Instead of asking “Should we return to office?” what if we asked “How can we make hybrid work better?” Livewire’s Audience Experience team calls for a new way forward for hybrid.
Talk to leaders about the hybrid workplace of today, and you’ll quickly sense a feeling of loss. We’ve lost culture. We’ve lost productivity. We’ve lost the good old days when hallways and cubicles were filled with conversation, coffee, laughter, banter. We’ve lost the “work family.” But ask the everyday employee and you might hear a different story: We’ve gained an invaluable work-life flexibility and freedom. And we can’t look back.
It’s hard to see the hybrid workplace as little more than a battle of deep cultural forces, a tension between those in power – a portion of senior leaders, executives, and management who want a return to some status quo – and those who want to realize the benefits of a new era. Unfolding in public conversation is this classic generational and ideological clash: where we are now vs. what we have lost; the way things are vs. the way things used to be. Consider how think pieces heralding this “new future of work” are pitted against articles about “how to get employees to return to office.” And because we’re stuck here, clashing against one another, it’s difficult to see how we should move ahead. What we’ve gained. How to really hybridize.
As Fortune puts it, this is a “tug-of-war over where work will be done.” It is a noisy tug-of-war at that, a push and pull over the same arguments. The “for”: hybrid is good for inclusivity, for smoothing out power dynamics, for work-life autonomy. The “against”: hybrid is bad for culture, for productivity, for security and logistics.
In this field of debate, clear winners remain undecided. It feels like points made from the “for” and “against” can ring true, in one context or another. After all, hybrid holds everything all at once: nostalgia for the office, hope for a new future, frustration in an age of burnout, individual preferences and wants, organizational and specific role needs.
It amounts to this: “Should we stay at home or should we go to the office?”
And in our view, this may be the wrong question to ask or, at least, the wrong place to start.
We must go beyond the debates
Hybrid is a model of work. Several years immersed in it, we’ve reached a time when arguing about hybrid’s existence is like arguing about whether we should keep the internet, instead of asking how the internet can improve our lives. Reality has already moved.
Hybrid is a fact of life, a model and philosophy that already structures the way we shop, socialize, game, go to school, order food and rides, live our lives. Work is the last place to have caught up with any echo of hybrid. What if we started from there?
What if we went beyond “hybrid vs. not hybrid” toward “a hybrid fully tapped in vs. a hybrid that is unengaging and silent”? What if we asked: How can we make hybrid better? What can hybrid do for us? And by us, we mean everyone: the “for” and “against,” the employees and the leaders, the demographic already at work and the generation on its way to the workforce en masse.
What if we started looking at hybrid as a tool – or more accurately, as holding a reservoir of tools – that can shape whatever organization and culture we wanted?
We’re in the Goldilocks zone of hybrid
We are seeing a Goldilocks zone of hybrid – not too virtual, not too in person, just right – and we believe it is up to leaders to activate the power of this new era. Our efforts would be best spent developing new platforms and ideas that evolve how we work and communicate in every sphere.
In our work, the Audience Experience team spans the live and digital functions, creating engaging events for corporate clients. We see the “frontline” of hybrid work in many ways – tensions between clients who want a 100% in-person live event, an audience who already expects more, and a new reservoir of hybrid tools that can make live experiences that much more engaging. We are hired to help key messages land, but we’re really driven to build culture, to ensure the audience feels emotional resonance with the event. This is achieved through decisions in content, agenda, lighting, sound, channel delivery, and staging – for physical and virtual venues – as well as through the million other choices behind the scenes that an audience member or a client wouldn’t ever think about. In this sense, our insights about hybrid are localized to corporate events, but we wonder if the tensions playing out in this microcosm reveal truths about the hybrid workplace at large.
Before the pandemic, hybrid was just a function of delivering a webcast to an audience and maybe engaging in a few social media channels. We didn’t truly lean into it until the pandemic. Now we have this real, unique moment in time and space where we can take the best of those worlds and bring them together.
Still, many folks are not understanding this moment. They’re stuck in the debate about whether we should go back to “normal.” They make their events predominantly in person to nudge that “normal” back into reality.
“Could you design our annual company meeting for us?” is how a client conversation typically starts. They then wave their hands and say, “Oh, and don’t put too much energy into the virtual component. It will be in person for around 1,500 people. We’re expecting only a few dozen people virtually.”
On event day, more than 400 virtual participants show up. And this is a pattern we see consistently.
To us, the audience is already hybridized. And without the green light to design for that truth, we are abandoning new tools that produce rich experiences.
The in-person experience remains what it always was: a powerful and intuitive way to connect people together, to heighten emotion and create a shared experience valued by those who can attend. But hybrid is extending our notion of what a shared experience can be, creating opportunities where virtual and in-person communities can intersect in the digital and live spaces.
New engagement tools let virtual participants feel a sense of presence more powerfully, installing greater accessibility in each event, “democratizing” each experience. Those with mobility concerns, for instance, can participate wherever they need to be, on a deeper level than in the past. Introverts, too, who would once sit silently during the Q&A portion of events, are now engaging and providing ideas from the comfort of their chairs, and members can now “upvote” which question they want to see the most. These tools showcase ways of thinking, especially from quiet audience members, that would have been lost years ago. Some participants even log in from the hotel room just above the conference room; they’re on-site and still attending virtually, experiencing the event in a way that will serve their schedules, moods, preferences, and productivity the best.
Hybrid also lets us implement powerful tracking and user flexibility. We can now quantify engagement better than ever before, putting numbers to what used to be measured subjectively: attendance, likes, laughter, comments, audience participation, the overall energy of the room. Prior to the pandemic, not many of us valued the measurement of these audience reactions as seriously as we do now. Today, we focus on collecting these insights from our audience when we design for hybrid from the get-go. Such insights let clients better gauge the ROI of their live events and significantly improve the next one.
And when the event is over, there are virtual “artifacts” – online conversations, intranet pages, entire digital communities – that provide a longevity to the event, artifacts that can be tapped into after the curtains close.
That was all unleashed by the virtual needs of the pandemic.
To pretend these tools don’t exist does a disservice to everyone. It marginalizes the portion of the audience that has already grown accustomed to virtual experiences over the past few years.
Audiences and the workforce have already moved on to hybrid. But we’ve seen clients – a set of leaders – wanting to rush into in-person events as pandemic restrictions ease up. They believe that the audience craves the same things they want: the stage, the spectacle, the in-person human contact. But audiences and employees have become more educated and more exposed to the power and virtue of the hybrid experience. They see hybrid not as a loss, but as a “culture add.”
If we are smart with agenda design and can build the right tactics to create a truly engaging experience, there’s no reason why we have to be exclusive to a small in-person audience. There’s also no reason a presenter actually needs to be standing in the room. In a truly hybrid environment, it doesn’t matter whether presenters and audiences are co-located in the same physical place, because our notion of “place” has changed: we can be either virtual or face to face, and equally engaged in both dimensions.
We’ve gained a new kind of culture and leadership
We believe that the leaders who are going to be most successful in the future are the leaders who have taken all of these great learnings from the pandemic around how to connect more deeply to their employees. The successful leaders will be those who have learned from this environment and who have allowed it to shape their personality so that every engagement has a little of that intimacy we have learned to value and harness.
In a hybrid world, virtual meetings have transformed cultures to become more intimate. Culture has become less focused on physical location, merch, and free lunches, and more focused on intention, connection, and people. As a result, we have moved from a leadership style of spectacle to one of psychological safety and personal empowerment.
One can argue whether this is a good thing or not. Maybe some folks need that Tony Stark-style leadership to get through their day. But maybe we are all better served with an organization that gives us the personal, compassionate, and empathetic leadership that lets us do our jobs with dignity and focus.
We’re reaching a point now where the greater stressors on an organization are actually cultural stressors. And we must change our language and evolve how we communicate with one another. We must leverage the technology to create better paradigms and better dimensions for interpersonal communication.
The old paradigm that formed in the industrial revolution is not suited to our purposes today. We need to recognize that our technology has actually changed us as human beings – it has unleashed new human potential.
At the end of the day, we’re all here at our jobs because of our people. We continue to enjoy our jobs because of them. When we’re in a like-minded environment where people genuinely support and appreciate one another, we’re together even when we’re separated. Isn’t that what we all want?