Ep. 215: Mark A Herschberg - Working out the kinks in your hybrid work plan

January 23, 2023 | 23 Minutes

Mark Herschberg returns to help us think through the benefits and pain-points of hybrid work. Mark is the author of The Career Toolkit: Essential Skills for Success That No One Taught You and creator of the Brain Bump app. He has spent his career launching and developing new ventures at startups and Fortune 500s and in academia, with over a dozen patents to his name. He helped to start the Undergraduate Practice Opportunities Program, dubbed MIT’s “career success accelerator,” where he teaches annually.


Full Episode Transcript:

  < Intro >
Adam:            Welcome back to Count Me In. IMA's podcast for finance and accounting professionals working in business. I'm Adam Larson, and today I'm excited to bring you part two of my conversation with Mark Herschberg. In which he provides a helpful framework for thinking about hybrid work plans and how you should approach finding most productive balance for individuals, managers, and teams within your organization. 
In the interest of time, I'm not going to list all of Mark's credentials, again. Just high-level for those who missed the first episode. Mark teaches at MIT, he's a serial entrepreneur and business innovator, and he's the author of The Career Toolkit: Essential Skills For Success That No One Taught You, which I highly recommend you check out, just follow the link in the show notes. 
Okay, that's enough introduction. Let's get right into another highly insightful conversation with Mark Herschberg.
< Music >
So, Mark, I want to welcome you back to the Count Me In podcast. We had a great time talking about The Great Resignation last time. And today we're going to be talking about hybrid and hybrid work and what that means for organizations. And, so, to start off, I know that during Covid everybody went remote because you couldn't unless you were certain types of organizations that had to still work in person. 
But many organizations went remote completely. And now as we're on the third year of Covid, and people are coming back to work, everybody's moved to hybrid. So what it really boils down to is what can we do to be more effective in this hybrid model, going forward?
Mark:             That's a great question, and there are a number of ways we can look at this. But to start, here's four things to think about as you begin to return to the office. 
First, let's formalize the rules. Often we have a certain way of working, and in our last episode, we talked about corporate culture. Usually, it's not written down, we just know this is how things get done on our team, in our department. But we want to be more explicit about how we do that, and this is for two reasons. 
First, it's a little different, this is a disruption. Now, we had a disruption in 2020 when we said, one day, "Stop coming to the office." And that was very disruptive. We know what's coming, we can be a little more intentional and planned this time. But also we have new people coming on board, who aren't going to be around us as much to learn by seeing. To get that osmosis, that just feel for it by being there.
So we want to be more explicit with the rules. I don't mean employee handbook; I mean how we do things. When should you call a meeting, versus this could have been email, versus this could have been a Slack message. 
When you create these rules get input, you, the manager, you have enough to do. Don't think, "Here's one more thing I have to do." Get input from the whole team. In fact, you can even potentially pass this off to others to take the first pass. 
Now, you as the manager will get the final say, the ultimate decision. But others are probably really excited to say, "Oh, I get to be a larger voice in this. You're asking me to take the lead on this, this is fantastic." They see it as opportunity, whereas you see it as one more burden. But, again, you will have the final say.
But that's to say you should really, as a leader, incorporate the voices of the whole team. Don't be afraid to almost be a little formal, in terms of the welcome back. There was a trend back in the .com era, back when companies would shut down. It was very sad, these people you had worked with for a while, there was a shift, and they did something rather clever. They said, "We have some experts who understand how to make a shift, we call them clergy."
Clergy are very good at you're transitioning from being single to being married. You're transitioning from having this person in your life to now they aren't anymore, and we have ceremonies to mark that. You're doing a big transition when you say, "Welcome back to the office." 
You can just say, "Well, you're showing up Monday, deal with it." Or you can say, "Hey, we're coming back and we want to welcome you back. We want to recognize there is a formal change here." And that can be a ceremony and that can be a fun, good ceremony. It doesn't have to be solemn, it could be a party. It could be more than just a happy hour. 
Don't just say, "Well, we're going to do drinks, Monday, when you're back in the office." Make it symbolic. Make people understand and feel this change, just as we do with other life cycle events. So I think you should create a formal one. 
And, finally, don't be afraid to change what you're doing, this is new for most of us. Now I've run hybrid companies before. I've run virtual companies before, but everyone has been different, and, especially, as we do it at a global scale. 
As we do it, not just our company, but every company. Don't be afraid to say, "Maybe we need to change this up, how we do it." And that's okay, it's not a mistake, it doesn't make you look weak; it makes you look responsive to your employees.
Adam:            And it also sounds like you're saying that when we come together, it should be more than just doing our meetings. Like when we come together makes sure we're meeting face to face. It should be more than that. It should be more social activity, so that we're engaging and connecting outside of, "Hey, let's meet about this spreadsheet."
Mark:             Well, the ceremony I was referring to is when you first come back. Maybe in the first week or two you do something formal and that's probably more of a one-time event. But you've brought up a very good point. 
The initial thinking by many people is, "Okay, you're in the office two days a week, three days a week, you really need to be productive." 
We know employees, you're at social or chat, you surf the web sometimes. But, "Hey, when you're in the office, come on, this is work time." And in fact that can be counterproductive. And part of it is because we do a few different things when we are working. 
One is the mechanical part and that's the producing the reports, the writing the software, making the sales. We'll continue to do that from home or at work. Some of that we do individually, some we have to do in teams. Yes, keep doing that in the office and at home. 
But then there are the aspects of the job that relate to relationship building. It's a time we spend building those bonds. And this comes partially from being in that meeting together for three hours, trying to come up with our new slogan. But it also comes from the water cooler conversation. 
It comes from, "Let me show you pictures of my kids." It comes from these non-work activities; going out to get coffee together and then taking extra walk around the block on the way back, that's important. That builds the bonds, that helps create those internal networks that are so important to individual and company success. And that's the part that's not as easy to do online. 
Certainly we can build relationships with people online. I've had relationships with people I've never met, but it moves faster and gets stronger when you do spend time in person. So when we're together in the office, don't just focus on you have to do work only, do some of these social activities as well. 
And, again, I don't mean happy hours, sure, do some of those, do some of the fun stuff, but let that informal bonding happen as well. It might not look productive in the short term, but it is increasing long-term productivity.
Adam:            Do you think that everybody should come into the office at the same time? Or should there be like a very, depending on projects or people. Because I know that it can be very effective, like certain people, "Yes, I'll come in the office three days a week, great."
Other people are like, "No, I only want one or two days."
Mark:             Well, let's think about the different things that you get in and out of the office. There are some people who say, "Oh, I love working from home. I don't have the distractions of the office; I can finally get work done."
There are people who say, "I love being in the office, my home is so chaotic. I've got a bunch of young kids running around and, yes, there's a nanny, but they're always coming and bothering me. I love being in the office I can get work done."
So there's not going to be a one-size-fits-all from the start. But, now, let's look at what people get when they're in the office. And here, again, it can even vary by individual. If you are 23-years-old, recently out of school, part of what you get is building relationships early on, is learning by watching others. And it's that mentoring that happens so much more easily and naturally or organically in the office, doesn't happen at home. 
If you're 52 you're less worried about that and you just say, "Well, I just have to get my work done." And, so, they might have different motivations for how much time is in the office. For the project itself; the nature of the project comes down to individual work, teamwork, and communicating the work, those are the three slices. Individual work, obviously, can be done home, or at work, or anywhere you're productive. 
The teamwork, this is going to depend if you're trying to do something very creative, it usually works better in person. And this is because of some psychological issues. Psychological might not be the right term, but issues with Zoom. 
We know there's Zoom fatigue, and there are studies showing it has to do with the brain. It's more taxing on our brains. It's more natural when we're in the room together, things flow faster, we're less-reserved. And, so, certain types of meetings happen better there. 
If it's just a weekly project update meeting, where everyone goes around the table and takes two minutes to give an update, that can probably be done just as easily from home. So if it's that information communication piece, maybe that can be done by email or by a Zoom meeting. 
So we have to recognize the different types of work that we do, that will even vary over time. If you have a team that has worked together for years and just does the same thing every month, you're just doing the books for a certain project, and each month you're closing the books, you're tallying the receipts, you probably don't need to spend a lot of time together. It's mechanical, repeatable work without a law of variation. 
On the other hand, if this is some new type of project, no one's done it before. You have a team that hasn't really worked with each other before. You don't have that high trust, I'm not saying mistrust, you just don't have trust. Being together more often might be helpful to build that trust, to really talk through these issues and ideas. 
Then as you move into the implementation phase, you can think, "Now, we don't have to be in the office as much, but when you're coming to the project completion and there's always a whole bunch of tasks no one thought about, and you're under a deadline, maybe spending more time in the office together is helpful. So even for a given team, it can vary over time. So you just want to think about all these different factors, for how much time is right for your particular team.
Adam:            Yes, it sounds like flexibility team by team is very essential, as opposed to a company-wide policy.
Mark:             Now, there's a secondary factor, of course, which is, "Well, I do things, primarily, with this team and we're going to be four days for now and then we'll be two days later. But then I work sometimes with this other team and when did they need me in the office?" When you're dealing with matrix organizations and cross-functional, it's a lot more complex. 
Then there's also the reality of you can say, "Well, it's four days for these months, and that's two days for those months, and we're back to four days." And people like regularity. People like to know, "I need the nanny this many days a week or I need the afterschool program this many days a week."
So that could be, if you're changing around a lot, that could be a little much for people. So you want to temper it somewhat and maybe you just have, for example, a policy, "Hey, whenever we start a new project, which is about once a year, we know that month we're going to do an extra day per week for, roughly, the first month." But you don't want to change too much too often.
Adam:            Yes, for sure, definitely, so thinking about just employees versus managers. I can imagine that there would be a difference in how they look at hybrid work. Because if you're a manager, you're so used to monitoring what your people are doing and it's harder when you're hybrid. It's harder when people are working from home to monitor those things. And when they're in the office you can keep your eyes on things. What is the difference there and how should they be looking at that?
Mark:             This is a really important dichotomy, that I've been finding in interviews with employees and managers. Because employees, and really it's the individual contributors, they say, "Well, I have to do this. I have to produce something, and I generally do that by myself, for five questions, I can jump on the phone or send an email. I don't need a lot of time to collaborate with others."
And, so, they push for more remote work. "Why should I even commute if I'm just going to sit there and work by myself, anyway?" And that's a very reasonable approach for them to take. The nature of being a manager means you need to see what people are doing. Now, part of that could be, "Give me your weekly update." And, sure, again, we can do that by phone, or email, or Zoom. But some of management, it's understanding your people. How they operate? What's working, what's not?
How they work with others?
You need to figure out, "Is this employee seeming disengaged lately?"
"If this employee is struggling, why is that employee struggling?"
If you have an employee who's very supportive helping other team members, you want to encourage that. These are things you see when you're in the office. 
When I walk out of my office, I'm on the floor, I can see who's talking to whom, who's helping others out. I just naturally see it in a matter of seconds. You don't see that when we're remote. I don't see the Slack messages between two people, on a private channel. I don't see the calls and one-on-one Zooms they have. 
And, so, as a manager it's a lot harder for me to see the work, as opposed to the output. I can see the end results, I can see the reports, but I can't see how it gets done. And that really matters for how I mentor, and manage, and promote people. 
And, so, individual contributors don't always understand managers have to do some of that and it's not as easy from home. And, so, it's important for both sides to recognize what the other is thinking and be responsive to that, be empathetic to it.
Adam:            So it sounds like communication is essential. With this whole thing we've been talking about, communication is the key part that keeps everybody together. 
So how should leadership, of organizations, be looking at communication, as they continue this hybrid model for the foreseen future? I don't see anybody going back to the office five days a week, anytime soon.
Mark:             This is a challenge that we've seen as soon as we went remote, and we'll continue in the hybrid workplace. Let's just take a simple example, if I need to stand in front of my team and say, "Listen, everyone, I've got some bad news, we're going to be laying off 10% of the team. But, listen, it's not all darkness, there is opportunity and if we can pull together and work hard this quarter, here's what happens."
I have to do a speech and it's an emotional speech. I'm giving bad news, I'm giving good news, I have to rally the troops. I have to make sure they don't go off the rails. When I do this in person, when I'm standing in front of a room of 50 people, I can read the room. I can tell, "Are people upset?" 
I can tell, "Are people excited about the future?" I can look in their faces, I can read the body language, and I can get a sense of, "How are they responding to it? Are they understanding what I'm saying and are they reacting the way I would hope they're reacting?" And if not, I can address it in real-time. 
When we're looking at that Brady Bunch screen, even assuming their cameras are turned on, you can't tell. You can't get that type of instant feedback. And, so, what it's meant is that how we communicate and how we lead has to be different. 
Yes, I still have to give this message, I'm going to give it to all 50 people at once, but I have to follow up. I have to in one-on-ones with people or in small groups. I need to repeat the message, perhaps, partially because half the people were probably multitasking and looking at a different window and I didn't know. 
Partially because they might not have resonated with the message the way I had hoped, and I couldn't tell, and I need to double check and then engage. And, so, that takes a lot more time for me, as a leader, to do so.
And then I want to get their response to it. And then we have challenges such as even if I do that in person, I do that on Wednesday, well, at least we're all in the same room, I can get the real-time feedback. Okay, what happens Thursday when everyone's home?
I could see the next day when they show up, "Yes, they were sad about those resignations yesterday but are they showing up smiling? Are they showing up unhappy?" I can't tell because I don't see them for another few days. 
So we're getting effectively less signals when we're hybrid. And it's important to understand this and adjust our leadership and communication, to over-communicate and to look for other ways we can replicate those signals. But that takes a lot more time and effort.
Adam:            It does take a lot more time and effort. And how can you take this more time and effort, and mentor your employees and also do your daily job. Because you're managing your people, but then you also have things that you have to do as well.
Mark:             That is the $64,000 question. And when you look at the history of how we've operated, we had very hierarchical structures throughout the early 20th century. We followed the military model and you had managers, upon managers, upon managers. What we saw in starting the '70s and '80s was a flattening of the hierarchy, a gutting of mill management. 
And that continued into the '90s and 2000s because we could automate. Because now we had all these great tools and, "Oh, I've got automated reports and it helps us all do our jobs faster." We got away with a flatter structure, unfortunately, I think we're going to see a shift. Maybe it's not unfortunate, it depends how you look at. 
But I think we're going to see a shift that we are putting more responsibilities on managers in this hybrid workplace, and therefore we're going to need, effectively, more managers. The number of people being managed per manager just has to be reduced. We need more managers per employees, and that's going to be a shift we'll see over the next decade or so.
Adam:            What do you think the long-term effects of this hybrid workplace are going to be on people? Especially, as we look at things like promotions and looking at strategies or even DE&I. I feel like there's going to be this long-term effect that we can't see yet.
Mark:             That's a tough one, and we talked, in our prior episode, about some, for example, the DE&I challenges that if you set a fixed number of days, that's important because if you did a variable number of days. The people staying home more, the ones with more home responsibility, tend to be women and underrepresented people. So they're going to be in the office less and probably get promoted less. 
On the other hand, if you fix it, the ones who need to be home more are probably going to leave for companies, where it's a lower number than yours. And you're going to have, again, a problem with your pipeline. 
And, so, it's unclear which way this is going to move. I think we're going to see, as companies do, five days, four days, three days, two days, people will vote with their feet. Not just DEI people, but people in general, employees in general, are going to say, "We really prefer this versus that."
For all we know, when we see teams doing, for example, Tuesday to Thursday seems to be the popular timing in the office, why? Because people want long weekends. Are we going to discover there's not a lot of productivity on Friday afternoons and Monday mornings? Maybe that's a problem. 
Maybe we'll even find everyone says, "Yes, but Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday traffic is bad. You know what? Let's do Friday, Monday, Tuesday. Because that way I don't have to worry about traffic because no one else is driving two out of those three days.” I think we're just going to see effects, and secondary effects, and tertiary effects as we're trying to adjust. 
In physics, we think about this as a three-body problem. One body impacts another, impacts another, and it's very hard to calculate. And I think that's what we're going to see in the employment market for a while to come.
And I'll say even on top of all this, there's one other issue, what I've said going back a year now, we don't know what the market will look like. People asked, "How long will hybrid work last? Is this here to stay?" Probably yes. 
As we record this in the summer of 2022, we're on the precipice of possibly a recession. If it's a shallow recession or no recession, this will stay. And once this becomes the norm for somewhere around two to four years, it's likely to stay the norm. 
There is a chance if we go into a deep recession, and with all the geopolitical events, with war, with energy, with supply chains, with return of Covid. If this comes back and we go into a deep recession, companies may say, "Five days a week, take it or leave it."
Employees say, "Thank you, Sir, may I have another?" Because the labor market has just collapsed and that could undo what we've seen. I think that's less likely, it would take a prolonged recession in the next few years for that to happen. But that still is a possibility.
< Outro >
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