Many teams won’t return to the same office-centric approach that existed before the pandemic drove people to their home offices (and kitchen tables) in March of 2020. Instead, the future of work will include a melange of work arrangements on a continuum from permanent work from home to full-time in the office. The middle ground will be occupied by employees who split their work weeks into a mix of remote and in-person days.
If I were making recommendations solely based on optimizing the success of each employee, I’d be cheering for a mixed remote and in-office approach. That blended model affords the benefits of time in the office for connecting, communicating, and collaborating while still capitalizing on the benefits of working from home, including greater focus, enhanced productivity, and the ability to manage one’s personal priorities.
But I’m not an individual productivity expert. My focus is teams.
And when it comes to the shift to hybrid teams (where some teammates are together in the office while others are remote), I’ll be candid; I’m nervous.
The Challenges of Hybrid Teams
Working together in an office was a good model. It had issues, but for the most part, we made it work. Working remotely from our homes, farms, or Bali workation rentals was also a viable model—teams have done a remarkable job at functioning virtually for the last two years. In both scenarios, you shared an experience with your teammates. But now, people on your team might have vastly different experiences, and I’m afraid those discrepant experiences might cause rifts.
Challenges in Forming Trust
Trust is critical to all teams, but research suggests it’s even more crucial to virtual teams. The irony is that it’s harder to build trust with someone when you aren’t physically collocated. Now play out the hybrid scenario. Some coworkers are physically together. They have downtime at the coffee machine. Perhaps they sit together while they eat (studies suggest that eating together forges connection). At the very least, they can observe one another’s body language and pick up contextual cues that help them interpret each other’s behavior more accurately. It’s a significant disadvantage for the remote workers who don’t have the same informal contact. The challenge of the hybrid team is the disparity in trust between those who work together in the office and those who work from home.
Disparate Access to Information
Differential access to communication is another source of issues on hybrid teams. This gap applies to both content and context. Let’s start with content. Remote employees must rely on meetings, email, or activity in the Slack channel for their content. In contrast, in-office employees can chat in the elevator, get an update from the boss as they come out of a meeting, and even learn from overhearing conversations between two other colleagues. That likely means that in-office employees are more in-the-know than those at home. Being better informed can translate into greater productivity, efficiency, or innovative ideas. Managers need to counteract the communication imbalance by being very deliberate about conveying messages to those who aren’t in the office.
It’s not just more content that advantages in-office employees; it’s also the context they pick up. I mentioned that in-office employees are likely to pick up valuable information as their manager walks out of a meeting and stops to share a few of the critical outcomes. But imagine that this manager is conscious of the communication gaps and therefore chooses to forego the chat with the in-office employees and replace it with an email to all on the team. Although this solves the problem of different access to content, there are still imbalances. For example, the in-office team might see the boss walk out of the meeting looking frustrated and red in the face. When they receive the email with the boss’ description of the meeting, this context will make a meaningful difference in how they interpret it. For example, the in-office employees might notice the boss’ curtness but attribute it to how much heat she got in the meeting with her boss. Without the contextual cues, the remote employees might interpret the tone in the email as hostility toward them. Context is important. As a manager, take time to be aware of some of these context factors and share them more candidly than you otherwise might. It will help reduce the disparity between your in-office and remote team members.
The Friction of Asking for Help
Another gap between in-office and remote teammates will be their different access to assistance. Research has shown that remote employees experience more social friction in asking for help than people in the office. Social friction refers to the idea that it’s difficult for remote workers to know what information they need or whom to ask when they know what they don’t know. Further, social friction includes the embarrassment of admitting you need help and the fear of being seen as incompetent. As a result, remote employees are less likely to ask for help.
It’s not all about whether someone asks for help or not. When you’re working side-by-side with someone, and they’re grunting and groaning over a task, it’s easy to know that they might need a hand. When a remote teammate is out of sight, you miss these cues and, with them, the chance to offer help. Over time, the cumulative impact might cause you to assume that in-office people are more talented, more effective, or more efficient than remote workers when the issue is really that the remote team hasn’t been set up for success.
How to Minimize the Issues with Hybrid Teams
The genie is not going back in the bottle, the toothpaste is not going back in the tube, and the whole team is not going back to the office, so we’ve got work to do to make hybrid teamwork work.
Here are a few things to try to get all the benefits of hybrid teams while minimizing the downsides.
- Invest in bringing everyone together when forming teams or hiring new employees. Relationships that start with in-person connections can be sustained remotely for a long time.
- Try to coordinate days where everyone is in the office, preferably weekly, but if not, monthly.
- Have pictures of your whole team in prominent places in the office and shared online spaces. Out of sight doesn’t have to mean out of mind.
- Avoid hybrid meetings. If you’re meeting while some people are remote, have everyone join through technology rather than having some people together in a room and others on the screen (or phone).
- Use one of these exercises at the start of your meeting to share contextual information that helps reduce miscommunication and judgment.
- Establish buddies that pair in-office and remote employees and encourage them to have at least a weekly check-in to share their experiences informally.
- Use the virtual knowledge-sharing approach¹ to reduce social friction. Pair people up for weekly or bi-weekly sessions to share one thing they’ve figured out and one thing with which they’re struggling. (This approach was shown to be highly effective in removing the social friction of asking for help and showed enhanced performance for almost all employees.)
- Provide unscheduled time for the team, including open, agenda-free time for team members to talk about what they’re working on or ask for help and off-task time where everyone can socialize.
I’m glad that the future of work will look different than the past. I gave up full-time office work more than six years ago, and I would never want to go back. I didn’t like the hour spent commuting, the inability to fit in personal tasks during my day, or the exorbitant amount I spent on pantyhose (seriously!!!).
I know other people who are just as keen to abandon the work-from-home phase and get back to the joys of instant communication and collaboration, the convenience of grabbing lunch in the food court, and the time between home and office to decompress. I’m glad that the future of work can work better for each of us. I just want to make sure that while it works for each of us, it also works for all of us.
1. Sandvik, J. J., Saouma, R. E., Seegert, N. T., & Stanton, C. T. (2020). Workplace knowledge flows*. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 135(3), 1635–1680. https://doi.org/10.1093/qje/qjaa013
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