“They can’t make me go back,” my friend chimed as she related her work woes over dinner about her hybrid workplace. “They’ve mandated back to work for the last quarter, but I haven’t yet gone. I don’t see why I need to – I get my work done, I work well with others, and I save time not commuting.” Meanwhile, my other dinner partner lamented that the broken team he managed wasn’t aligned with his department’s vision. He felt that by seeing only some of his direct reports, only some of the time, he was reinforcing the siloed divide.
The pandemic changed life as we knew it. Some businesses shut down completely, and others were forced to change to keep up. Change is often necessary, and it comes with its own set of challenges. Leaders need to adjust their leadership style using specific skills to mitigate the upcoming hidden challenges that will arise six months from now. Their workforce is unknowingly and silently resisting the leader’s attempts to drive cohesion with a hybrid workplace model.
Hybrid teams create complexity
A hybrid workplace team consists of in-office employees and remote workers. Bringing these two groups together and merging them into one team is a complicated undertaking. Some of the challenges are trying to get everyone together for meetings and assigning projects when some people are in the office and others are at home.
For businesses to survive, companies need to understand the necessity for flexibility around hybrid teams. Since working remotely, many employees have settled into their routine and have found a way to be productive. They prefer remote work and don’t want to give up their location-freedom to go back to the office. To retain skilled workers, companies need to be willing to offer more benefits to their valued employees, especially within a tight labor market.
Common hybrid workplace team challenges
Team leadership has always been an issue when it comes to getting everyone to work together effectively. Now, with hybrid teams, it’s even more difficult.
Maintaining the “one-team” mentality is more complex when working remotely, as people tend to focus on their individual productivity. Accountability is maintained at the leader-to-employee level but often lags at the employee to employee level. This is amplified with issues relating to proximity bias, remote leader scrutiny, ineffective processes, and onboarding gaps.
An underlying sentiment is proximity bias
A hybrid workplace team specifically evokes proximity bias, and this challenge is an unseen and slowly brewing disease. Those who are in-office inevitably receive more communication, feedback, and opportunities than those working remotely. The in-person employees are privy to watercooler conversations, connections, relationship building, and access to senior leaders that remote employees do not have because a leader has more direct contact with those working in the office.
Whether or not it is actually happening is not that important, as remote workers will perceive favoritism simply because they can’t access everything that is occurring in the office. Employee politics can become amplified by the absence of information and connection. A mélange of sentiments from remote employees can manifest themselves in resentment due to their perception of unfair treatment.
Working permanently from home used to be the off-ramp for those seeking to take an easier path in their career. This is no longer the case given the past two years, although employees in the office may still speculate this.
So proximity bias may arise from leaders who give added attention to those with whom they are in constant contact with, and remote workers may imagine that the leaders are giving them less attention as a result. In-office employees may think that their at-home colleagues who aren’t willing to commute are less dedicated.
Remote leaders’ scrutiny intensified
It’s already complex for a leader to lead a hybrid workplace team, and the confusion and challenges are exacerbated when the leader is remote. When the leader of a hybrid team is remote, everything the leader does is amplified. The team members watch the boss’ every move to see if they uphold what they are preaching. Leaders need to tread carefully because it is easy to send mixed signals in this situation.
Broken processes emerge in hybrid workplaces
Cracks in the team’s foundation start showing. In many cases, team processes were never set up properly when working remotely initially started. That’s why things may have started well, but without a well-planned future-forward foundation, work processes can’t continue at the same speed in a hybrid workplace. Businesses are starting to see things crumble, or eventually come to a full stop as communications break down.
Ineffective hybrid onboarding surfaces to show cracks
Teams that were functional beforehand are doing well, but exclusion is a genuine concern for those hired during the pandemic. When bringing new team members on board, it helps to have them shadow employees in the office to understand how things are done and learn the unspoken routines and culture. However, when a new employee works entirely remotely, this becomes difficult. Leaders often don’t realize how ineffective this virtual onboarding process is until it becomes undeniable and is too late.
Keys to Successful Hybrid Workplace Teams
To be effective in this new environment, leaders need to recognize that their face-to-face interactions and group activities won’t be as effective as they once were. They will need to adapt to new management styles, and dealing with team members individually, as well as in a group. This, unfortunately, requires more time from leaders who are inevitably already time-starved.
However, these actions will pay future dividends with a cohesive team and employee retention. These deliberate actions include maintaining one-on-one communication; keeping independent remote employees in mind; emphasizing the common team goals; fostering team skill sharing; providing opportunities for social connection; collaboration and project management; alignment to team norms; creating well-planned meetings; rethinking onboarding,
1. One-on-one communication in workplaces
On a regular basis, managers should check in with each employee individually to hear how they’re doing, answer questions, and maintain a connection. Managers need to pay attention to what is said and not said and may need to read between the lines and uncover feelings of being left out of the loop on certain issues.
It’s best to check in with remote workers every two to three days or at the end of the week to see how they are doing or address any issues or answer questions. It is even more beneficial to spend time talking with them on subjects unrelated to their work to maintain the connection and mitigate siloed thinking.
2. Pay attention to communication with your team
With remote employees, it’s important to answer phone calls and emails promptly to be seen as an involved leader and to avoid triggering feelings of unfairness and bias. Best practices are setting regular check-ins, and seeking the remote employee’s input on work issues. Maintaining contact and making employees feel valued and heard is essential.
3. Be aware of independent, out of sight performers
As a leader, it may be tempting to keep a narrow view and appraisal of a remote team member who gets their work done with stellar results. They produce, stakeholders are happy. They don’t require much guidance as exemplary, dependable performers, right?
The danger is that remote employees inevitably become focused on and only accountable for their own work and become increasingly independent, as my friend expressed. She was unaware that while her work was effective, her siloed thinking was costing the entire department’s cohesion.
If the role isn’t a purely technical, autonomous track, the overly independent mindset can lead to team fissures and employee resentment. Instead, encourage an atmosphere where team members are aware of the collective team’s work. Reiterate, measure, and share team wins, and don’t ignore the independent remote employee.
4. Continual refocus on the team’s purpose
Leaders can frequently refocus their team on their common and shared purpose. That’s because hybrid employees naturally become individually focused on their own projects and tasks without the visual cues of the office.
In-person employees benefit from the subliminal influences of the company’s branding, the team’s scoreboard, the sound of the office, the tangible feel of the corporate mission, and the physical team contact. Effective leaders address this with hybrid teams by visibly sharing team wins, creating virtual scoreboards, using digital project management tools that clearly show the team members’ interdependence, and by being aware of what the leader is measuring and praising.
5. Peer skill sharing
To further combat siloed thinking, teammates need to understand each other’s strengths, regardless of their location. Unlike the in-person environment and opportunities for small talk and interaction, this won’t happen naturally or without effort. Influential leaders who create deliberate activities to highlight interdependencies amongst team members will help contribute to the one-team mentality that must be carefully built.
6. Build and maintain relationships amongst team members
People crave the opportunity to connect when they’re together and this can be structured to allow for equal connections between those in-person and those who are remote. There are a myriad of collaboration tools. Many organizations have been successfully using various enterprise collaboration tools to foster instant messages, informal connections, and water cooler talk.
7. Foster shared project responsibility
Besides collaboration tools, there are many tools to foster hybrid team project efficiency. The goal is to create a place where employees in either group can check assignments for themselves in context with the bigger project. An online bulletin board or project management tool can help teams stay on track. The purpose is to reinforce a one team mentality by reminding employees of the interdependencies between people’s work.
8. Team members need to agree to meeting norms
Hybrid Workplace teams must align on when to meet in person with clear criteria and expectations for participation. Inevitably, remote employees will feel that in-person meetings are less productive and do not justify the commute, inflexibility, and other deterrents against their well-crafted remote work environment.
Meanwhile, leaders may understand the intangible benefits of an entire team in-person meeting to foster a one team mentality. However, to remote employees (focused on their own tasks), their participation is evaluated only against the practicality of the meeting topics – “Can this agenda item be achieved remotely?”
Without pre-aligned expectations on when to meet, it won’t be easy to persuade remote employees to attend each in-person meeting. Had my friend leading his team set clear and undebatable meeting criteria, he could have fostered better agreement for when his team met in person.
9. Clear working expectations
Additionally, remote and in-person employees need to mutually align on expectations for how work is done, what the team norms are for phone, email, text, collaborative tool connections, and protocols for urgent communication. Upfront clarity reduces emotions of unfairness and unreasonableness.
Set flexible but realistic goals for everyone, whether they are in-office or not. Consider setting a time for overlapping hours of remote and in-office employees to allow for collaboration. For example, have most meetings or work done between 10 am and 2 pm.
10. Structure team meetings
A key component of fostering team collaboration is through well-planned team meetings. Leaders should set clear expectations and ensure everyone knows how hybrid meetings will work. For example, set guidelines for meetings and the appropriate use of a webcam in the meetings. Consider which team members are together in person and how to foster equal opportunities for participation amongst all employees.
Proactively plan who is responsible for ensuring a clear plan of next steps before the end of the meeting, given that side conversations for clarity are difficult to achieve on the fly. Overall, meeting planning is critical with a hybrid team, and more thought and planning are needed than one thinks.
11. Structure new hire onboarding
Besides planning meetings, it is vital to have a thoughtful onboarding process in place. It is essential for new hires and experienced team members to get together either in-office. A carefully planned onboarding process can maximize the time the new hire spends in the office rather than simply offloading the read on your own work that often plagues many new employees.
Ideally, the new member should be with an in-office employee for the first few days to avoid confusion during orientation. A well-composed schedule for the first few weeks, including structured meetings and unstructured getting to know you lunches and water cooler talk, will help the new employee get a feel for the culture.
12. Dial-up intrinsic motivators
Fostering an environment for motivation becomes more important in a hybrid workforce, even aside from the Great Resignation and talent shortages. While individual motivators are personal (and can be discovered from the leaders’ one-on-one meetings), recognition should be the common driver.
Create ways to reward employees for small accomplishments. A physical “Thank You” card is one way to recognize someone for their contribution to the team effort and can be sent to remote or in-person employees.
Taking the initiative to change how hybrid teams work together will reduce the undercurrent of emerging troubles. Keeping the lines of communication open is of the utmost importance, and fostering accountability amongst employee to employee (not just employee to team leader) will help rebuild a stronger team that works well together.