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Building the future of distributed work

Embracing a culture of shared responsibility enables us to balance the flexibility we value with the connection and coordination we need.
Illustration of a group of people working in a conference room with another group displayed on a large screen

“Do you know that Wes Anderson movie, with people sitting in different rooms of a cutaway house? That was kind of what my pandemic experience was like,” says Derek Rosenfield, Director of Strategic Projects and Internal Communications in the Office of Development. Everyone in his family had their own space to do work (or schoolwork) from home. Being together-yet-separate felt cozy and funny, and also a little strange. While he is grateful for some of the positive aspects of working from home at the time, he was also glad to return to on-site work.

“It was so nice to see everybody, but also weird, like we were returning to the scene of something; we were still trying to figure out what happened. I spent a lot of time that first day talking to people,” he adds, “It was a reminder of just how much of the workplace is about being with other people.”

The current state of flexible work at Stanford

Today, Derek and thousands of other Stanford employees are settled into their hybrid, remote and on-site work arrangements while continuing to consider ways to overcome the challenges of a distributed workplace. “I am glad not to do the 70-mile round trip commute every day, which I did for 25 years,” he says. “On the flip side, there is a spontaneity that comes from being together with people.” 

In navigating this “gigantic change,” Derek says he sees people being deliberate and intentional with how they work now. “While it’s tempting to think we’ve got it all figured out, I think we still have plenty to learn.” 

Derek’s sentiment echoes a key takeaway from the Flexible Work Survey sponsored by University HR last winter, says Ann Foley, Director of Workplace Experience. “Employees find great value in having different types of flexibility - and at the same time, we all recognize there’s still work to be done regarding how best to stay connected and collaborative in a distributed workplace.”

The foundation for our path forward

Since the early days of flexible work, Stanford’s approach has been one of continuous improvement. Through manager workshops, leadership discussions and the survey, we have gathered a lot of data about what works and what needs improvement.  

Following the survey, university leaders agreed that these principles lay the foundation for our path forward.

  • We are a place-based organization and we value in-person interactions. Operational decisions and policies must support our in-person education and research functions and a vibrant, engaged campus.
  • Stanford’s culture is rooted in the connections between the people who work and study here. Supporting and ensuring collaboration is critical. 
  • We are a people-centered institution and we trust and value our employees. Decisions and solutions will consider employee input, representation, equity of opportunity, engagement, and well-being.

To support these principles, University HR continues to coordinate work across organizations to create or update guides and resources on a variety of relevant topics - establishing team norms, effective meeting practices, best practices for scheduling and planning work, team building, and tools to support collaboration and task management.  UHR’s Workplace Experience team also offers free workshops on leading hybrid and remote teams. Visit the Flexible Work web page or email for more information.

The call to action we’re all part of building our future

We are no longer in those early days of experimentation when we wondered if this will work and are now in a place to wonder how to make it work.  

Every day, we each have the opportunity to enhance our ways of working by making conscious efforts to coordinate our time together and collaborating within our teams to improve processes and practices. While managers play a critical role in this, all of us have a part to play. No matter your position, no matter your work arrangement, you play an important role in shaping our future of work at Stanford.

Attributes for Success

As individuals, we contribute to our success and a culture of shared leadership when we are: 

  • Involved: If you have an idea for your team on how to make things run more smoothly, share it!  
  • Proactive: Working across different locations requires planning ahead and being intentional about how and when you’ll collaborate with your colleagues.
  • Communicative: Establish the methods you’ll use within your team and communicate often; make it easy for your colleagues to reach you, no matter your work location.
  • Flexible: There will be times when our standard schedules for being on or off-site need to shift to support the operational needs of our organization.
  • Accountable: Our colleagues need to know we’ll be available when and where we say we will be. Survey results showed that we value coming on-site to interact in person, so we must treat our attendance for anchor days and on-site time as a top priority.

Consider how these attributes apply to you and your team what are you doing well? What needs to be improved? Start a conversation in your next team meeting about how to enhance your team’s collaboration and effectiveness.   

Finally, take time to appreciate all you’ve learned and done over the past three years. We have all adapted and grown as we’ve implemented a whole new way of working. We’ve relied on data and experts' advice, and our own experiences and knowledge. We have embraced the Stanford spirit of curiosity and innovation, and that mindset will make the next phase of this journey as successful as the last.

Real-life scenarios: How we can all contribute

Let’s take a look at how we can embody those key attributes for success in some real-life scenarios. Which of these resonates with you? What other scenarios have you encountered? Make a list of what you find most challenging and consider where you and your colleagues may need to be more involved, proactive, communicative, flexible, or accountable.   

Scenario 1

Visibility into schedules

How can Jan, working on-site as an electrician, clarify expectations on a work order with Rohan, the schedule planner, who works in a hybrid arrangement?

Jan can be proactive and communicative by suggesting a way to share schedules and clarifying communication methods.  Rohan can be involved and accountable by posting his schedule in the office for when Jan or others drop in and by adhering reliably to his on-site schedule.

Scenario 2

Remote, but not distant

How will Miguel, who works remotely in IT, stay in sync with his colleagues who are in the office together three days per week?  

Miguel can be involved and proactive by proposing ideas to his manager about how to increase communication and collaboration such as software that helps with collaboration, icebreakers in team meetings, and coming on-site occasionally for team meetings/events.

Scenario 3

Orchestrating the work

How can Imani, a unit leader, easily reach the remote and hybrid staff who will support preparation for the important event coming up in two weeks?

Imani can be communicative and proactive by sharing what type of support she needs from the team and her expectations for in-person and virtual work/meetings. Her team can be accountable by adhering to the team’s on-site schedule and flexible by coming in on other days as needed for the project. The team can be proactive by updating Imani before she has to ask with progress updates, clarifications on priorities, decisions needed, etc.   

Scenario 4

Being flexible with our flexibility

How can Brian, an individual contributor in a hybrid, student-facing role, respond to a last-minute meeting request from faculty on a day he is not scheduled to be on-site?

Brian can be flexible by shifting his on-site days for the week to accommodate the meeting. He can be communicative by sending a message to his manager and team to let them know about his schedule change for the week, and proactive by setting up other on-site meetings with stakeholders that day.