What Works: 5 Keys to Success in Remote or Hybrid Work

Posted on Mar 18, 2022 in Blog, Meeting/Event Planning, Training and HR

With more companies moving to a hybrid working environment after the pandemic upended the workplace in 2020, leaders are finding that it’s time to upgrade the playbook—or, in some cases, rewrite it completely.

Even in those companies that have resisted the hybrid approach and are committing to either a fully onsite or fully remote workforce, there are still plenty of questions, uncertainties and variables that have to be addressed. And the stakes have never been higher. Hiring, retention, productivity, trust, innovation and the entire culture can be affected by these decisions. 

Interestingly, remote work is nothing new at Mentor Tech Group. With our team living in all corners of the country, Mentor Tech Group has successfully leveraged the virtual work model for more than 23 years.  From our inception, we wanted to take advantage of the ‘lifestyle’ factors of working from home.  Plus, we didn’t have to house the necessary talent under one roof, thus expanding our ability to secure the best talent from across the US

We have both enjoyed the distinct advantages, and used a few strategies, to mitigate any downsides of the nature of remote work. On the database development side of the business, we have done monthly conference calls with our amazing team of Market Intelligence Consultants (the people who build/update our database) – a team that has ranged from 10-15 people in size since the company was founded.  On the sales side of the business, we have historically met face to face 6-8 times a year at the various Training and HR conferences…until COVID hit. In addition, we have regularly leveraged the use of periodic conference calls as part of the strategy since our inception. The critical piece to make remote work successful is obviously communication – and trust. You have to be able to effectively communicate business objectives and challenges on a regular basis, while continuing to respect people you’ve hired to DO the work. It’s a balance, but one that we have always maintained well, as evidenced by the fact that some of our team has been with us for more than 15 years! 

But most companies have not historically used a remote work model – many had never even used any form of a hybrid model of work. This is just another reason the pandemic was challenging, forcing companies to rethink work. To investigate this further, ISA-The Association of Learning Providers (all of whom run learning and development firms) recently convened a panel of leaders at its Business Summit, to discuss best practices, challenges and lessons learned as their organizations forge their way into 2022 and beyond.

Facilitated by Tony Jace, CEO of Crisis Prevention Institute (CPI), the panel included ISA members Tom Dungan, CEO and owner of Management Concepts; Staci Nisbett, Vice President of MRG; Nate Regier, CEO, co-founder and owner of Next Element; and Jack Zenger, CEO and co-founder of Zenger Folkman. 

Management Concepts, MRG and Zenger Folkman have implemented varying forms of hybrid environments, while CPI’s team is completely onsite and Next Element’s is completely remote. With each of the panelists taking a different approach, the session gave participants plenty of food for thought on how to best structure their own organizations for remote or hybrid success going forward. 

Here are five key takeaways of “what works” from this diverse panel of business leaders.

1.) When the business demands it, be willing to make the tough decisions.

At CPI, where the training work itself—on nonviolent crisis intervention and dementia care—is very tactile, Jace says the leadership team determined that coming back into the office would be important to the long-term viability of the business. They also recognized that if a few trainers refused to do on-site training, it would put an unfair burden on the rest of the team to pick up the slack.

“We had to apply these things not just from an equal standpoint but from an equitable standpoint—meaning, it’s equal, but we’re going to use some common sense and some critical thinking in terms of our policies,” Jace says. 

He describes this as one of the high-yield decisions they needed to make early in the process. The company also began transitioning back to the office and was fully onsite by the summer of 2020. The aggressive approach has been good for business. Jace says it allowed the company to take immediate advantage of opportunities that came up as the markets recovered. And the requirement to work in the office hasn’t slowed hiring. CPI has added around fifty new employees to the team since last May.

2.) Find the right balance by taking a value-driven approach.

While a small group of employees at Management Concepts had previously worked remotely, Dungan says the experience of the pandemic underscored some truths about the value both of working from home and working together in the office.

“Being in the office helps with the connectedness [between the employee, their teammates, leadership and the organization as a whole] and is an important part of the company,” he says. “It’s a 30-second conversation that turns into a 30-minute conversation, and I really get to know you and what your career objectives are. I’m not going to schedule a Zoom for a 30-second conversation.”

That said, the fully remote experience also highlighted the value employees get from working from home—and those are learnings the organization is determined not to ignore. As a result, Management Concepts has identified four drivers for working at the office:

  • Mission-driven: Nature of the work, project phase, innovation, etc.
  • Client driven: Client requirement or expectation
  • Personal choice: Anyone who wants to work in the office can
  • Meeting company needs: Staying connected through collaboration, cross-training, teambuilding and culture

Nisbett says MRG’s hybrid policy is designed to address that need for connectedness as well. Everyone is asked to be in the office on Tuesdays and Thursdays each week. While it’s their choice whether to come in on the other three days, the expectation is that they’ll stick to a fairly consistent schedule, something Management Concepts’ policy mandates.

3.) Be proactive to counter the pitfalls of remote work.

Reiger’s company, Next Element, made the decision to go fully remote, giving up its office space last fall. Because the culture was already strong and aligned prior to Covid, he says the transition was fairly smooth, but now they’re facing some new challenges.

“How do you know when to quit?” he asked the group. It’s a question so many of us have grappled with lately, and it reminds us that we need boundaries and structure, not just to get the work done in a virtual setting but also to put some accountability in place to stop. 

There are also the social aspects of work that can be hard to replicate in the remote environment. Nisbett says MRG is carrying over some of the practices it put in place during the height of the pandemic to keep the emotional and social connections strong. In addition to systems like Slack and Monday.com, the company continues its company-wide “coffee and conversations” over Zoom. And even though MRG now has a hybrid approach, they’re sticking with Zoom for company-wide meetings. Nisbett says this has “leveled the playing field” for their international team members, who don’t have the option to gather with everyone in the conference room.

At Next Element, “walkie-talkies” encourage people to go for walks to chat with their colleagues, and quarterly in-person retreats are being planned to give people the opportunity to think strategically and creatively. As Reiger notes, remote work can sap some of the idea generation and cross-fertilization you get from being together, and he worries that the company will start to feel dull.

“We’ve been grinding — faithfully doing the work, fulfilling our obligations, checking the boxes every single day, and business is good.” But, he says, they need to refill the social capital banks with more informal interactions.

4.) The success of any work environment hinges on your managers.

When Zenger Folkman surveyed its employees to find out what kind of structure they would prefer going forward, the overwhelming response was in favor of hybrid. In contrast with some of the other hybrid approaches, “Our policy is to have no policy,” Zenger says. Instead, each individual works with their manager to determine the best working situation for them. While he says the majority of employees will be working on a hybrid schedule of two days per week in the office, there is no mandate or single policy that applies to everyone.

At Management Concepts, managers are also given flexibility with how their teams work based on their department’s business needs, and Dungan emphasizes, “The success or failure of return-to-work will depend on the strength of my managers.” 

Particularly in a larger organization, managers have to be more explicit about onboarding and orientation to ensure there’s that connectedness to the mission and culture. And it’s not just onboarding. As Zenger Folkman research shows, virtual team leadership is a different animal, and it requires different and, in some cases, enhanced leadership skills. 

5.) One size fits one.

Zenger describes his company’s philosophy on addressing employee working situations as “one size fits one,” and the data backs that up. For all the people who are leaving jobs that won’t allow them to work remotely, there are also those who are leaving because they miss the face-to-face coaching, mentoring and spontaneous “watercooler” conversations.

Jace pointed out that the same theory applies to companies. “We come from different work values and end markets that we serve and employee bases,” he notes, which is why many of the decisions you make will be unique to your specific circumstances and business realities. 

The most important thing for all leaders, Jace says, is getting clear on what your expectations are so that people know what they’re getting into. As his organization added more staff over the past year, he says, “It was very helpful for us to say, this is exactly who we are and what we are so the people joining now know exactly what they’re joining and why.”Coming from the perspective of a company that works with the federal government, which is certainly no stranger to crisis, Dungan sums up their playbook this way: “The tougher it gets, the more we communicate.” It’s good advice regardless of whether your employees are spread across locations, in the office every day or some combination of the two.

As Pat Ryan, President of Mentor Tech Group said, “Trust and open communication are the two critical components to achieve a successful remote or hybrid work environment. Once you have those, the rest will fall into place – just as it has for Mentor Tech Group’s team which has had great success for more than 20 years – working remotely to serve companies marketing & selling to Training & HR!” 


To learn more about ISA – The Association of Learning Providers, please visit https://isaconnection.org/

To learn more about Mentor Tech Group’s best-in-breed marketing list data, please visit www.mentortechgroup.com. Your #1 Resource for Accessing Accurate Training & HR Decision-Maker Info!

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