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Mastering the hybrid workplace


Hybrid, remote, in-person, a little bit of everything? Work has transformed into a giant experiment. Priya Parker, expert facilitator and author of The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters, shares her advice on how to manage the new hybrid workplace. Where to start? Focus first, she suggests, on making your meetings better.

“If you just focus on making your meetings better, it shifts a lot of other things.”

— Priya Parker
About the guest:

Priya Parker is a facilitator, strategic advisor, the author of The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters, and executive producer and host of the New York Times podcast Together Apart. Trained in the field of conflict resolution, Parker has spent 20 years guiding leaders and groups through complicated conversations about community, identity, and vision at moments of transition. Download her new, free Hybrid Gathering Guide

About the host:

Bob Safian is the host of Masters of Scale: Rapid Response, and the editor-at-large for Masters of Scale. He’s the founder of The Flux Group, a media, insights, and strategic advisory firm. He was previously editor-in-chief of Fast Company, where he won the National Magazine Award for Magazine of the Year in 2014.

How we gather is now a central driver of organizational effectiveness – yet the skills required in modern meeting-making often lag the needs.

— Bob Safian
Transcript of Masters of Scale: Mastering the hybrid workplace

PRIYA PARKER: We learn how to be and how to not be through each other. In many of the organizations I’ve been speaking with, they’ve had a third new employees join during the pandemic who have literally never set foot in their office; they have no cultural memory of what a place is.

80% of companies right now are experimenting with hybrid. We have a new set of skills we actually need to learn. If you just focus on making your meetings better, it shifts a lot of other things.

It is probably the most important skill for productivity, for effectiveness, for meaning making, for belonging. The art of gathering and gathering itself, it’s not a personality, it’s a practice. It’s like that movie, Ratatouille, anyone can cook. Anyone can gather. It’s a learnable skill.

BOB SAFIAN: That’s Pryia Parker an expert in conflict-resolution and author of the best-selling book The Art of Gathering.

Uncertainty continues to dominate how workplaces function, as organizations struggle with integrating return-to-office and remote work.

I’m Bob Safian, former editor of Fast Company, founder of the Flux Group, and host of Masters of Scale: Rapid Response. I wanted to talk to Pryia because she’s been inside many of the debates underway among leaders about balancing culture-building, efficiency, collaboration, and employee flexibility.

How we gather, Priya argues, is now a central driver of organizational effectiveness – yet the skills required in modern meeting-making often lag the needs.

Hybrid meetings, which have become core to many operations, are particularly challenging, she explains.

We cannot simply rely on what worked before if we want to attract, develop, and motivate talent, Priya counsels. The modern workplace requires a different approach, from the boardroom to the water cooler.


Chapter 1: Revising old assumptions

SAFIAN: I’m Bob Safian, and I’m here with Priya Parker, a master facilitator and expert in conflict resolution and author of the book, The Art of Gathering: How we Meet and Why it Matters. Priya, thanks for joining us.

PARKER: Thank you for having me.

SAFIAN: First of all, it’s great to see you. The last time we spoke we were still deep in pandemic lockdown, right?

PARKER: I think both of us were recording from closets with pillows stuffed inside trying to get sound from a makeshift studio.

SAFIAN: Everyone was revisiting old assumptions about how gatherings happen and how work happens, this role of physical offices versus remote work. And now it feels like we’re revisiting that revisiting, in some ways. Some organizations are rushing to recreate pre-pandemic systems. “You got to be back at your desk. You got to be back at the office.” And others like Airbnb, where Brian Chesky, the CEO, said, “All remote all the time. That’s fine.” And it’s this broad spectrum. It’s experimenting. It’s a little confusing.

PARKER: I love your word revisiting. I think what this global pandemic did is, at the simplest level, by taking gathering from us, we began to see that gathering actually shapes our life. So, when we couldn’t meet at work to exchange information, when we couldn’t gather to wed or to mourn or to celebrate or to fundraise, we began to actually just see that this thing we called gathering is something that is fundamental to how life and work and love happens.

Institutions primarily were looking at virtual gatherings, virtual meetings, virtual town halls. How do we actually create meaning? There were a series of moments in which tech companies, global companies started announcing back to work plans. I think Apple made a big announcement that everybody is back in the office.

Your listeners may be getting hives right now if they’ve been part of any of the roll-outs of return to work. And I think part of what is now happening in this next phase is there is a deep rethinking and negotiating and grappling with where and when and why we should meet and for what purpose, and how do we do it in a way that ideally is better than it was before the pandemic.

Chapter 2: Priya Parker on returning to the office

SAFIAN: So, we got more comfortable with these virtual tools and settings that we hadn’t used before. And then once we could go back to the office, the question becomes, “Well, should we?” Should we, and in what format, and how do we integrate what’s in the office, and what’s virtual?

PARKER: Work began to be contested. This is connected to the Great Resignation, quote-unquote. This is connected to quiet quitting. These are very, very deep social forces going through all of our institutions. When you need more than one person to do something, how do we actually coordinate? I define a gathering as anytime three or more people come together for a purpose with a beginning, middle, and end. And that could be a birthday party or a rave or a hootenanny.

And that can also be a board meeting or a town hall or a writer’s room or an executive’s room. Underneath what is happening in this moment is there’s these large philosophical questions that are being asked. Do I need to come back to work? Which days? How do we decide? And those are important questions to hash out.

SAFIAN: And so gathering is a part of work. It’s not all of work. And the question is, what role does gathering play in that work? And then what is the best way for that gathering to unfold so that work is effective for all the participants that are engaged in it, for the workers and for the organization?

PARKER: There’s a New Yorker cartoon that went around, I think March 2020, and it was something like, “I guess all of those meetings really could have been emails.” There was this, “We meet too much. The way we meet is broken.” Well before the pandemic, study after study after study was saying, “We spend way too much time in meetings. Many meetings are a waste of time. Many meetings are a proxy for lack of thinking.” Rather than high precision, high performance use of incredibly valuable real estate. One company I was recently advising, they’re rolling out what they’re calling some version of dynamic workplace, and where they’ve landed is in a massive global company, employees need to come back three days. Okay. So, Bob, what do you think I’m going to say? Three days a what?

SAFIAN: I was going to say a week. Three days a week?

PARKER: That’s what I would assume. Three days a month.

SAFIAN: Three days a month.

PARKER: Three days a month. And I said, “And people don’t want to do that?” One of the things that we miss when we are working from home is the moments more for either complex conversations or connection. And so there’s a number of companies that are having people come in, whatever it is, one day a week, one day a month, to just basically do the things that you couldn’t do virtually, but to be together.

But a huge part of what is grappling right now is if you’re bringing people back and everybody’s sitting in a chair logging into Zoom anyway, why are we here? And so I think there’s a lot of confusion around, if we are going to bring people back, do we design that time? And what I’ve been seeing is the rise very much of the hybrid meeting. So, some people are virtual, some people are in person, and then they’re connected on the screen. And it’s incredibly, incredibly clunky, but I think it’s also here to stay and it’s something that we can get better at.

Chapter 3: Gatherings need to be purposeful

SAFIAN: You’ve been an advocate for the idea that gatherings need to be purposeful. They need to be clear. And if I’m hearing you, you may be bringing people into the office that, if you have less time in the office together, you have to be that much more intentional about how you use the time. Now, maybe we should always have been more intentional, but we could get away with it being messier and less efficient if we were there for 40 hours every week.

PARKER: I was speaking with a CEO of a company, and he had his first in-person board meeting for the first time in eight quarters, and 12 of his board members could come in person, but three could only come virtually. He ended up in the name or in the spirit of equity to have everybody around the table log in through their computer so that they were all on the same virtual screen. And afterwards he said he was very frustrated because they didn’t actually benefit from being in person.

The way you can read each other’s body language there, it was actually more complex to both try to stare into a computer screen and have people around you. And he said, “I don’t know what exactly to do, but that wasn’t the right answer.” I was in a town hall for a company. And it’s very difficult to predict who will actually come in person. And so you have 400 chairs set up and 12 people in them, and you have 3,000 people on Zoom.

And in the room it actually feels kind of embarrassing and disappointing. And even though psychologically you know, “Oh, all these people are watching,” the chairs were set up for a very different group. And so psychologically it feels like a failed gathering. And so there’s all of these different moments that are just incredibly clunky.

SAFIAN: We just don’t know how to do these things yet

PARKER: Because one, we haven’t done it before, but two, hybrid gatherings aren’t one gathering. They’re actually three. They’re three simultaneous experiences. So, there’s the group in the room, the board members around the table or employees sitting in the town hall. There’s the Zoom room, or enter your favorite technology, Microsoft Teams, Google Hangout, whatever, there’s the people in on a screen. Then the third gathering is if you choose to connect the two. Do the people on the screen need to know what’s happening in the room and vice versa? Is there a feedback mechanism? That is a very complex gathering to run. You want to basically think about the experience of each.

Chapter 4: How to make hybrid gatherings more effective

SAFIAN: How do you do that? How do you make a hybrid gathering less clunky or more effective, or do we not really quite know yet?

PARKER: First of all, know that hybrid is more complex than either a virtual or an in-person gathering. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it, but just to start knowing it’s a beast. You can actually go to a meeting and feel even more lonely and disjointed and disconnected for something when it’s not run well and not thought through what the actual experience is. What I advise people is to first ask for every single meeting, why are we actually meeting? What is the purpose of this meeting? What is the specific need this week for this staff meeting? What is the specific need for this team orientation, and answer that. Often, the biggest mistake we make when we gather is we assume that the purpose is obvious. “Oh, I know what a town hall is. Oh, I know what a sales meeting is. Oh, I know what a product design meeting is.” We skip too quickly to form. The first thing is, don’t worry yet about if it’s hybrid or virtual or in person. First, just ask every single time, what’s the need here? What kind of meeting is this?

SAFIAN: Why are we meeting at all?

PARKER: Why are we meeting at all? The facilitator, Rae Ringel has this wonderful chart. What she put forward was a two-by-two where people benefit from being in person when the content is complex and when it’s emotionally complex. If you’re reading off numbers or if you’re sharing data, unless it’s very confidential, you could probably just do that virtually. Highly sensitive, complex, conflict-filled conversations, you benefit from being in person. If you get to the point where you say, okay, we’re going to have some people be in person. We’re going to have the reality, some people will be online. Then to say, have a host, have a team leader, whatever you want to call it, be holding each room.

SAFIAN: Separate hosts.

PARKER: Separate hosts, who are coordinating. Kind of like co-hosts. There’s someone paying attention to the Zoom, and there’s someone paying attention to the room. You’re orienting it, starting the meeting, connecting the group to each other. Even how you start a meeting, the first 5% of how you start a gathering creates all sorts of norms and expectations and a pathway dependency on how people behave for the rest of the meeting. Doing things like starting the meeting with a question to have people pop into the chat, all of a sudden you see a hundred answers in there.

“I didn’t realize Bob was in Detroit. Oh, I didn’t realize Priya was in Brooklyn. Oh wow, they’re back in the office.” There’s so much context that just allows people to feel a sense of psychological togetherness even if they’re on Zoom. Similarly, the people in the room, are you doing some kind of check-in? Right? First board meeting in eight quarters. How have you all been? The question then becomes do the people in the Zoom need to hear the people in the room and vice versa? It’s a design question. The answer is: it depends on your purpose.

SAFIAN: For a board meeting, say, you may determine like, “hey, it’s important that all of these board members connect with each other, so that the communication across them becomes comfortable.” If it’s a Zoom meeting with 3000 people, maybe that priority is not core to the purpose in the same way.

PARKER: It depends on what the purpose and the need is of the group. Different town halls have really different needs at different moments in time. Right? Sometimes it was people who are completely burnt out and exhausted and just needed a moment to refresh and reconnect with why they’re there. Sometimes trust is super low, and we need to take time to slow it down and reconnect to our purpose and how we actually make decisions around here.

One of the deep skills of virtual meeting in this era is creating a sense of psychological togetherness when we can’t be physically together.

Chapter 5: How do you determine informal culture

SAFIAN: There are these two threads that are going on with organizations right now. One, the question about what is best for me as a worker? What choices, what works best for me in the way I’m going to get my task done? On the other end, what’s best for me as a business operation? Right? I may say as a business operation, “I don’t want you to spend your time commuting. I want you to spend that time working.” You as a particular worker may say, “yeah, I agree with that,” and someone else may say, “I need some space between my home life and my work life, and so that commute time is actually useful for me.” It just feels like there’s so many more complicated layers to getting these interactions to work in ways that maybe were always there, but that we didn’t necessarily appreciate or dig into the way maybe we’re being forced to now.

PARKER: More deeply, where and how do you determine informal culture? I’ve heard from many business owners and managers and leaders within nonprofits and other organizations that the way they began to understand the theory of a place, the way they began to, through osmosis, learn language, learn how somebody prepares for a presentation, all of these informal elements, they learned by being on the job. What is also true is so many studies show that disproportionately the people who want to come back have more institutional power, but also the people who most don’t want to return are often caregivers and people of color.

In part, because it’s actually in those same corridors and that same osmosis where people can also experience microaggressions. Right? This is complex stuff. The mechanism of a gathering sociologically is we learn how to be and how to not be through each other. I think it was a Cisco study that said 80% of companies right now are experimenting with hybrid. Gatherings, again, the moments in which the people at the same time are at the same place for a specific shared purpose, with a beginning, middle, and end.

Disproportionately these end up becoming the sites of culture making. In many of the organizations I’ve been speaking with, they’ve had a third new employees join during the pandemic who have literally never set foot in their office, and so they have no cultural memory of what a place is. What happens is we have a new set of skills we actually need to learn, what is actually happening in these meetings, not just for productivity, but for culture, for belonging, for equity, one gathering at a time. It can feel overwhelming, but it’s actually, we’re doing this daily. If you just focus on making your meetings better, it shifts a lot of other things.

SAFIAN: Before the break we heard Priya Parker explain why being intentional about gathering is so essential to the modern workplace.

Now she offers specific examples and advice about what it takes to make meetings successful.

She also talks about resolving conflict and how what she calls “the bridging of identity” is a core function of the workplace.

Plus she shares a roadmap for building skills as a meeting leader and as a guest, stressing the importance of experimentation and practice.  

Chapter 6: Formality vs intentionality

When you’re super intentional about every gathering, it can start to feel formal, not as loose. I wonder if you have any insights about how you keep those gatherings purposeful, that time to be effective, but how it can be informal and imperfect and comfortable at the same time?

PARKER: I’m so glad you have asked this. In part, because I think so many of us conflate intentionality with formality, and those are two different things. There is a formality in part, because there should be a sense of respect of people’s times. Right? Gatherings are coordinating mechanisms. Part of respect so that you’re not wasting people’s time is to think ahead of time, what is the purpose of this meeting? How do we set people up so they know what role they’re playing?

Intentionality just simply means thinking ahead of time of what the need is, and then how do I organize this group of people so that we can get to work? It doesn’t mean that it’s formal. In my own life, I’m a conflict resolution facilitator. That’s still my day job. All of my group conflict dialogue facilitation during the pandemic moved on to Zoom.

One of the things my co-facilitators and I figured out very quickly was this is an incredibly sterile environment. So many of the cues that we get as facilitators is actually in side comments, sarcastic comments, jokes, sneezes, all of the grist of just bodies in a room, and when you’re on mute, in part because the engineers that designed these never imagined that people would be fighting on Zoom or trying to sing. A choir can’t practice on Zoom because the algorithm is created so that it chooses one voice. Right? What we’ve started doing is something called silent, but unmuted.

We basically realized that if we were making jokes or we were asking questions to be unmuted, and it was okay if we heard some background noise, it was okay if we heard some other stuff going around. The cost of silence was actually outweighing the benefit of order.

There’s an organization called CreativeMornings. It was started 10 years ago by Tina Roth Eisenberg with a morning speaker series.

And their secret sauce for these CreativeMornings wasn’t their speakers. It was their coffee line. It was literally when people were waiting in line and chatting with the person behind them. “Hey, when did you move here? Oh, wow. You work for that company. Oh, how about that?” You’re like, “Gosh, this line is long. Ha, ha, ha, I prefer Caribou coffee.”

It gave them social permission to actually have agency to talk about chit chat. And they realize you can’t really do that on a virtual platform. And so what they did was they created a digital coffee line at the top of their CreativeMornings hour. They put people into breakout rooms, and they called them coffee lines. They said, “Bring a mug if you want, or show us your cat, whatever it is.” And there were questions people could talk about if they felt like they needed a prompt. But you could also just talk about anything.

It’s like three minutes, and it felt completely different. And so there’s a lot of tools and technologies and companies trying to figure out spontaneity and trying to figure out more agency within these virtual platforms. And so host digital coffee lines, or find ways to hack the tools that you have because the solutions aren’t within the tools; the solutions are within the answer to why are we doing this and what is the need?

Chapter 7: Priya Parker on resolving conflicts in a conflict-rich world

SAFIAN: You mentioned that you’re a conflict resolution facilitator and we find ourselves in a conflict-rich world. What kind of things are you working on today in that realm?

PARKER: Many questions have come up much more deeply in the last two years. We have had a fundamental reckoning around race, around equity, around function, around purpose, around geography, around ability and disability, around gender. And that’s what I’m spending a lot of my time on. I’ve turned my research lens more deeply at looking at moments of conflict, moments of division that I think many, many, many institutions are currently grappling with.

SAFIAN: Businesses are increasingly being pressed to take positions on the kinds of social and political issues that invariably produce conflict with potential customers, with investors, with employees. Do you have a perspective on how businesses should approach that kind of challenge, those kinds of conflict?

PARKER: In the MIT Sloan Management Review Megan Reitz and John Higgins conducted a survey of, I think, over 3,000 workplaces that were experiencing employee activism. If you’re a leader, if you’re a manager within an organization facing employee activism, the number one thing to do, before anything else, is to check your own assumptions, biases, mindsets, picture of what an activist is. What activism looks like.

The biggest obstacle leaders have in figuring out how to navigate, how to lead in these times, is their own biases and belief systems of what an activist is. I think a lot of these conversations are here to say, we are fundamentally asking things like what is work? What is the responsibility of an organization? Where do I want to work and why? What is my relationship to an employer? This pandemic was a social x-ray and an economic x-ray and a racial x-ray to actually see the many decisions we’ve made to create the society that we have and to actually ask, is this what we want, or are we trying to build something new?

Chapter 8: Where we get meaning from

SAFIAN: And as we’re experimenting with these new ways of work, these new ways of gathering and communicating, what’s at stake right now in that conversation?

PARKER: Where people disproportionately and culturally get meaning from. Even before the pandemic, there was distrust in institutions. Church going is on the decline. Union labor was on the decline. And part of what is at stake here are things like, where do I get my identity from? Where and how do I make money? What kind of place do I want to spend my waking hours?

These are fundamental questions at the individual level, at the community level, and at the national level. There’s no institution I know that’s not going through a pretty deep, fundamental grappling around at least what is work. And what I will say is for the business school case studies as a recovering MBA that are written over the next two decades, many of them are going to be written about this moment we’re in right now.

SAFIAN: Yeah. I had a conversation earlier this year with Ken Frazier, the longtime CEO of Merck. And he worried that remote work will exacerbate the differences in our society. That the workplace is the place where Americans of different kinds have been forced to be together and to learn that, oh, that other person actually isn’t as other, as I thought of them. What of that is at risk as we’re more remote, more hybrid?

PARKER: So much of workplace, but also public space, libraries, public schools, the places in which we come together are the places in which particularly in a multiracial democracy are incredibly important for what sociologists called bridging identity. So groups need to bond, and they also need a bridge.

We have fewer and fewer places, particularly because of the rise of remote work in which we can engage with one another. And there are many, many virtual places that have done well, I think can be an antidote, but that many of these virtual spaces are still opt in. And the element of a social infrastructure, like an office place, or even frankly like a church, churches were often places that were actually economically expansive. 

They were places where through shared beliefs that people who wouldn’t otherwise meet are meeting. A lot of our gathering infrastructure, a lot of the places in which we used to meet are fundamentally at threat. And they’re at threat because in a lot of the ways they were meeting weren’t working before. So, again, it’s complicated, but these are the questions that are up for grabs.

SAFIAN: This bridging of identity, are there ways in a hybrid world that we can do that better? Is there other advice about how we operate in this hybrid world that you’d encourage the listeners here to take away with them?

PARKER: I’ve been thinking a lot about the hybrid gatherings, in part because they’re kind of like the triathlon of meetings. You can’t be good at hybrid if you’re not actually good at in-person gathering. You can’t be good at hybrid unless you’re also good at virtual gathering. And then you can’t be good at hybrid unless you start learning about how to stitch these elements together. We’ve actually just put together a brand new guide on how to navigate hybrid gatherings.

First, just ask: what is the need here? People feel respected when their time isn’t wasted. Then given that need, who needs to be here? And what are the ratios of people who can be in the room, people who can be on the Zoom? And then do we also do hybrid? And then given that, all of the things that you would ask in any normal meeting, how do you start? Who has what role? It’s like going in the gym, these are muscles to practice. And the art of gathering and gathering itself, it’s not a personality, it’s a practice. It’s like that movie, Ratatouille, anyone can cook. Anyone can gather. It’s a learnable skill.

It is probably the most important skill for productivity, for effectiveness, for meaning-making, for belonging. And for the modern workplace, the infrastructure is kind of now the meeting, kind of one gathering at a time is people’s perception of work and their place in it.

SAFIAN: And if I want to build my skillset for a hybrid work future, do I have to become expert first at in-person and then at virtual and then together, or can I try sort of doing all the exercises at once?

PARKER: Start with where your curiosity is, and start with where your need is. If you’ve been tasked to run the weekly stand-up, just focus on that one meeting. And honestly, you can start on any which side, but have a canvas where you’re actually practicing it.

The last thing I would say is this can feel intimidating. And actually we are gathering all of the time, and most of us are actually guests much more often than we’re hosts. And so, if nothing else, just practice when you’re guesting, when the stakes are lower, when it’s not your meeting just notice: When am I engaged? What are they doing well? Why is this a mess? The first step is to just start with observation. And sometimes we can learn even more; guests have a lot of power in gathering.

Just start with that, and you’ll begin to start to see the invisible infrastructure and the difference between when a meeting works and when it doesn’t and why.

SAFIAN: Well, Priya, this has been great. I’ll confess that I was a little intimidated about leading this gathering between you and me. How did I do?

PARKER: You were amazing. You’re a wonderful host.

SAFIAN: Well, we’re very excited that you came to this, and we’ll be happy to have you back anytime. Thanks so much for joining us. I really appreciate it.

PARKER: Thank you so much for having me.

Masters of Scale’s mission is to democratize entrepreneurship. Launched in 2017 as a weekly podcast featuring Reid Hoffman, we’re now two weekly podcasts — Masters of Scale with Reid Hoffman, and Masters of Scale: Rapid Response, hosted by Bob Safian — as well as an award-winning daily learning app, a best-selling book, virtual and live events, and more, serving a global community of founders, funders, and leaders looking to innovate at scale.
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