With the approval of Johnson & Johnson's single dose COVID19 vaccine, the number of people vaccinated in the next 3-4 months will grow dramatically. For those who have been working remotely since the start of the pandemic, the hybrid workplace is here.
Despite predictions of remote work being permanent and even recommendations to remain remote, employees still want the best of both worlds. This survey found that 75% of working adults (respondents) wanted to continue to work remotely 1-5 days/week.
Now, with vaccinations climbing, we are emerging from dining room tables and basements, looking forward to working in the same physical space with people again. But not permanently, because we also enjoy no commute, jammie pants, and hanging with our pets during the day. We want to protect the satisfying aspects of remote work too.
Organizations and leaders cannot deny the desire, even demand, employees have now for the hybrid work environment.
So, are you ready? Are you ready to lead and work within a distributed team?
A distributed team (or hybrid) is one where a portion of the team will be together on-site and the other portion elsewhere. The team may have a specific schedule of who is in the office and who isn’t. Other teams will come and go. Some employees will be working from the local coffee shop, on their back porch, or from Bermuda. Maybe the boss is in the office 3 days a week, or 1 day. Will anyone be in the office on Fridays?
Many organizations are already tackling the big stuff: Does locality pay matter anymore? What automations and technology are needed? Where can office space be downgraded or eliminated entirely? What changes need to be made on-site, so everyone feels safe being there?
What is not getting as much attention is the impact on teams and performance. For many teams, it is a familiar experience to either all be on-site, or all be remote. Now, distributing teams between the two will impact power dynamics and communication. This is on top of the operational impacts of how the work gets done.
If you work on or lead a team that has primarily been working from home this past year, it is time to shift everyone’s thinking to preparing for this hybrid environment.
Examine team power dynamics
With a portion of the team working on-site and the other portion working remotely, there is a distributed power dynamic between the groups. Those on-site will have exposure to other teams and leaders. On-site workers will benefit from spontaneous interaction, brainstorming, and “water cooler” talk that results in creativity and innovation. On-site team members will also get the attention of other leaders. Those who are physically present often get preferential treatment.
A common pitfall of distributed teams is the creation of an “us vs them” environment with on-site staff benefitting more, and subsequently holding more power, than remote staff. It can work conversely too. Onsite staff get asked to do more and take more on because of being physically present.
The bottom-line is that the split environment can lead to an unfair workplace quickly. The goal is to prevent a split team mentality.
Talk about this power dynamic now with your team. Building awareness within the team will empower everyone to keep an eye on equity.
For leaders, keep track of your interactions. Document who you have spoken to and about what. Fight the urge to believe you are naturally good at keeping track of who gets your attention. I worked with a Senior Director who would track her interactions at the end of the week to ensure she invested similar time in everyone. She also tracked participation on committees to ensure she wasn’t tapping the same people for special projects.
Enhance team communication
Keeping the team informed and connected is a challenge for every leader but doing so with a distributed team is harder. Spontaneous meetings will occur for those onsite resulting in an extra task of informing the remote workers of what they missed. But that is just content, remote workers struggle most to understand context such as how the conversation was raised, who was there, and what happened during the conversation.
Leaders and teams need to take even more time to communicate with each other in a hybrid environment. Everyone will need to ask more questions and take more time to ensure there is a shared understanding.
Initiate a discussion evaluating team communication pre-COVID19 and now. Identify strengths and weaknesses of “the before times” and now. Use this dialogue to identify how to enhance communication as the team progresses to a hybrid environment.
Establish “communication buddies” or partner remote workers with on-site workers and agree that they are to keep each other informed. A team that employed this approach became so skilled at it, they started to cover meetings for each other. If their buddy was at the same meeting, they did not need to attend. This reduced the number of meetings on everyone’s calendar.
Evaluate work priorities
Most organizations and leaders will not consider the "people-related" activities required to move to a hybrid work environment. This results in not focusing on team dynamics at all or doing it poorly (with limited time and resources.)
Adjusting to this structure is an entirely separate and new project. The work required includes assessing performance goals, redefining roles and responsibilities, and handling the inevitable conflict and disagreement that goes along with making decisions about work. Expect friction. All of this requires not only thought and discussion, but time (read: more meetings).
Avoid piling on by taking one project or initiative off everyone’s plate this year. Either do this as a team or individually but the point is to demonstrate to everyone the importance of a successful transition. This will go a long way in building the buy-in needed.
Make adjusting to the hybrid environment its own project with a defined scope, schedule, and budget. Identify what success looks like and set goals. Consider what needs to change and what can remain the same. Create milestones for success. These are markers that will tell you the transition is effective and making an impact. Set time throughout the year to celebrate passing the milestones.
By acknowledging the inevitable power dynamics between on-site and remote workers, discussing communication needs, and reprioritizing work, any organization can position itself to adjust effectively to the hybrid work environment.
If you haven’t already, sign up to the blog at the bottom of this page to receive a notification when each post is published.
Until next time!
Amy Drader is a management consultant and credentialed coach with over 20 years’ experience in HR and operations. She knows first-hand the joys and challenges of leading people and is dedicated to helping managers and teams advance their performance. She is the owner of Growth Partners Consulting, a boutique leadership and team development consulting firm that provides customized training, coaching, and professional development resources.