"The internet is the best thing that ever happened to jet fuel salesmen."
John Perry Barlow (1947-2018)
I miss John Perry, co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, lyricist for the Grateful Dead, man of letters, American poet and host of some of the wildest parties, Barlowfests, the planet has ever seen.
As an early internet pioneer, Barlow knew that the sand-enabled symbol world that has infiltrated every part of our thinking, belief systems, and social life would need to be balanced by the muck, mud, spit and sweat of human interaction––preferably with music and your favorite libation.
I was fortunate to have been professionally raised as a hybrid worker. When a doctoral student at Harvard Business School in 1983 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, my thesis advisor Jim McKenney summered in Wisdom, Montana where his nearest neighbor was six miles away.
Jim introduced me to BITNET and when we were writing HBS cases we’d send documents back and forth working virtually among him, me, his assistant Alice and the client firm being researched. I also studied digital technology with a focus on understanding the fundamental changes in management practice being enabled by the virtual world.
After HBS, I joined Diamond Management & Technology Partners which was designed as a hybrid work environment from the beginning – and I share the design principles that we used. Three are about technology, three about culture, and one financial.
We believed that this combination of digital and human factors helped us create a 550+ person firm with a strong and coherent culture, even though we never had enough office space to house more than one quarter of the staff at the same time. I believe these 7 design principles in aggregate can lead to a much healthier and productive environment for organizations trying to navigate the transition to hybrid work today.
1. Knowledge Management
We all had a standard, shared information environment that included email, documents, addresses, applications, databases, etc. This was begun on Lotus Notes, which was the best available in 1993, and migrated to Microsoft SharePoint over time and a standard application suite. We had practice and management processes and procedures for starting engagements, managing engagements, shutting down engagements, people evaluations, firm communications, etc. that were the guideposts of how we used the technology.
2. Hardware and Connectivity
We had high performance laptops and connectivity that were frequently refreshed––every two years or less––and the firm paid for the devices, the software and a good connection, as well as a shared voice/messaging environment. We migrated from a robust use of pagers and voice mail to cell phones and then smartphones––again firm supported.
3. Management practice
We had monthly partner meetings, in person, where we reviewed the business, the clients, trained/educated the partners and had a fun dinner. This kept our relationships fresh and lots of horse-trading and client coverage occurred in the halls and over drinks.
Our culture assumed that you would read the documents, use email frequently, and update documents regularly so that everyone had the same data/analysis, etc. to work.
5. Executive Communication
Our chairman and co-founder Mel left a weekly voice mail – which were known as VoiceMels. Each one was different, but they always had the same format. Mel would start with the weather report from wherever he was; he’d tell client story, a story about our talent and a personal reflection. People were so happy when featured in the VoiceMel.
6. In Person Team Building
Perhaps most importantly, we had all hands meetings at least two times a year and often three or four per annum. These two-day meetings brought everyone to Chicago for firm updates and training. We also featured a Bizarre Bazaar where over a dozen teams would feature their work with deep analysis and fun presentations brining our client work alive. I remember one in which we did a very successful project for a global payments firm and the team’s booth had a money cage where anyone could go in and grab as much money (some fake, but some real) as they could in 60 seconds as the bills blew around them inside a plexiglass cage. People got to celebrate the work together, experience the camaraderie, and learn. On the night between the two days, people went out in groups to eat, drink and party – with liberal expense budgets – and everyone showed up the next day regardless of how late they were out.
7. Reallocating Office Costs Strategically
How did we pay for all this technology, training and fun? Our office costs were one fifth that of our competition which we reinvested in technology, training and entertainment – with 1-2% margin points left over, and we had more flexibility to scale or shrink as needed.
Becoming a Hybrid Organization on Purpose
I worry that many of today’s hybrid work environments are less well planned.
The work environments suffer from too many tools, so people don’t share the same information environment. Slack, Google Docs, Microsoft Word, Notion, What’s App, Messenger, emails of every variety, etc., etc. – make a common base of understanding difficult. Also, cultural rules and expectations are often fuzzy with no explicit expectations as to which channels to use, what timing, what documentation, what shared commitment to response, etc.
People often have poor performing technology, which makes a mess of the response time and interaction quality. This is particularly true as it relates to connectivity. With wide disparities in home Wi-Fi setups, it's possible to inadvertently create an environment where team members with inferior connectivity feel unable to keep up with the demands of their jobs, or suffer subtle de-emphasis culturally. It's hard to collaborate effectively when you keep dropping off due to a poor connection.
Lastly, many firms forget to host regular celebrations for learning and physical connection––twice a year or more––to nurture the human connection among the technological interactions. These interactions, far from being an expense, should be thought of as strategic investments in building teams and improving morale. Remote celebrations are great, but remain a pale imitation of the face to face equivalent.
Ever since the telegraph, work has been to some extent, hybrid. To state the absolutely obvious, Covid-19 has accelerated the move to hybrid as we try to dodge the ever-morphing virus.
People like aspects of hybrid work which they will not give up – like less commute time. However, the honeymoon is over and those firms who don’t master hybrid work will see a gradual deadening of connection and innovation while those who master this new landscape will win competitively and have more fun doing it.