Many organizations are embracing hybrid teams (a mixture of onsite and remote employees) as a model of working in the post-COVID19 world. Hybrid teams are not new, but this model of working is new to many organizations and leaders.
I’ve been leading hybrid teams for 15 years, so I have a pretty good idea of what works and what doesn’t. I’ve learned a lot over this time, mostly through trial and error. I thought I’d offer some straight-up, real talk about what it’s like to lead a hybrid team, so that you can learn from my experience and possibly avoid some of the mistakes I made.
Work From Home (WFH) and In-Office Schedules
Years ago, when I decided to allow team members to work from home a few days a week, I worked with my managers to create an elaborate schedule of the days team members would WFH and be in the office. We wanted to maintain at least 60% of our team in the office on any given day and we also wanted to limit people working from home on Monday or Friday (because, you know, those untrustworthy workers would use their Friday/Monday WFH day to make it a long weekend). To limit time out of the office, we had a policy that team members were to schedule personal appointments on their WFH days.
Life doesn’t happen according to our neat little plan. Legitimate circumstances would arise that caused a team member to shift their schedule – a sick child, a broken water pipe at home, or an impromptu meeting at the office that required the employee to come in on their normal WFH day. We quickly found ourselves spending more time and energy managing our team member’s whereabouts than the important work we needed to accomplish. I eventually decided to leave it to the employee’s discretion of when to WFH and when to be in the office. They came into the office when they needed to be there for meetings or to collaborate with others.
The first few years of leading a hybrid team, I had less than a handful of team members who worked remotely (full-time), while everyone else was in the office. Our team meetings would consist of everyone gathered around a conference table with a polycom in the middle, and the remote people joined in via conference call. Of course, the experience for the remote people was horrendous.
As my hybrid team grew and more people worked remotely, we started using Zoom for our team meetings. We were doing Zoom calls years before anyone had ever heard of Zoom (weren’t we progressive!). However, we still gathered everyone in the conference room, hooked a laptop to the LCD projector, and showed the remote people on screen. Of course, they were still connected via the horrendous polycom conference phone, so really the experience didn’t improve much for the remote folks. They were still second-class citizens when it came to team meetings.
We finally got smart and started holding our team meetings all-virtual. Everyone, including the entire team in the office, got on Zoom from their individual offices. Compared to our previous meeting formats, the experience was night and day better for everyone! All-virtual meetings level the playing field for everyone because each team member has equal opportunity to participate.
Make the implicit, explicit. That’s what I learned, and that’s what my colleague, John Hester, calls out as one of the key skills to leading a hybrid team. Document expectations so there isn’t any room for confusion. Everything from working hours, response times, technologies to be leveraged, backup plans, and communication norms should be clear, regularly communicated, and most of all, followed.
Most importantly, trust is the foundation for leading a hybrid team.
Foster a Connected Community
My friend, Michael Stallard, is an expert in this area. He emphasizes that a culture of connection meets the seven universal human needs at work for respect, recognition, belonging, autonomy, personal growth, meaning, and progress. I’ve found this to be true in leading hybrid teams. My managers and I found we had to work differently, and more intentionally, to foster relationships with team members. Team members themselves must be more intentional about being seen and heard when they aren’t in the office. Many leaders fall into the trap of proximity bias, which is giving preferential treatment to those in their immediate vicinity. Leaders need to be conscious of that bias, work to eliminate it, and employees need to know that it’s a factor that may impact their personal situation.
Hybrid Teams Are Different from Co-located Teams
In the early days of leading a hybrid team, I thought something was wrong because it didn’t feel the same as when everyone was in the office. I learned that nothing was wrong, it was just different. Hybrid teams “feel” different, both from the leader and team member perspective, than teams that have everyone physically located together. As mentioned previously, everyone needs to be more intentional to foster connected relationships in a hybrid team. Hybrid teams miss out on those chance hallway encounters, the lingering conversation after a meeting ends, or the chit-chat in the office lunch kitchen. You have to make up for those times by planning them into your online team meetings and specific events to build team camaraderie.
Face-to-face meetings are critically important for building relationships. I learned the importance of scheduling periodic meetings to bring the team together, usually for non-work, social activities. I would organize regular team lunches in the office and invite everyone to come in (free food always attracts a crowd!) or plan a cook-out at a team member’s house and then let them take the rest of the day off work. I leveraged yearly all-company meetings to bring the entire global team together, and the agenda for those meetings would be roughly 1/3rd work-focused and 2/3rd team-building focused.
There will be some team members who turn out to be ill-suited to work remotely. Some people have challenges staying focused and productive when working from home or don’t have the technical chops to effectively self-manage the technology required to be productive. I learned you have two choices: either require them to be in the office full-time (which often creates resentment because they feel they are being treated unfairly), or share them with your competition. Whichever route you choose, deal with it promptly. Don’t let it linger because it will eventually need to be dealt with, and it’s much easier for everyone involved if you act quickly.
Trust is the coin of the realm
Most importantly, trust is the foundation for leading a successful hybrid team. If you can’t trust an employee to do a good job when they WFH, then they probably shouldn’t be on your team. As a leader, you must take the risk of extending trust to your team, which is exactly what you did last year when you sent your team to WFH during the pandemic. Why would you want to pull back on that trust now by trying to run your hybrid team with an iron fist? Don’t do it.
I love leading and working in a hybrid team because it provides people the autonomy they need to do their jobs in the best possible way. I think most organizations have learned during the pandemic that there are tremendous upsides to remote work. Are there challenges? You bet. Are they manageable? Yes, they are.
Let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water by returning to the old ways of work just because it’s familiar and comfortable. Hybrid teams work. Make them work for you.