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  • Writer's pictureCarolina MIlanesi

Hybrid Work Must Be Nuanced Says IBM Research

"We believe that people's perception about their own productivity and their behaviors around factors that influence them performing tasks at work could provide us with valuable inputs to design a more nuanced hybrid work," told me Jacquelyn Martino, Distinguished Engineer and Master Inventor at IBM.

This week as part of the IBM Think conference, authors Adam Grant and Malcolm Gladwell hosted an animated session titled "Cubicle versus couch: Is the future of work hybrid?" Over 15 minutes, the pair attempted to argue for and against hybrid work, mainly managing to prove that there is no easy answer to the question because there is no one size fits all solution. The type of work and role within an organization, the kind of personality of the individual, the willingness to experiment with new tools and not just fall back to how things have been done and the company culture all play a role in determining what the best answer is.

Martino's theory was not searching for validation, but the two authors seem to agree that defining hybrid work might require some behavioral and sentiment analysis. This is especially true if we want to focus on sustainable engaging models of hybrid work: "For IBM considering the future geographic distribution and the headcount numbers, it would be a little presumptuous to come up with one model," said Martino.

During the sheltering in place, IBM polled its employees on how they were feeling and found that people were, of course, scared, but at the same time, joyful. They were feeling productive but also feeling uneasy. There was an interesting gap between how people felt personally and how they felt their team was performing. Some felt engaged at a personal level but less so at their team level. The researchers found this somewhat unexpected; something was just not adding up. Understanding the difference in perception could yield new insights.

The research team started to explore whether the way people thought about productivity influenced how they thought about engagement. To say it differently, did the fact that someone was busy made them feel productive and engaged? Yet when they looked at the team performance and output, they thought there was a lack of engagement? If this theory is correct, it means that to explore workflows, the team needed to look both at productivity in terms of steps taken to perform a job and sentiment analysis about that job and its workflows.

However, measuring output is easier said than done right now because we lack the ability to see across tools. Let's take engagement as an example. There are so many ways to demonstrate engagement. Some are obvious, like being in a virtual meeting where I do not say a single word, but I am heavily involved in a chat within the meeting tool. But others are not so easy. What happens when I am in a meeting and I am messaging someone through a separate app, so there is no actual trace of my engagement other than between the colleague I was messaging and me? There is a need to sufficiently synchronize all these outputs to measure the impact.

The following phase of the IBM's exploration would entail looking at different cohorts, such as the role people have within the organizations.

Looking at people working remotely before the pandemic versus people who did not helps the team understand how hybrid work could offer different opportunities to different groups. Employees who were remote before the pandemic felt that it incredibly leveled the playing field and that there was a greater ability to be heard, leading to a greater ability to impact. During the pandemic, the team also observed that the widely varying conditions people worked in, whether it was the presence of kids, or pets, or just their household in general, also had an impact. Yet knowing things will be different when kids return to school and partners might be back to an office, there is a need to reevaluate such impact.

The interviews also showed that office-based employees often talk about missing the lack of interaction, what many refer to as the "watercooler moments." I challenged Martino by saying in my long work career. I can count on one hand the brilliant ideas that came from an exchange in the office kitchen. Her response really gets to the core of why those moments matter: "From your vantage point, nothing really happened there, but for the person who might have met with you, it might have been huge because they got to intersect. As a micro-moment that doesn't seem that important, but as a collection of exchanges, they can then lead to potentially a collection of knowledge. This is why I believe we must find a proxy for that ability to be spontaneous."

Right now, Martino argues we are creating moments like open meetings or happy hour for unstructured meeting time. We are doing what is obvious. It is not wrong. It is just the extent of our imagination and creativity at the moment. She makes a great analogy with filmmaking "At the beginning times of film, people would do their play out on the stage and put the camera in front of it because it was the obvious thing to do. It wasn't terrible, but it did not take advantage of having the ability to create this sort of willing suspension of disbelief that happens when you do a closeup or cut across the axis. So we are filming theater right now, and I don't know what the equivalent of the closeup is going to be. I don't know what the equivalent of cutting across an axis for tension will be, but I know that history tells us those opportunities are there, so I don't have an answer yet. I have hope."



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