Learning what works for hybrid teams

Image: iStock Aleutie

Our GC Experimentation team is back in the office two days a week.

Seeing colleagues in person, remembering how to pack a lunch, and discovering which work clothes still fit have all been part of the return to office experience.

We know many of you are living these same changes and testing out new ways of working in a hybrid world. As we all try to figure out “how to hybrid”, we thought it would be a good moment to share some learnings from a recent small-scale experiment that we ran at TBS (Treasury Board Secretariat) in partnership with the Research and Experimentation team at OCHRO (Office of the Chief Human Resources Officer).

We are not experts in hybrid work and won’t pretend to have all (or any) of the answers. But what we do know is that testing, learning, and adapting — or what we would call the experimental mindset — can be a powerful tool to navigate uncertain environments. We hope that the results from our Distributed Work Trials might spark some ideas for your team as you shift into this new rhythm of work.

The challenge

As soon as you have one team member working in a different location — whether at home or a regional office — you are on a distributed team. Working in distributed teams can pose a range of new challenges. Three of the most common problems center on engagement, work-life balance, and focus time. It can be hard to feel engaged or connected to a team in a virtual environment. Sometimes the lines between work and life become blurred, with added pressure to always be “on” and responding to emails. And the tendency to multitask while attending back-to-back virtual or hybrid meetings can leave little time for deep thinking or heads down work.

What we tested

We decided to focus our trials on two promising practices: team charters and time blocking. Team charters are a list of principles and team norms that everyone agrees to follow. When it comes to distributed work, they usually cover things like when to be online, what communication platforms to use for different tasks, and how to deal with after-hour emails or urgent requests. By comparison, time blocking usually involves establishing meeting-free days or time blocks where all team members have uninterrupted time for deep focus work.

We tested both practices in the spring and summer of 2021. In total, 11 teams at TBS tested team charters (156 participants) and 9 teams tested time blocking (66 participants). The teams covered a wide range of functional communities including policy, human resources, finance, and technology. Teams were able to self-select and choose which practice they wanted to try out.

To get things going, we provided each team with a team charter kit or time blocking instructions, including workshop materials for a collaborative charter design session. Teams were then asked to test out their chosen practice for three to four months and report back through a before and after survey. In our experimental language, we would call this a “small e” experiment that uses a simple pre-post methodology.

What we found

Overall, the results were positive for both practices. Team charters resulted in a drop in stress related to work-life balance from 35% to 19%, a drop in working after hours from 44% to 29%, and an increase in the ability to follow a schedule from 49% to 57%. Similarly, time blocking helped increase the amount of focus time for 50% of participants and raised self-reported productivity for 57% of participants. While these are promising findings, the trials also pointed to some nuance and mixed results in certain teams, as well as critical success factors.

Team charter results

Our results suggest that team charters can be an effective tool to promote well-being. Participants reported the charter was an important team building exercise and that the collaborative process of developing the charter was as important as the document itself. By having an open discussion and documenting the team’s values and expectations, participants felt less pressure to check emails, voicemail and MS Teams chat after their regular work hours. One element that worked well was having an external facilitator run the team charter workshops, to help overcome team dynamics and ensure everyone could participate on an equal footing.

This being said, team charters did not solve everything or work for every team. Over a fifth of participants (22%) reported that the team charter helped to clarify work expectations only to a small extent. Several participants flagged that the document itself is not enough to change culture and can quickly be ignored when work pressures rise. Other participants felt their charter had not been in place long enough to feel its effects. Team charters also appear to be a weaker tool for workload and productivity. None of the participants reported a change in their workload, and nearly two-thirds (61%) reported the same productivity before and after the charter.

“The charter was a great way for the team to formally document how we worked and what was expected of each individual and of the team as a collective.”

“Developing a team charter was a fantastic team building exercise. Clarifying our preferences for working both on our own as well as together will make us a more efficient and productive team.”

“My concern is that the guidelines we set for ourselves will not be maintained. Directors and managers need an incentive to be accountable to respecting their teams operating needs.”

Time blocking results

Time blocking showed more mixed results. Some teams found meeting-free days or time blocks improved their focus time and productivity, while others did not. Overall, half of the participants (50%) reported having more focus time and less work interruptions during blocked time. As a result, they were able to better plan and protect their time to complete work tasks as intended. For over half of participants (57%), this led to an improvement in self-reported productivity over the testing period.

Other teams found that distractions were still ever present. Changing priorities or urgent requests meant some participants could not stick with the meeting-free time. A lack of coordination was also challenging. The fact that other teams or managers were not blocking the same time meant it was often not respected or pushed aside to coordinate schedules. There is also little evidence that time blocking had an impact on workload. Four in ten participants (40%) reported no change in their workload, while others reported a small increase.

“It’s great to know that I have this block of time devoted to focus time. When I’m going about my day and get a task that needs focus, I can be confident that I can schedule the time needed during my time block and that I will be able to focus on it.”

“Time blocking is effective, but executives and managers have limited time so tend to call when they are available, regardless of time being blocked.”

“Easy to put in calendar, more difficult to actually focus on one task during that time.”

The bottom line

Our Distributed Work Trials offer some promising tools, but none are a perfect solution. So, if you are looking for new practices to try, your team may benefit from the collaboration of building a team charter. You may also find time blocking and meeting-free days helpful tools for focus time and productivity, especially if these can be coordinated with partner teams and management.

It is important to note our trials used a small TBS sample and a simple before and after comparison, so the results may not be generalizable. The practices we tested will work better in some contexts than others. If any of the ideas interest you, we encourage you to test things out yourself! With your team, you can co-create and iterate on new practices and taking an experimental approach can be as simple as comparing the before and after results.

What’s next for hybrid?

There is a growing experimental community around hybrid work. We have heard from several teams and departments running their own experiments and pilots on promising hybrid practices.

If you are interested in learning more, our colleagues from the OCHRO Research and Experimentation team have recently developed a “hybrid-in-a-box” experimentation toolkit and GCxchange page to bring this community together. The site is available to Canadian government employees, and you can create an account using your government email.

As always, thank you for being part of our experimentation community!

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