Remote doesn’t mean removed: 3 guiding principles for leadership to maximize hybrid work for teams

By Tal Saraf
August 23, 2021

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and Facebook’s global team shifted to remote work, we in Enterprise Engineering — the team that designs and executes products, tools, and services to help power Facebook employees — had to move quickly to develop first-class products for our employees that empowered remote work.

But we also knew our employees were experiencing burnout, lack of connection, and sometimes less-than-ideal workstations at home. The challenge was — and is — to build technology that promotes collaboration, inclusiveness, and fairness among all employees, regardless of their location, and to continue to do so as we move into a future of hybrid work.

Our global team has spent the past year and a half working remotely, and it is not realistic to expect that people will immediately go back to the office five days a week and jump on a plane for every meeting. I believe companies should lean into a hybrid office/remote work model as much as possible. Too often I’ve heard people say that video meetings just doesn’t cut it and we need to fully go back into the office. I think those days are over, and employees generally don’t want to go back to that life.

That’s why we are continuing to build processes and products that enable our employees to feel connected and be their most productive selves, no matter where they choose to work. But first, we needed to listen and understand their needs and the points of contention. As we began to look at the future of work and architect what that may look like, we discovered three guiding principles along the way that have kept our focus where it’s most needed — our people. Here are a few:

1. Always build for community and inclusivity.

We all miss those spontaneous conversations with colleagues in the office cafeteria or when waiting to catch a shuttle. Those interactions give us energy. They spark fresh ideas. They create connections that video calls just don’t quite come close to creating.

We wanted to bring that experience to remote work. For example, we want new hires to feel connected to the company, their peers, and other new hires. We want them to build social bonds as well as connections to our company culture and values.

One of our first steps in this direction was our Workplace Live technology. With it, new hires — wherever they are — can simultaneously engage with the same content, react to it in real time, and interact with each other. People from around the world can join a live event and feel as if they’re all in the same room together. This new addition to the orientation experience helps make it easier for new hires to meet and get to know one another in a remote setting.

Prior to the pandemic, we found that regular check-ins from managers and colleagues would help orient and welcome new hires to Facebook. To replicate this experience remotely, we built in automated reminders. Traditionally, the onus is on new hires to reach out to a large group of team members. We flipped the script. Now, managers and team members get a regular ping that reminds them to reach out to new hires. 

To help ensure everyone, including remote attendees, feels included during performance rating sessions, we developed “active sessions.” In an active session, people on a video call can “raise” their hands, asynchronously ask questions, and make comments. These features are not tied to the video conference but instead are built natively into the collaborative surfaces to create real-time “multiplayer” experiences. We are now applying this feature in other collaborative situations for our engineers, such as fixing bugs and reviewing code. Thanks to these features, people who are not physically together can have richer interactions than they would if they were in the same room.

2. Empower everyone to build meaningful careers.

When you’re working remotely and away from direct managers, it’s normal to feel concerned about professional development and growth. How can you still be seen and promoted? Will you get fewer key assignments?

It has always been the case that some people get more face time than others, and some have more access to their managers. In a hybrid workplace, where some folks are in the office and some are remote, this access divide has a danger of growing. So we asked ourselves: How can we make the hybrid experience more equal for all? We know that equity and fairness are important not only for people hoping to be promoted but also for managers seeking to drive performance.

 Our Enterprise Engineering team has built a number of products to address this, including:

  • A performance tool for people to share feedback with peers and managers, and to reflect on their own accomplishments and opportunities to grow.
  • A survey tool for people to share feedback on their experience working at Facebook. Another micro survey tool enables us to survey small audiences even more frequently.
  • A jobs tool for people to discover their next role at Facebook that might be a great fit for them.
  • A career profile for people to share more information about their interests, experience, and preferences.
  • A learning and development tool for people to take the next step in their career progression through a personalized selection of courses and enrollment in the appropriate classes.

It’s important to us to build the necessary tools so that employees don’t have to be in the room to succeed at Facebook. Even before COVID, Facebook was one of the largest users of videoconferencing, clocking around 40 million minutes a month. In fact, we had to build our own first-party videoconferencing tools to allow us to scale. Of course, it’s natural for people in a hybrid world to feel an added urgency to physically attend staff meetings. But I live in Seattle. Do I feel I have to fly to every other office and be in the room for every meeting? Not anymore.

In our performance management product, we provide nudges to employees asking whether they have had career discussions. We also built a system that helps our human resource team ensure that they don’t overlook someone for a promotion. For instance, someone who may not be up for promotion but who has similar career accomplishments and time in a given role as others who are up for promotion is flagged to human resource business partners and managers. This helps us work toward equitable performance and careers. 

Facebook is also adding more remote jobs. Previously, many of our positions were tied to a specific location, but this is not the case anymore. Candidates from anywhere can now apply, interview, and be hired.

I have a coworker who left the company before COVID because they were getting married and their fiancé lived in another state. They left the company and it was a real loss. But guess what? Because we now hire more positions remotely, they came back. They now work remotely out of state, and are a productive member of our team.

The key takeaway here is that remote workers can feel connected and secure. By building the right tools, our Enterprise Engineering team can help all team members feel valued and included. And that means a happier company that values diverse perspectives. 

3. Develop world-class managers and leaders.

How do we develop managers and enable them to keep their teams connected when they aren’t sitting next to one another in an office? This question guided us as we explored many different possible solutions, one of which resulted in an internal tool we built for managers to stay attuned to the needs of their teams based on work activity signals.

This internal tool is a landing page for managers, which is like having a data scientist in a box. Managers get immediate insight into where their teams are doing well and where they can do better by looking at signals like focus time, tasks completed, and thanks received. It also allows them to build action plans for the areas where they need to focus. This tool consolidates all the data that managers need to support their teams in a single interface.

Another product we’ve built for managers is a hiring hub, where managers and their teams can successfully manage their hiring pipeline. This hub helps managers:

  • Understand, manage, and take action on open positions.
  • Discover, review, and connect to new job seekers and candidates.
  • Track and manage their active talent pipelines and external hiring.

Our micro surveys, which I mentioned above, serve as a two-way communication tool between senior leadership and employees to quickly drive action and improve the employee experience. For instance, in the early days of COVID, we learned from these surveys that many employees didn’t have a proper office setup at home. That led directly to stipends for employees to set up home offices with the necessary equipment, including chairs, monitors, and keyboards.

We want managers to have as much insight into their employees’ experience as possible. Are they in too many meetings? Do they have enough focus time? Are they using their PTO (paid time off)? We built a PTO tool that lets managers and employees know, for instance, that they have been accruing too much vacation time and will stop accruing more if they don’t take time off before they hit the maximum balance. Managers can then remind those employees to use their time off. As a manager, I also get notifications about who’s out on PTO that day, so I don’t interrupt them.

 In a hybrid world, managers no longer have the luxury of walking around the office to see how everyone is doing. You’re not necessarily going to know who’s stuck in meetings all day and who doesn’t have enough focus time. And if you’re a developer scheduled for too many meetings and you only have 30 minutes free here and there, you simply can’t do your best work. Better to turn those 30-minute chunks into a solid block of 90 minutes in which you can really get something accomplished. To that end, Facebook has built a calendaring tool that now includes the ability to defrag meetings and ensure that employees have larger focus blocks to get work done.

 One thing the pandemic reinforced is that managers need the right tools to do their jobs effectively. In a hybrid workforce, these are more needed than ever. Our Enterprise Engineering team has always been people-centric, and COVID proved that organizations need to be agile and set our employees up for success before we can build for customers. These tools can be built — and we’re building them.

 Yes, the workforce may never be the same. But with the right products, workers can feel as engaged, valued, and productive as ever.