Flexible work is no longer the ‘future of work’, it’s happening right now. For those employees whose work permits them to work remotely, flexibility is now a necessity, especially with the uncertainty of the pandemic. And in this, the next challenge for HR, leaders, and managers is to be able to effectively manage hybrid teams.
A hybrid team simply refers to a working model where some employees work from home remotely on some or all days, whereas others work ‘locally’ in the physical office. Consider this:
Penny is a people person and loves coming into the office for the atmosphere and enjoys face-to-face collaboration. Steph, on the other hand, prefers working from home because she can juggle her kids, walk the dog, and work out every day.
Alan likes a bit of both. He appreciates days at home to get stuck into deep work but sometimes feels he misses out on things when he’s not in the office – the impromptu conversations, coffee and connections that are created.
Luckily, Penny, Steph and Alan all work in jobs that don’t need to be performed from a particular location (unlike the 62% of Americans who can’t work from home). As such, they can choose to work from wherever suits them on that particular day; together, they form a hybrid team.
This mixed model of work is now becoming a permanent fixture for many organizations. Work simply isn’t going to go back to how it was pre-pandemic. With conditions constantly changing – in lockdown one day, out the next, and reduced office space to meet social distancing requirements, hybrid work just makes sense.
But it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. Managers now need to work out the best way to manage hybrid teams in a way that everyone feels included and that is sustainable over the long term.
In this post, we’ll pinpoint the challenges of working with hybrid teams and share some practical tips for managing hybrid teams.
First, it’s important to understand that the experience for those at home and in the office is vastly different.
Reports on remote work have been positive for the most part. Employees feel empowered by the flexibility and autonomy, which increases retention (according to Forbes). Organizations can employ a more diverse workforce of top talent from around the world and have realized employees can be productive at home. Plus, there are big cost savings associated with having fewer workers in a physical office.
However, a recent report by Pew research shows that many remote employees (65%) are feeling less connected to their co-workers, and others are struggling with motivation. This effect is even stronger for 18-29 year olds, with 53% finding motivation a challenge. Furthermore, for parents with children, half say it’s difficult to get their work done without interruptions, with 39% of mothers finding it harder to balance work and family responsibilities than fathers (28%).
Therefore, leaders must consider not just the differences between local and remote workers but also the differences that each individual team member working remotely will face based on factors like age, gender, income, personality and family/living situation.
Second, leaders should be careful of the unconscious biases and imbalances that can occur between local and remote employees that might inadvertently disadvantage one group (typically, the remote ones).
Unconscious biases are attitudes or stereotypes that influence the way we act towards others (e.g. recruitment, or the work we allocate to them). These can be tricky to manage because, as the name suggests, they’re outside of our awareness. So, the first step is to be aware of them.
Some biases you might face managing a hybrid team include:
We’ll delve a bit deeper into some of these in the next section.
The challenges of managing a hybrid team are much the same as managing an in-office team or remote team, with a few added extras.
Anne Herbert, Director of Streamline HR, has been working remotely and with hybrid teams for over five years now, applying her learnings to help her clients transition to remote work at the beginning of the pandemic, and now assisting them to put long-term measures in place to effectively manage hybrid workers.
“There are three parts to it – the first challenge of hybrid work is from a work-related information and communication perspective; and the second is about culture and connections with other people; and the third is about trust.”
1. Information sharing
Effective, open communication and sharing of information is vital when managing a hybrid team. But this is often impacted by a proximity bias – where we favour those who are closer to us physically and in time (i.e. in the same time zone).
“When you’re in the office, things happen by osmosis,” Anne says.
“You overhear things in the kitchen, you’re asked a question because you’re close by, or a co-worker will grab you for a chat that might evolve into a bigger conversation.”
When you’re working remotely, not only do you miss out on those interactions, but if your teammates are having them, then it’s likely giving them an advantage over you.
Knowledge is power, right?
Take a manager located in Toronto head office who oversees a global team. for example. They might allocate a task to a team member sitting beside them as it comes up, rather than waiting to share it with the remotely located Singapore team who wouldn’t see it until the next day.
This information imbalance needs to be addressed by making communication frequent, easy, and habitual, Anne says.
“We’re very conscious of actively communicating with each other to share information and updates about our clients, and we use different channels and platforms to do so.”
(We’ll cover some more tips for communicating in remote teams later in this article!).
2. Culture and connection
The second challenge of managing a hybrid team lies in how to build and maintain a thriving organizational culture. One that both attracts quality staff to your organization and keeps them performing and engaged once they’ve been hired.
“For one of our clients, their company culture was their main selling point – they had a tight-knit team, team meetings once a week, regular events, and in-office perks for the staff, as well as birthday celebrations, lunches etc. With the shift to remote work, they lost all of that and when given the opportunity to return to the office, not everyone wanted to.”
So how did they manage this? Through building norms and rituals into the workweek, Anne says.
“They established an ‘in-office’ day each Wednesday where everyone got together in the morning to catch up for breakfast first before heading to their desks. This allowed them to catch up on a social level and reconnect from a cultural perspective.”
In addition to fostering culture, hybrid teams also need to work harder to build the same connections and relationships that form naturally in the office. A couple more biases and imbalances come into play here.
Ever made good friends with the person who sits beside you or in your pod? The simple fact that you are co-located makes it more likely that you’ll be friends. This is called a connection imbalance.
This is compounded by the fact that we tend to favour those who are similar to us (similarity bias). Remote workers and office workers tend to form into two natural sub-groups which can create an ‘us’ and ‘them’ culture.
But this division is inevitable, Anne says, it’s how you act as a leader that’s important.
“Every organization has sub-cultures and factions, so there will always be a distinction between remote and in-office employees. The job of the manager is to treat everyone fairly, be consistent and try to unite everyone across the business through team meetings and engagement.
“Set clear expectations from the start and have one rule for all employees, whether it’s around communication, work practices or managing performance.”
A conversation about hybrid, or remote work isn’t complete without touching on trust.
Leaders are asking:
“If you start acting like big brother then employees will eventually rebel against that. Trust is built through clear communication and expectations,” Anne says.
Next, we’re going to tackle exactly how to do that.
Now we know the challenges you’re up against, here’s a blueprint to ensure your hybrid teams operate and perform at their best.
As we’ve just learned, communication is key to managing a hybrid team. Anne suggests looking at communication from two perspectives:
“There’s no one-size fits all to communicating information internally, but it’s even more important that it does get communicated, when you’re working with distributed teams,” Anne says.
Here’s three simple ways to ensure you’re doing it optimally.
1. Utilize technology
You’re probably all over it, but if you’re not already using a good project or task management tool, shared docs, collaborative digital whiteboards and instant messenger to enable team collaboration and communication, then check out this list.
2. Communicate at every level
Anne says that checking in on your team members’ wellbeing is just as important as task-related check-ins.
“Getting to know your team members personally will help you to build trust, so if there’s an issue, whether it’s work, personal or mental health-related you will be better able to support them.”
She also advises keeping the video turned on for calls with the at-home employees.
“Conducting check-ins over video is important; there’s a lot of non-verbal cues that can be picked up on.”
3. Establish norms for communication (and stick to them)
We’ve all been a part of a meeting before where that one person switches their camera off, and everyone is left wondering what are they doing that they can’t have their camera on?. And unfortunately for that person, the worst is often assumed – that they’re not paying attention or they’re not even there.
Anne advises setting expectations for what works for your team and communication behaviour from the beginning and being consistent with enforcing them.
“My team was having Microsoft video calls long before COVID-19. The expectations are that people turn up on time and are engaged, and this means having their video on.
“With hybrid teams, have everyone dial in via video on their own device, regardless of whether they’re in the office or not. People at home shouldn’t be disadvantaged by technology and this helps to level out any potential inequalities.”
Effective, engaging (and fun!) communication that fosters connection between team members can be much more difficult to achieve. And although it will depend on your organization’s existing culture and the make-up of your team, it’s still just as crucial as task-related communication.
“The difference between working for your organization and another is the social connections, bonds and culture, so it’s vital for leaders to continue to foster this, for those at home and in the office.”
1. Utilize technology
Yep, we’re including technology again here because it’s central to hybrid teams. If you’re not already using an instant messaging service like Zoom or Slack, it might be worth looking into as these are gold for creating a place where staff can connect socially – to share news, jokes, memes and general banter.
2. Top down communication
Anne says that social banter doesn’t necessarily come naturally to everyone, so it’s got to come from the top.
“When our team’s not communicating as well, I do make a conscious effort to spark conversation and banter.
“It also needs to be a conscious effort to keep it going. Many teams started really strong at the beginning of COVID-19 and the shift to remote work with fun competitions, challenges and lots of interaction, but in some teams this has fallen away.”
3. Systematize things
As good as your intentions might be to start a fun conversation on instant messenger, or check in with your staff on the reg, we’re only human. We get busy, things come up, and other things slip down (or off) the ol’ priority list. Anne advises that the best way to address this is to systematize and automate what you can.
“The key thing is that something is done with the information, you must listen to the feedback and act on it, otherwise you’ll be breaking trust,” Anne says.
Managers of hybrid teams need to work to build a culture where teams feel included and comfortable sharing ideas and opinions, giving and receiving feedback, asking questions and being honest and vulnerable – an environment of psychological safety.
And managers also need to be able to trust their workers.
Anne says that setting clear expectations around performance and behaviour, having tools and structures in place to support this will go a long way.
“Whether it’s that your team members need to check-in every morning to say hello via Slack or Teams or that certain KPIs must be met, make it clear what you expect of your team.”
Get together with your team to decide how you want to communicate, interact and work together. Involving them in the process and agreeing as a whole what the norms are, results in greater accountability, trust and ownership. And having regular check-ins with each team member is vital to building trust.
What if you’ve got an underperformer in the team who’s working remotely? You follow exactly the same rules as when they’re in the office, Anne says.
And at risk of sounding like a broken record, it’s about making expectations clear and having solid processes to support.
“The same structures should be in place to manage the performance of both in-office and remote team members.
“If you’re setting goals and clear expectations around what’s required for your in-office and remote workers, and you’re giving regular feedback and/or performance reviews, then it makes having a conversation about performance much easier.”
Leaders also need to be hyper-aware of not forgetting about high performers, who can often scoot under the radar.
“It’s important to recognize good performance and celebrate the wins in your team and the broader business. It can be as simple as a message or phone call to say, ‘Hey well done, you really nailed that project’.
“You might have the best intentions to do performance check-ins or recognition but if it’s not systematized or automated, it might not get done. Systems like intelliHR are great for creating that structure and ensuring you’re being consistent and proactive.”
So now we know the challenges and some ways to manage hybrid teams, is there a special sort of leader that is cut out for this? Are they different from someone who manages a team in the office?
“A manager of a hybrid team needs to have good emotional intelligence, intuition and people skills”, Anne says.
“They need to be able to pick up on cues and sense when things aren’t quite right.”
They also need to be able to have a difficult conversation.
“You still have to manage underperformance, mental health and well-being issues in hybrid teams. It’s not simply out of sight, out of mind. As a manager of a hybrid team, you need to be on top of these things.
“It’s okay to say, ‘Hey, I could be wrong, but it feels like something isn’t right. Is everything okay?’”
Hybrid working has so many benefits for employees in terms of autonomy and freedom and for organizations too. Follow these tips, systematize your processes, and lean on technology to help.
intelliHR is a people management platform helping HR, leaders and managers enhance performance, culture, engagement and retention. With built-in HRIS and powerful real-time analytics, see how the platform works today.