“The more things change, the more they tend to stay the same.” This adage seems particularly true when talking about architecture practice, operations, and work policies. As more companies return to the office, they find themselves facing a workforce that wants greater flexibility on not only where, but also when, it works. Firms need to rethink how their employees can do their best work. This applies to those not only in design but also in tech.

Prior to the pandemic, my company relied on its physical offices: Only 5% of our global workforce was remote while the remaining 95% had a desk, despite our product being digital. Now we are adopting a digital-first way of working and embracing principles around flexibility, inclusivity, and connection while rapidly prototyping and learning what works for us going forward.

Below are seven practices that we have begun adopting to manage teams and maintain productivity within a hybrid workplace.

1. Create a Digital Headquarters
Having a truly flexible workplace means allowing individuals not only to work remotely but also to have adaptable schedules. That means, unless it is intentionally planned, at least one team member will inevitably be absent for impromptu chats or meetings. Create a Digital Headquarters to become the primary means of communication for company, vertical teams, and project teams. Make sure everything is shared back into the Digital HQ, including notable items from those last-minute meetings. Also important is including a space to socialize. Decide on one platform, such as Google Workplace or Microsoft Teams, and insist that everyone works on it.

The Digital HQ should be the single source of truth for all company knowledge. Doing so creates a culture of automatic documentation and ultimately greater transparency across all projects.

2. Default to Asynchronous Work
Defaulting to asynchronous work—a phenomenon that did exist before the pandemic—requires the intentional structuring of project operations and processes to give employees more agency in setting their own schedules. This means company or project leaders need to define what must happen in-person as a team and how often teams come together. Managers must also create tasks where individuals are able to default to action—meaning that everyone always knows what they need to work on to keep progressing forward.

Giving employees control over their workday results in overall better planning processes for the company—which is perhaps the greatest benefit of adopting an asynchronous way of working.

Giving employees control over their workday results in overall better planning processes for the company.

3. Hold Only Meetings That Matter
At the start of the pandemic, many of us found ourselves on back-to-back video conference calls. My workdays became longer because I spent the daytime in meetings and the evening doing actual work.

A 2019 survey by Korn Ferry found that 67% of employees believed spending too much time in meetings hindered their productivity. More than 35% of respondents said they spent between two and five hours daily in meetings and an additional four hours weekly preparing for all those meetings they didn’t want to attend.

Firms should regularly set aside time to audit the meeting calendar. Many project and team meetings can happen asynchronously within the Digital HQ. Preserve only the meetings that support team building; require timely decision-making; focus on detailed or complex topics that are easier to discern in person; or include emotionally charged discussions.

4. Create Bursty Team Time
Even if teams are based in an office together, they are not collaborating 100% of the time. A hybrid workplace requires you to build in “bursty” team time, which researchers Christoph Riedl and Anita Williams Woolley define in their October 2020 Harvard Business Review article: “Human communication is naturally ‘bursty,’ in that it involves periods of high activity followed by periods of little to none. Research suggest that such bursts of rapid-fire communications, with longer periods of silence in between, are hallmarks of successful teams.”

To create bursty team time, schedule blocks of time for team members to actively work together or be available. Designate up to a couple of hours a day when everyone can expect immediate responses or is available to jump on an impromptu video chat or voice call. If you have a social team, consider opening up a Zoom call during bursty time, allowing for parallel work.

5. Brainwrite Instead of Brainstorm
Brainwriting offers an asynchronous way to spur innovative design ideas. Teams begin by individually tackling the problem in a shared space, using tools like Mural or Miro. They then share their ideas collectively, rather than doing it all in one big brainstorm session.

Decades of scientific research have shown that brainstorming can result in a loss of productivity. In fact, people in brainstorming groups tend to produce fewer and less creative ideas than if those same people were working individually. Why? Because of production blocking, or the tendency for one individual to block—intentionally or not—other people from sharing ideas during a group discussion. Two other factors contribute to the decrease in innovation: evaluation apprehension, where people are afraid of receiving negative criticism; and social loafing, where people resist sharing their ideas because they believe others in the group will.

Brainwriting can give everyone a voice in the process and ensure that all ideas are shared.

Brainwriting can give everyone a voice in the process and ensure that all ideas are shared.

6. Make Time for Deep Work
Every time an employee switches between context or tasks, like jumping from a conference call to work on drawings, they lose 20% to 80% of their overall productivity, depending on how long they need to focus on the new task. Making time for deep work means minimizing external distractions.

You can implement deep work for your team by scheduling multiple meeting times a week when no one on the team has outstanding meetings on the calendar. If that is not possible, you can create theme days (or focus days) to minimize distractions. Alternatively, create a team-specific goal that individuals block off at least two hours for deep work each week on their own calendar.

7. Keep Things SIMPLE
To ensure accountability from everyone, keep things SIMPLE. Leaders should find ways to integrate these procedures into their Digital HQ and asynchronous workflows.

  • Set expectations. Employees who don’t know what is expected of them also don’t know what they’re accountable for. Expectations should consider their individual and professional goals.
  • Invite commitment. Employees need to understand how their work contributes toward company or individual professional goals before they commit to new responsibilities. If their values align with those of the firm and they understand the shared goals, they are likely to be open to their leaders' keeping them accountable.
  • Measure progress. Leaders need to quantify goals and track movement toward them.
  • Provide—and accept—feedback. Continuous improvement happens in a culture that encourages feedback. It also creates an open line of communication that enables problem solving.
  • Link to consequences. Help employees struggling to reach their goals to understand the potential consequences to the project at hand or to the firm.
  • Evaluate effectiveness. Review, rinse, and repeat these steps. If something in the process isn’t working, evaluate ways to fix it.

The hybrid workplace will ultimately be driven by employees, but an employer’s success will ultimately depend on their ability to remain adaptable. Team management will differ for every office, but continue to try new things until you figure out what works best for you and your company.

Though the future is unclear, employee demand for work flexibility isn’t going away. Firms remaining agile to change—whether economic, environmental, or employee-related—will have an easier road ahead than those that try to reinstate traditional work models. As a result, companies cannot assume or expect that what has succeeded in the past will continue to do so going forward.

This is the fourth article in a series on what building and running a successful hybrid practice requires. The views and conclusions from this author are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine or of The American Institute of Architects.