Just say hybrid because nobody knows

On a scale of "we're back in the office and high fiving" to "we set our lease paperwork on fire and are fully remote forever", where are you?

We've been asking this question for a while now. Mostly to tech companies. Mostly to the HR leaders who call to ask about spinning up some management training for their people leaders.

"We're going hybrid," they answer. Like it's 2007 and we're in California. And the gen II Prius just came out. And it qualifies for the HOV lane with a single driver. We're going hybrid.

The details vary. Sometimes hybrid means we already have a few folks stealthily back in the office. Typically execs. Or people with small children who begged for a quiet place to work. And every week a few more people trickle in.

Other times hybrid means we're remote and hiring people all over. But we expect to do in person gatherings a few times a year, when it's safe. Those gatherings haven't happened yet. There, hybrid is a placeholder for a hopeful future where work travel is possible.

But most of the time, hybrid means we have no fucking clue and we needed something to tell our staff. So we announced a hybrid approach at an all hands and said the People and Culture team would have more to share in a few months. And the next time the question comes up, we hope there will actually be more to share.

But damn if everything doesn't keep shifting. And every time it does, we add another month to the pile of months between us and the last time we were all together. 

Resetting the counter

We took the kids on a road trip last weekend. Three days, by car, into the woods and back out again. It was restorative in the way that slow time with nature always is. But it was important in a different way.

We love travel, we want our kids to know how to travel, and we hadn't done it in a long time. Too long. It was a chance to reset the counter. How long has it been since you last slept in another bed? Or visited a city different than the one where you live? 500 days. 550 days. And now, 5 days.

There's this old management line that goes, "show me your calendar and I'll tell you what your priorities are." It's true, but every time someone says it, it's hard not to hear it as scolding. And it's difficult to introspect when your shields are up. So we'll offer you another version: what is your list of things with the highest counters right now?
  • When was the last time your team got together without a set agenda?
  • When was the last time you laughed as a team? Not polite smiles. But actually laughed until your cheeks hurt.
  • How long has it been since you ate together? Had coffee together? 
  • When was the last cross-team post mortem, excavating the lessons from a plan that went awry? And when was the last time it felt good?
  • When was the whole company last in the same place?
  • When was the last time you were excited about work?
Some of these will have quick answers for you. "We do that every week." "We did that on Tuesday." Some of them will have much longer counters. Maybe so far back you can't remember, so you default to "550 days ago." "Probably pre-COVID."


We don't

If your answer to "When was the last time..." is 550 days ago, or longer, then the actual answer is "We don't." We don't do those things. When half of your team started in the past 18 months. And the thing hasn't happened in that time. Then they've never seen it. That isn't who your company is for them. Even if it's a story they've heard a dozen times from the old guard

For some things, that's okay. The pandemic has changed plenty. If it gave you permission to let go of habits or assumptions or policies that weren't serving you any more, great.

But then it's time to stop pretending that they'll come back "when things go back to normal." Say it out loud. We've learned a lot and changed some things in the last 18 months, and we're making those changes permanent. Whether the people on your team are new guard or old guard, that clarity is a gift.

For other things, though, you're going to decide it's not okay. You have counters going on some things that are 18 months out, and still counting, and it still sucks. Traditions you're not ready to let go of. Whose absence you still feel.

For those, now's a good time to figure out how to bring them back. And that means you need to reinvent them for where we are now. At this point, we're all experts at preservation. We can freeze things for a while and thaw them without too much damage. But 18 months in, those traditions you've frozen are starting to lose their flavour. And while you wait and hope that October, or Spring, or 2023 will somehow bring us back to 2019, they're getting stale. If you want to save your culture, you've gotta get cooking.


Staving off the freezer-burn

When we talk to leaders about the places their counters are highest, it's often met with a sigh. We'd like to. Your thing about coffee? Do you know how fucking much we'd love to invite everyone to the office kitchen and sit there until the beans run out? But it's not possible. Even if some of us can make it work, we'd be leaving a bunch of people behind who can't.

Okay. Okay. Our job here isn't to rub salt into all the COVID shaped wounds. Our job is to get creative. To push past the resigned sigh, back to the "we'd love to," and find a way to reset the counter.

If you work anywhere near designers, you already know the answer. It's their patellar reflex for hard problems. Not "no." Not "we'd like to but it's not possible." Designers, instead, reach for, "how might we?"

Can we get to a place where we start to reimagine the thing? Whatever the thing is that you miss, you can reinvent it without starting from zero. Pay attention to the ache of the thing that's missing. What was important about it? Why does its absence matter?

If you're having trouble getting started, there's a book that shoved us along that might be useful for you. And Priya, who wrote it, has even written a free guide for virtual gatherings as well. The worst answer is to stay stuck so long that "it's not possible" turns into "we don't do that anymore."

So go get to work on a better answer.
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Several more amazing things

Last newsletter, we shared that pre-orders had opened for our upcoming book, Unmanageable: Leadership Lessons from an Impossible Year. At the time, we mentioned that book tech is wonky so availability might be wonky.

Well, we're delighted to share that Unmanageable is now available for pre-order everywhere.
  • That hip indie bookstore down the street? They probably have it (or can get it). 📚
  • That big book store in the sky that drops brown paper packages all over? They definitely have it. And for a brief moment, early pre-orders put us on several of their BESTSELLER and HOT NEW RELEASES lists. 🤯
  • Your local library? Listen up! Libraries and books should go together like, um, like libraries and books. But it doesn't always work that way for very complicated reasons that boil down to money. If you want to see Unmanageable at your local library, ask and tell them there's ZERO library markup. 🎉
Also, also, also. The team at BetaKit did an early write up about the book launch and included the greatest headshots in the history of author bios. And yes, (minor spoil) these are the ones we used in the book, too. 
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