Recent Gartner research found that 71% of HR leaders are more concerned about employee collaboration this year than they were before the COVID-19 pandemic. How valid are these concerns, and what needs to be done to protect and drive collaboration and innovation in today’s remote and hybrid working environments?

It’s true that when employees aren’t physically collocated, their interactions are more scheduled than spontaneous — and interactions commonly occur through screens.

Employees don’t experience the happenstance, serendipitous interactions that might occur in an office. Even a simple social conversation with a co-worker can take effort.

“To unleash innovation in this context, leaders must empower employees to collaborate more intentionally,” says Alexia Cambon, Director, Research, Gartner. “Our research shows that teams of knowledge workers who collaborate intentionally are nearly three times more likely to achieve high team innovation than teams that do not use an intentional approach.”

Chart collaboration not just by location, but also by time spent

In reality, employees have more options for when, where and how to collaborate in hybrid work environments, but organizations and their leaders have to intentionally create those opportunities.

Gartner has identified four work modes that teams should intentionally leverage as they move into the hybrid environment.

Most organisations are thinking about hybrid work only in terms of location (whether teams are located or distributed), but Gartner research shows that organisations must also think about it in terms of time-spend (whether teams are working asynchronously or synchronously).

This approach yields four work modes that organisations must invest equally in if they are to succeed in the hybrid environment:

  • Working together, together: when teams are collocated, contributing to meetings in a shared space.
  • Working together, apart: when teams are distributed, but participating in virtual meetings.
  • Working alone, together: when teams are in shared spaces, but not working at the same time.
  • Working alone, apart: when teams are distributed, and individuals are conducting deep focus work.

Democratise access to all four work modes, not just collocated ones

At organisations that adopt a hybrid model, many employees flow between multiple work sites, including their homes, the office and third spaces (e.g., a library, coffee shop or co-working space).

Some employees may not have access to productive workspaces, which restricts their options. Others may work better from home. Overall, the workforce will benefit from the more inclusive options offered by hybrid work.

Limits on flexibility pose a real problem; Gartner research shows that two-thirds of employees report their expectations for working flexibly have increased since last year.

Mitigating this issue means empowering employees to have equitable access to all work modes, especially given Gartner research that shows that different talent segments — whether it be personality types, generation or seniority — thrive differently in each mode. For many organizations, this will require a more intentional redesign of collaboration around the four work modes.

For instance, HR and business leaders should together invest in improving the personalised worksites of employees who will continue to work from home at least some of the time (e.g., with ergonomic chairs, caregiver support or fitness memberships).

For those who can’t easily access the office but enjoy working alongside peers, employers can subsidise memberships to co-working spaces. Organisations must also offer guidance on the use cases and advantages of each work mode so that employees know when and how to use each most effectively.

Rebalance synchronous and asynchronous work

Gartner research shows that the majority of HR leaders believe that synchronous modes — such as meetings and presentations — are the most important means of driving innovation. This is why many organisations have invested heavily in improving their virtual meeting technologies over the course of the pandemic.

Gartner data shows, however, that asynchronous work modes are just as important to achieving team innovation as synchronous modes.

Over the past year, in the primarily remote work environment, employees have relied on video calls to collaborate, often resulting in back-to-back meetings and fatigue and putting them at risk for burnout. In fact, HR leaders recognise this threat — with three out of four agreeing that an increase in the number of virtual touchpoints employees face in their work puts them at risk for burnout.

This overreliance on synchronous modes has resulted in adverse impacts on employee health. And few organisations are investing in asynchronous modes, with only 17% implementing no-meeting days and only 11% providing dedicated mental health days.

“Our insistence on making synchronous work the default is inherited from a prior era where asynchronous tools were not built for speed and efficiency,” says Cambon. “We must reset how we leverage all the work modes available to us.”

This reset involves three critical steps:

  1. Limit synchronous work to its most necessary function. Encourage teams to set core collaboration blocks, limited to a small number of hours.
  2. Ensure that leaders are role modelling flexibility. Be explicit about the benefits of collaborating more intentionally in ways that incorporate both work and life needs.
  3. Let employees design their work week around when work happens best for them, not just from 9–5 or via linear scheduling.

Hybrid teams show greater agility, psychological safety and equity than on-site teams

Organisations must set up teams for success in the new hybrid environment. Data from the Gartner 2021 Hybrid Work Employee Survey shows that for the knowledge worker population:

  • Hybrid teams show greater agility:70% of hybrid employees agreed they adapt the structure of their meetings based on the intended outcome versus only 49% of on-site employees.
  • Hybrid teams show greater psychological safety:66% of hybrid employees reported feeling comfortable taking risks in their role compared to 47% of their on-site counterparts.
  • Hybrid teams show greater intentionality:67% of hybrid employees agreed their team is skilled at working asynchronously compared with 56% of on-site employees.
  • Hybrid teams show greater equity:69% of hybrid employees reported that their teammates accommodate their working preferences compared to 54% of on-site employees.

Team collaboration in the hybrid environment will require careful navigating, and organizations stand to gain greater levels of innovation if they do so intentionally.

“Intentional collaboration is a journey, not a destination, and all levels of the business must take an active role in setting the organisation on a course for success,” says Cambon.