The future is now – hybrid teams aren’t new but their prevalence is growing
Hybrid working, hybrid teams, we hear these phrases a lot at the moment. But it’s not as though hybrid working is a new thing – it’s not, virtual teaming has been standard in tech firms and office-based global teams in many sectors for decades now. It’s just that the percentage of people working in a part-or fully-remote way…leading to the term ‘hybrid’ being adopted, rather than virtual…has been on the increase since the start of 2020 for all the pandemic reasons.
So here we are in 2022 and there have been some major tech winners in the shift towards hybrid working – virtual conferencing platforms like Zoom, MS Teams and others are now business essentials, having doubled in use since before the pandemic according to Microsoft.
We have ‘proof of concept’ that fully home-based working is possible for many office-based roles.
And people’s expectations have shifted significantly now towards expecting to be trusted to do their work when they want and where they want, rather than feeling that they ‘need’ to be in the office.
And yet our social hard-wiring still has a powerful influence. The vast majority of employees report preferring to spend time working with colleagues in person rather than virtually, with Gen Z at the top of the list.
So how best then to navigate hybrid team working in a post-pandemic world? How can you get the most from the teams you work in and who work for you? I have four areas to discuss and for each I’ll take you through the ups and downs as I see them and how you can get the best from all worlds…virtual and in person.
The ups and downs of hybrid teams 1: task completion
The first area I’d like to cover is getting the job done…task completion. What is starting to emerge is that certain types of work can be more efficiently completed remotely and certain types of work benefit from a co-located collaborative approach. I mean this isn’t rocket science or new, but it does need to be considered and then designed into work schedules.
Genuinely head-down solo tasks can be completed more efficiently when working from home, particularly in a quiet space (and I know it’s possible to create a quiet space in a collocated office environment but there are potentially more sources of distraction in an office than in a well-designed and well-boundaried home-based office).
Collaborative and creative tasks, though, are more challenging in a hybrid or home-based context. Collaboration is based on interaction and interactive environments are typically better when collocated. Of course, there are plenty of tools and platforms that allow for interactive, collaborative working and these are great and definitely worth using, but they still won’t bring all the richness of being in the same place at the same time with project colleagues.
Gartner (https://www.gartner.com/smarterwithgartner/4-modes-of-collaboration-are-key-to-success-in-hybrid-work) see four work modes available today and they recommend making all of these available to all employees on a democratic basis regardless of their preferred work location:
- Working together, together: when teams are collocated, contributing to meetings in a shared space.
- Working together, apart: when teams are distributed, but participating in virtual meetings.
- Working alone, together: when teams are in shared spaces, but not working at the same time.
- Working alone, apart: when teams are distributed, and individuals are conducting deep focus work.
My top tip here as a manager and in your team, is to design work carefully so that you’re matching the work task to the best work mode, as well as accommodating individual preferences and needs in getting the work done. The highest levels of engagement are being reported by organisations and teams where employees have full autonomy over where they choose to spend their time but it’s great to provide guidance and boundaries.
The ups and downs of hybrid teams 2: social connection
For my second area of discussion – social connection – we know this but humans are super-social, as a general rule. There are definitely individual differences within that statement…some people prefer more time alone than others, but even those who fall into the working alone preference category report that they enjoy and benefit from interaction with colleagues from time to time.
The first area to consider here are the benefits and downsides of screens – when we first went into lockdown, forced to work from home but at that stage, less comfortable being on screen, virtual meetings did seem a bit unnatural as people got to grips with it.
But now they’re part of everyday life and because we’re familiar with them, and most people feel ok with screens on, there’s actually a lot of extra information you can get about people when using a screen that you simply wouldn’t be able to get if you were in a physical meeting room with them because it’s not ok to stare at people when you’re in the same room as them. But on virtual meetings, no one knows who’s staring at who! So you get to see more about how someone’s feeling, how engaged they are, what they really think about a topic because screens give a lot of that info.
Buuuuut, that info is typically only from the chest or waist up so you miss other info too and it’s much more difficult it seems to ‘check in’ on whether someone’s ok on a virtual meet than in person. Why? I think because we’re worried about getting it wrong based on partial information. So there are definite downsides to screen meets too. BTW, so happy that Zoom and Teams now include the option of switching off or hiding the screen that shows you…how was that ever a good idea, there’s no equivalent for in person meetings…we don’t all have mirrors that we take to in person meetings to keep looking at ourselves!
Second point here is the risk of exclusion for non office-based workers when dialling in to meetings. There’s no hard and fast on whether everyone should switch to individual screens, even if they’re in the office together when there are one or two people at the meeting who are based virtually. But be aware that this does change the dynamic in the room and can feel excluding if everyone but you is in the actual physical room.
Moving on to social time together, given that we are social creatures and we crave connection, opportunities to socialise will now need to be planned in and they will be coveted and appreciated more than ever in a hybrid working context. These points of connection are vital for deepening connections and relationships, for overcoming misunderstandings and for ‘humanising’ work in a way that nothing else can. So give them the time they need.
Lastly, if everyone in your organisation wants to work remotely and more organisations are offering part or fully hybrid work options, how can you differentiate your work or team culture from other people’s? That’s really hard…everywhere is going to feel kind of similar right? So as a result, you’re going to need to work harder than ever during onboarding (into the organisation and team) and at team meetings and 121s with managers to reinforce the values and culture of the organisation in a way that continues to differentiate your team and organisation from everyone else’s.
The ups and downs of hybrid teams 3: strengths and risks
A word on strengths – some strengths can be more visible than others and some benefit more from collocation to be visible, valued and called on. So Persuasiveness, Relationship building and Collaboration can get hampered for example when working a hybrid model because these strengths definitely benefit from collocation to be used to their optimum. Or at least they take more practice to be used virtually.
How to combat this then? Explicit communication around strengths during meetings can really help you and others to see the value that your strengths can bring. At the start of meetings, at Strengthscope, we always do a strengths share so that people make a choice on what strength they will bring to the meeting: Empathy or Strategic mindedness or Results focus are popular choices, but of course all and every strength is welcome.
Tips here are to ‘spot’ strengths in teammates and call them out during meetings, saying how you appreciate your colleagues’ strengths and how they’re contributing value to you and the team. Secondly, to speak to your own strengths, naming them and how you would like to bring them to the team or project. And be prepared to ask for others’ strengths in areas where you just don’t have them.
The ups and downs of hybrid teams 4: well-being
Finally, a word or two on well-being, a super hot topic today, magnified by hybrid working as there are some real highs and lows that can come with this new work model.
Pluses for well-being that employees report include greater control over the working day. This can benefit well-being as less time commuting and more time for other activities can be beneficial and having more choice over when to engage in those other activities, be they a walk, a run, listening to music, a snooze or a cheeky Netflix – that sense of control goes a long way to people feeling trusted, safe and able to bring their best.
But difficulties boundarying can erode work-life balance, so emails and evening working can blur the lines between work life and life life and it takes real discipline to build positive habits around these behaviours if you’re going to get the best for your well-being in a hybrid world. As I mentioned earlier, people are different, and some can feel isolated or ‘stuck’ working virtually so although the benefits may be there in front of you, if you’re languishing through a lack of social connection or support or you’re feeling isolated or outside your team, there’s nothing much that will feel positive about hybrid.
As a manager and as a team, you need then to be vigilant to other people’s physical and emotional health and well-being and call it out early if you feel something isn’t right. Getting it wrong (as in showing concern when someone’s actually ok) still shows that you care. It’s hard to ask for help when you need it most for most people so being the first to ask ‘how are you?…I mean how you are really?’ can be a real kindness.
In conclusion – hybrid working can get you great results but only when managed well
So it’s only when you’re really vigilant to what’s going on that you can really get the most for your team from hybrid working, and that’s made more challenging when people are out of eyesight and earshot. And remember that this is all one great big social experiment right now, no one has definitive answers, there’s emergent research and evidence but this is not something that’s happened before so give yourself a break and don’t expect to have all the answers off the bat. Stay human-centred in your leadership and teamship and you won’t go far wrong.
For more content like this, head over to www.strengthscope.com and the Resources section there which is crammed full of similar bite-sized goodies. Till next time, stay strong.