Successfully Managing a Hybrid Team
- When companies switched to remote work during the pandemic, individual productivity was maintained, but teamwork and organizational cultures suffered.
- Now that more businesses rely on hybrid work and colleagues spend less time together, when employees are in the office, they should prioritize tasks that benefit from in-person interaction.
- Managers of hybrid teams must combat “distance bias” by making sure remote workers feel included in group discussions and decisions.
Nearly three years ago when the pandemic began, organizational leaders panicked about the sudden shift to virtual workplaces. Managers could not envision how they could run their organizations over Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or Slack.
However, even before COVID-19, virtual teams were a growing trend. One 2012 survey revealed that 46 percent of organizations already were using virtual teams to leverage dispersed talent, boost productivity, and minimize travel costs. However, most pre-pandemic research on virtual teams showed that their performance could be harmed by problems with communication, conflict, and trust. So, some of that panic around a mass pivot to remote work wasn’t entirely unwarranted.
Despite the challenges, most individuals and organizations pulled it off. In one survey conducted in late 2020 by PwC, 71 percent of employees and 83 percent of employers said the shift to virtual work was successful. Many employees and leaders reported they had become even more productive working virtually.
Unfortunately, even though individual productivity was maintained, teamwork and the organizational culture suffered. People felt less socially connected to their teams and experienced more trust and communication problems. Leaders reported managing a collection of individual contributors, not a team. Departments became more siloed as employees spent less time networking. The social fabric of organizations was stretched and tearing.
People also worked more and worked harder. One year into the pandemic, a survey showed that there had been a 148 percent increase in meetings and a 45 percent increase in chat activity, while 40.6 billion more emails had been sent. A year later, the number of meetings had risen to 252 percent above pre-pandemic levels. Digital overload became an increasing concern. People were burnt out. Many began to re-evaluate their priorities, placing more emphasis on flexibility, personal life, and well-being than on work.
As we enter 2023, we are at a point of reckoning. Where do we go from here? It seems clear that a hybrid approach—a mix of virtual and in-person work—is here to stay. Data show that 87 percent of employees want to remain remote most of the time. Of those who are currently employed, 56 percent spend equal amounts of time working remotely and in person. Globally, of those who are looking for work, 65 percent are searching for remote-only jobs. People don’t want to return to the way things were.
Moving forward, organizations that succeed with blended work arrangements will be those that implement hybrid-friendly practices and overcome some well-known pitfalls. As a society, we will need to re-examine some of our most basic assumptions—such as the belief that workplaces are where work gets done—and create new norms. We will need to ensure that we make time for both collaborative work and individual productivity, and we must pick the right venues for each.
What Good Is an Office?
Inevitably, there will be those who ask whether a workplace is even necessary or relevant anymore. In jobs where most of the work can be done remotely, some will question why people should still come together. But in-person work remains critical for two reasons.
First, people need opportunities to connect face-to-face so they can build the trust necessary for effective collaboration, conflict resolution, and on-the-job learning. They need spontaneous, informal interactions with co-workers across the organization so they can maintain networks and feel like they are part of a bigger picture. These interactions help strengthen organizational culture.
Second, some types of work simply require people to be present in the same room. For instance, employees might need to meet face-to-face to make presentations to clients, access secure resources, or receive mentoring and on-the-job training.
People need opportunities to connect face-to-face so they can build the trust necessary for effective collaboration, conflict resolution, and on-the-job learning.
We need to change how we think about the way time is spent in the workplace. When employees are working remotely, the focus should be on individual productivity. But when they are in the office—ideally together as a team—the focus should be on using that shared time and space for collaboration. The physical space should not be a place where people sit in their cubicles and attend Zoom meetings all day. It should be a people-centric space that sparks collaboration and discussion.
One way leaders can promote interactions among employees is to enable impromptu encounters via company lunches or social events. We rarely think of those activities as work, but they are important nonetheless. They help maintain the organizational culture, break down silos, and build cohesion.
After more than two years of being told to isolate, many people understandably are reticent to come back to the office and engage. Many also have discovered the advantages of flexibility and the comforts of working from home. They need to be reminded of the benefits that accrue when colleagues are together in the office even as little as once per week. These include increased opportunities for collaboration and higher levels of employee satisfaction.
Countering Distance Bias
For managers, hybrid teams come with many challenges. One of the most well-known pitfalls is distance bias, in which a worker in a home or off-site location is considered to be less a part of the team. As that worker begins to feel isolated and excluded from the larger group, the predictable consequences are mistrust, misunderstanding, and lack of empathy.
If you’re a leader, you can take several steps to counteract this bias. Change the status differentials and play up the group identity. Make sure to emphasize the team’s overall purpose and stress that each member plays an important role in achieving that purpose. Ensure that all employees feel like part of the team, regardless of how or where they work.
Also, ensure that employees have equal access to information and resources, no matter where they work. Realize that you operate in two separate spaces—the virtual workplace and the physical workplace. Understand that off-site workers will be out of the loop when discussions and decision-making occur in the office. Make sure that these discussions and decisions are transferred into the virtual collaboration platform so all employees feel included—and don’t skimp on robust purpose-built hybrid technology.
Distance bias means that, during hybrid meetings, people in the room are more likely to be heard. To combat this tendency, give virtual attendees the opportunity to provide their input or feedback first. This tactic disrupts distance bias and gives remote workers a better chance to voice their ideas and opinions.
You also can disrupt the bias by making sure you toggle between holding face-to-face meetings and holding meetings from your own remote office. Employees will see that they can lead discussions and expect to be listened to whether they are in the workplace or in an off-site location.
Another pitfall of hybrid work is the proliferation of meetings. While it’s important that you have an effective communications platform that enables virtual collaboration and asynchronous work, you need to decide how to communicate.
Here, the media richness model should drive your decisions. According to this theory, as tasks become more complex—requiring decision-making, conflict resolution, and group brainstorming—you should turn to rich communication media. These include video conferences, face-to-face meetings, and combined media for hybrid groups. Tasks with low complexity—such as quick check-ins or progress updates—should be done asynchronously through channels such as Microsoft Teams, so that employees don’t waste time in meetings.
If you want people to have time for in-person collaboration while they’re in the office, save in-person meetings for complex problem-solving tasks that require employees to share many perspectives.
The proliferation of meetings is both inefficient and a source of burnout. If you want people to have time for in-person collaboration while they’re in the office, ask yourself if another videoconference is necessary. Are you meeting for a complex problem-solving task that requires employees to share many perspectives, or do you just have a habit of meeting to share status updates? Can you cut back your meeting times so employees can be more efficient and find better ways to get things done?
A useful exercise is to go through your calendar and try to strip back at least 30 percent of the scheduled or prospective meetings. While you’re at it, shorten meeting duration, too: Make 60-minute meetings 45 minutes and 30-minute meetings 20 minutes. You’ll likely find that less is more, and you’ll have time left for those impromptu moments of collaboration.
Trust and Celebration
Team members who only occasionally connect face-to-face with colleagues may feel trust is merely “nice to have” but not essential. They underestimate how much trust facilitates effective teamwork by encouraging strong bonds that help people feel safe to speak up. When trust erodes, people withdraw. They decide not to update co-workers on a project, for example, figuring colleagues will hear about it later. That can lead to inefficiencies and conflicts.
Trust is fragile, and social distance doesn’t help. People tend to feel closest to those they can see and interact with on a regular basis. On virtual or hybrid teams, if workers are not actively building trust, then it’s likely the trust between them is eroding.
As a team leader, where do you focus? You can win employees’ trust through your ability and your integrity, but you can also spark trust by offering benevolence. You can build trust by treating colleagues with respect, care, and compassion and by seeing them as whole people. When you model such behavior, people will open up and feel they’re part of a community, not just a cog in the machinery.
You also can build connections with workers by giving your team—and yourself—permission to celebrate. It’s a way to affirm that everyone has been through a lot in the past three years and accomplished much more than seemed possible. Bring employees together and find ways to recognize them for what they’ve contributed and to highlight what you stand for as an organization. Rebuilding and reaffirming your shared identity will carry you through any challenges ahead.
A Work in Progress
If hybrid teams are new to your company, you should realize that most organizations won’t get them right immediately. Adopt a collaborative learning orientation as you navigate the hybrid environment. Keep an open mind, pay attention to which new routines are working and which ones are “pain points,” give upward feedback, and use town halls or team huddles for problem-solving.
And stay abreast of new technologies, best practices, and thought leadership in this evolving area. While new solutions will certainly be developed to optimize the hybrid work experience, a variety of professional development programs already are available to provide you with the skills you need to lead in the modern workplace. For instance, I teach a course devoted to leading hybrid teams that is delivered through Queen’s Executive Education at Smith School of Business in Kingston, Ontario.
There is also a breadth of research underway exploring this modern work model, including the work I am currently doing with a master’s student. We are examining the positives of a hybrid work model (increased focus, uninterrupted workflow), as well as the negatives (loneliness, disconnection). These elements will be important to understand as more distributed team members complete their work asynchronously.
The reality is that we still don't fully understand many facets of the hybrid work transition. But we’ll get there.