Managers, Your Hybrid Team Needs Support

🙋‍♀️ This is a cross-post from my newsletter, Leading by Design. If you liked the post below, consider subscribing! I post one issue per month.

Photo by Anda Ambrosini on Unsplash

Photo by Anda Ambrosini on Unsplash

The West has largely moved on from Covid, it seems. After more than two years of rolling lockdowns, social distancing and controversial face coverings, most businesses rush to ring the bell: the great return to the office is underway.

Or is it? Tech companies faced fierce resistance to any calls to return to the office from their employees. Even behemoths like Google and Apple had to revise their policies after internal ramblings. On the other hand, Airbnb recently announced its new “live and work anywhere” policy, setting new standards on the way companies negotiate the future of work.

After almost two years of fully remote work, the logical next step for many businesses is adopting a hybrid model, where the employees have to split their time between the office and their home. Best of both worlds, right? However, the hybrid model seems to create more challenges than a fully co-located or a fully remote one.

Hybrid is hard

An unstructured hybrid model, where some employees work exclusively from home, others from the office and some ping-pong between the two, automatically creates multiple tiers of people. The divide can run deep: those who work from the office are automatically considered more engaged and active, while working from home can make people look distracted and detached (even if they aren’t). That only gets worse if the decision-makers - leads, managers and executives - are all in the office.

Moreover, employees find hybrid work exhausting. The constant context switching between work-from-home days and in-office days is the main culprit for making people feel disoriented and burnt out. After an imposed strict routine when working from home, employees now have to deal with top-down decisions about how they’ll structure their week, feeling like they have no control over their schedule.

Work with your team

As managers, it’s our job to make this new transition as comfortable and accommodating as possible for our team, balancing our team members’ welfare and business objectives. These are some practices you can employ for your team to help them navigate the new, hybrid reality:

Keep them in the loop

Nothing will hurt your relationship with your team members more than announcing the plan for the future without asking for their feedback. Talk with them to determine their needs, determine how to serve the team and the business best, and then use your impact to drive decision-making.

Perhaps your direct reports would rather work exclusively from their homes, with some set office days sprinkled in so they can meet and solve problems. Or they might need some set meeting-free days for research and deep work. Caretakers might need more flexible hours.

An excellent way to kickstart the conversation is running an internal survey to gather information about how each member wants to take advantage of their time in the office or at home.

Try set in-office hours for the whole team 

Research is contradicting on the matter of innovation and creativity when working remotely. A recent study indicates that brainstorming is better in person; other analyses suggest that virtual brainstorming is better for innovation. One thing is sure: the type of work we do in the office has changed. There’s the increasingly popular idea of treating the office like an offsite, as it is now more about fostering culture than getting work done.

Many employees complain about going back to the office, only to be in Zoom meetings with their remote colleagues all day. An unstructured hybrid protocol won’t work at this point, as employees need some semblance of structure throughout the week.

Discuss with your team and set aside some time where everyone will be in the office for specific activities, like team meetings, workshops and brainstorming sessions. Combine these activities with a team lunch to rebuild some of the social rapport lost while working remotely.

Lower your productivity expectations about office days 

That productivity boost right after lockdown started? The one that made all remote aficionados smile their most “I told you so” smirk? Well, that turned out to be the result of long work hours.

Yes, working from home is considered the ideal setup for deep work, lacking the constant interruptions of the open-plan office. However, more and more employees are burned out and reevaluating their connection to work. People go back to the office not to work harder but to meet and connect.

As their manager, you should treat office days like offsite days and not expect the same productivity levels as when working from home. Expect interruptions, longer transitions when people jump from meeting to meeting, and impromptu watercooler conversations.

Advocate for asynchronous communication 

One of the darkest sides of the radical remote work shift due to the pandemic is the increased number of meetings virtual workers must attend. We hold more meetings, even if they’re shorter now. Every manager scrambled to recreate the office environment by increasing the number of times daily we have to sigh, check our t-shirts for stains and turn on our cameras.

However, constant synchronous communication erodes the productivity benefits for which remote work is famous. Expecting everyone to be constantly “on”, checking emails and Slack conversations at all times, is exhausting. It also increases FOMO for remote workers who already feel like they’re missing out on office discussions.

Try to gently sway your team towards asynchronous communication by assuring them that they can respond to messages at their earliest convenience. Set some ground rules about communicating urgent issues and free your employees from their instant messaging shackles.

How to win in hybrid work

Hybrid work is a matter near and dear to my heart. I’ve been working remotely since 2010, and I spent a big part of these years managing a co-located team while working from my home, travelling back and forth. Needless to say, I have a thing or two to share about hybrid work.

To help team leaders and employees make the most out of this brave new world, I’m working on a brand new online course called “Win in Hybrid Work”. You can subscribe to get notified when it’s ready.

Alternatively, you can travel to (lovely) Thessaloniki for Voxxed Days, where I’ll talk about how to hack hybrid work. It’s my first in-person event in three years, and I can’t wait to meet you there.

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