what makes something interesting is usually because it's idiosyncratic, hard to replicate and doesn't apply as well. What I would actually push you on is to think instead about shift work. Shift work is the same thing as working across time zones. It's just that the people are in different time zones in the same place. Think also about sales. For years and years, people in sales roles have been spending half their time on the road working with other clients. That in and of itself is just like working remote or working hybrid.”

“We actually have many of the answers to these challenges in our organizations and in the history of our organizations. We just haven't been used to thinking of it that way.” Mark answered.

“I couldn't agree more,” Marilyn said. “One executive we worked with said it very beautifully to me. He said we're a hundred year old company and we've done change before. It's not the first time we have to figure this out.”

“We actually have many of the answers to these tasks, these problems, these challenges in our organizations and in the history of our organizations. We just haven't been used to thinking of it that way.”

Psychological Safety

Taking a question from the audience, Marilyn asked, “How do you build an environment of psychological safety in teams that are distributed and organized in complex ways? How do you make sure that everyone feels safe, secure, and implicated?”

Mark responded, “I'll cheat and encourage you to take a look at the HBR article I wrote with Amy Edmondson on psychological safety in hybrid environments. A few different things that I think are important to keep in mind are, one, 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 those who are psychologically safe, based on their position or 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.”

Mark continued, “The one thing I want to flag is that you have a really important role as a leader and as a team member. If you see behavior that is psychologically unsafe, jump on it and do it in a psychologically safe way. Don't attack the people and say, you're not being psychologically safe and now you're a horrible person. 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 Vulnerability & Trust

To elaborate more on this topic, Marilyn asked, “What kind of information or 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 do you help to navigate that? The second half of my question 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 readily or how quickly people feel able to trust and have psychological safety”, said Mark. “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. 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. 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, much 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.

The downsides of hybrid work

To keep the conversation going, Marilyn asked another question from the audience, “One of our audience said that he hadn't thought about the downsides of the hybrid remote work model. You brought up things like burnout, longer work hours, no separation between work and personal life and loneliness. What else should we look out for? I'd love for you to talk about the loneliness aspect because I was listening to a podcast this week, the knowledge project around loneliness, and the data around the impact of loneliness not just on physical and mental health, but also on societies, communities and economies is huge.”

To answer that, Mark said, “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. They're transient and only spend a little amount of time together. 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 to swallow. The organization doesn't need them, but needs a unit of what they can do and that's something that we're wrestling with.”

Mark continues, “We now know where the loneliness is coming from, so 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. When we talk about isolation, we talk about loneliness. One effective tool we found 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.”

Where do we go from here?

Adding to Mark’s point, Marilyn also asks a few more questions from the audience, “Humans haven't evolved as fast as this pandemic has. There are so many things that remain unchanged. One attendee asks, 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 replied, “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. We always over-correct and we swing 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. Change isn't fun because every time the pendulum swings, it's the employees that are getting whacked from side to side and having to adjust.”

To answer the question, Mark continues, “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 not. Think about yourself and realize everybody is just like you. I guarantee you have found some things that are nice about this new environment that you're going to want to keep and some things about the office that you're going to want back. And I'll be fair. When I say I guarantee, there is a small fraction at the very tails of distribution who say, literally I never want to go back and they genuinely mean it. I think that hopefully addresses this question of, are we going to go back?”

“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. We're desperately looking to hold onto something that will feel more stable. 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 change 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 of a lighthouse that anchors you spatially. It matters a lot.”

“Change is like a pendulum. 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.”

To comment on what Mark said, Marilyn shared this thought, “ I think it's an opportunity for leaders and organizations to become human again and to reconnect with what that means. I think many of the efforts of organizations in the last couple of centuries or more have been about industrializing human effort and finding efficiency, which is where you started with your three-part framework. It isn't the problem anymore. We're not going to be able to revolutionize work with what Ford did, but we can do new things. I'm hopeful that the fact that we've all had to go through this moment together allows us to reconnect with our humanity and with what matters to us as human beings. Someone in the audience, Rama, always says we’re human beings, not human doings, and I think that's a really beautiful way of putting it.”

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.

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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