What We Can Learn From MIT’s ‘Hybrid’ Model of Collaboration

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Four years ago, at MIT’s Sloan School of Management forced 140 staffers to work in temporary offices a mile away from school’s main buildings. Senior associate dean Peter Hirst, who runs Sloan’s executive training, used the opportunity to launch a pilot program that mixed employees in both locations with others working from home. Here’s what he learned about running a successful hybrid team:

You thought your 40 workers needed to be together, in person. What changed?

The construction. We were spending a lot of time in not-great weather going back forth between our temporary office and the main buildings.

“Hybrid” can mean many things. How did you define it?

Wednesday was in-the-office-if-you-possibly-can-be day. Core hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., which helps people with children be much less stressed. We’ve had people who come to the office every day and people who have asked to be wholly remote.

What did you change when the pandemic hit?

We got so good at two or three days a week remote for most people that we were able to switch to fully remote very smoothly. All our processes and materials were already well organized and accessible digitally.

Since you started the program, what’s worked?

Productivity, efficiency, innovation, and creativity have all flourished. We have some theories for why. People save one to two hours a day of commuting time, and they spend some of that time doing work, so we get more productivity. Also, people are much less stressed and anxious because they haven’t been dealing with rush hour. They arrive fresher and more able to work, and with a mindset that’s more amenable to collaborative work.

What else have you noticed?

For every person who correctly says that it’s harder to see physical cues, I also hear from people who say they are more able to collaborate virtually, particularly people with a tendency to be a little quieter. They seem to find their voice.

People are much more flexible about being able to help each other when needed—less working in silos. When a colleague is struggling to arrange an all-hands meeting, even a day that you wouldn’t normally be coming in, it’s sort of part of the deal that you’re willing to be flexible as well.

Your department creates executive education programs that are two days to five weeks long. How was productivity before the pandemic?

We built a portfolio of more than 20 new digital programs without having to add headcount.

What’s your advice for hybrid managers?

This only works if you can shift from managing by looking over people’s shoulders to managing by defining outcomes—coaching people, giving them tools and resources, and really trusting people to get their work done.

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