There’s a great opportunity to begin to explore how we create an environment that is safe for people who want to have conversations about flexibility, who want to be flexible, versus fighting that change.
For most companies, the pivot to remote work has been a success—albeit with a few bumps in the road here and there. That’s no small feat, especially considering that this large shift was executed with little (or for some, zero) warning by organizations that were largely unprepared for it. As people leaders, we’ve been expected to shift our style to better meet the new needs of a workforce that are also adapting on the fly. Many leaders have been wildly successful (or mildly or somewhere in between) at this task. However, it’s time for the business world to brace itself for another seismic shift: leading hybrid teams.
The Post-Pandemic Workplace
Now that the vaccines are (slowly but surely!) making their way across the country, companies and their associated people leaders have to figure out what a post-pandemic workplace will look like. As they consider whether to bring everyone back into the office, they have to face the elephant in the room: once people get settled into one way of doing things and come to prefer it (i.e., working from home), it’s really hard to claw back something that people now see as “the norm.”
Some organizations (such as Facebook and Twitter) have already signaled that they intend to allow at least some of their employees to keep working from home in the long term indefinitely. Others (such as Basecamp and Automatic) are 100 percent permanently remote. The companies embracing remote-friendly policies have seen how remote work has decreased company overhead (farewell, expensive office space!) and improved employee satisfaction, which in turn bolsters engagement and productivity.
But working from home isn’t always the best option for all office workers. Some employees, some managers, and some companies really do better when face-to-face interactions are possible. And after a year of being stuck at home, more than a few people find that they actually miss being in an office and having a commute that’s longer than “walk down the hall to the living room.”
For all these (and many other) reasons, many organizations are considering implementing some sort of hybrid work arrangement when it’s safe for unmasked people to be in close proximity to each other again. Requiring people to be in the office only a certain number of days per week or month is one way to find a middle ground between bringing everyone back in full time and keeping everyone at home full time.
After determining where your employees will work, now it’s time to focus on leading hybrid teams and specifically, how best to serve a hybrid work environment.
Balance and Inclusion
Even before COVID upended the traditional office setting, remote employees were already particularly vulnerable to not feeling like a part of a team. That’s because when everyone is in the office—or when everyone is on Zoom—all employees are on the same level playing field. As offices start to open up and some employees go back to interacting in person while others remain offsite, some people (usually the ones at remote locations) can feel left out.
When leading hybrid teams, managers should be acutely aware of this possibility and actively work to mitigate it. For the first few weeks (if not months), actively track the time you spend with each employee. I know that may sound like a lot of work, but compiling this data is critical to enabling you to develop a balanced and inclusive routine with all of your direct reports.
With each employee, be sure to spend equal amounts of time discussing projects, strategizing on growth opportunities, and even just shooting the breeze. The “equal time” guideline also applies to how you spend your lunchtime: rather than have lunch exclusively with employees who are working from the office with you, “meet” your virtual employees for lunch, too. If you regularly spend a few minutes on Monday mornings catching up with onsite employees about their weekends, doing the same (even if just via a quick text or IM chat) with employees who are working from home helps keep the team balanced.
My earlier post “6 Tips for Managing Remote Employees for the Long Term” opens by pointing out that discussing communication norms and requirements with your employees is important to ensure that everyone gets the time they need to perform at their best. In a hybrid environment, such conversations become even more critical, so in that context, I push my team (and myself) harder on communication issues so we can be more successful at keeping everyone in the loop—and not leaving anyone out.
One effective thing I’ve done with previous hybrid teams is to state the obvious. Clearly describing this problem and asking people to be mindful of it can go a long way to preventing it. Most of the time when remote workers are excluded at work, it’s usually not because others are being malicious but because “out of sight, out of mind” can lead to unintentional oversights. Once people realize it could happen (or is happening), they generally try to fix it.
Another major challenge for leading hybrid teams is figuring out a workable schedule if employees are required (or desire) to come back to the office. If employees will be in the office only some of the time, then you—and your whole team or department, actually—need to have a clear understanding of who will be where and when. This knowledge is essential for planning meetings, coordinating collaboration, and just generally getting things done in a timely manner.
- For some teams, a regular schedule may work best. If you’ve ever worked retail or food service before, you know how frustrating it can be when you can’t make long-term (or sometimes even short-term) plans because your work schedule changes each week.
- However, for other teams, the kind of work we’re doing and the nature of both our work responsibilities (such as team projects and cross-department collaboration) and our non-work commitments (such as our families) make regular schedules unnecessary.
The key is to discuss the situation (including why in-office time may be important for the group) with your employees. Work with them to come up with a schedule together. Including them in
this conversation (rather than just dictating who has to work when) strengthens their buy-in—and helps ensure that they’ll perform as needed so they don’t lose their preferred arrangement.
For example, my team has decided to make Wednesday our “collaboration day” when everyone works onsite in the office. We also agreed to be flexible if someone needs to work from home on Wednesdays. Our target starting date for this plan is June 1, and our goal is to hold in-person meetings on Wednesdays so that everyone can take advantage of this time together to help boost communication and collaboration.
One of my clients is considering having each team or department represented by at least one person in the office on any given weekday, with all (or at least most) employees in the office on the same day each week. (For example, if person A is in the office Monday through Thursday, person B is in the office Tuesday through Thursday, and person C is in the office Wednesday through Friday, that makes Wednesday the “overlap” day.) In addition to being a good time for meetings, the “overlap” day can also be used for training among peers. Additionally, this kind of schedule can help new hires assimilate quicker by giving them regular in-person time with every other employee.
Some Ramifications of Inflexibility
If you don’t think about and plan for the future of work then your organization has no future.
There are a lot of unknowns about the path ahead. One thing is certain, though: you and your organization will be moving forward against the backdrop of how the pandemic has reshaped pretty much everything we know. The business world has changed a great deal in the past year—and that includes the expectations that companies, managers, and employees all have of each other.
After working out of the office—often without strictly defined hours (and definitely without the dress-code requirements of suits, heels, and neckties!)—it’s likely that many employees will be unwilling to fully surrender that flexibility and might decide to leave companies that insist on returning as much as possible to how things were before the pandemic. With plenty of technology to aid productivity and communication when people aren’t in the office, as well as a year’s worth of experience under these arrangements, why not continue virtual work at least to some degree for those who’ve managed it successfully?
Part of being a great leader is helping your employees achieve their full potential in ways that benefit them, their teams, and the organization. Maybe that means considering remote work a permanent (and not just crisis-mode-temporary) addition to the range of practices that help you meet your staffing needs, increase engagement, and improve performance. Remember, it’s not all or nothing: the key is to try new working arrangements (just like you’ve been doing over the past year) and then make adjustments based on what’s working and what isn’t.
Looking ahead, what do you think working arrangements will look like for you and your team? What keeps you up at night when thinking about leading hybrid teams?