The strength of the team is each individual member. The strength of each member is the team.
Even though the end of the pandemic is (finally!) within sight, that doesn’t mean remote work is going away any time soon. Many employees are reluctant to return to long commutes, rigid work schedules, noisy workspaces, and other less-than-optimal features of onsite work. At the same time, many companies have realized that remote workers are often more productive, more engaged, and generally happier than their in-office counterparts. And of course there are the bottom-line savings associated with decreasing the size of a company’s centralized physical workspace—or even eliminating it completely.
Although some companies have shifted to being completely remote, most seem to be aiming for a hybrid workplace: depending on company needs, employee preferences, and a whole host of other factors, some employees will be in the office, some will be remote, and some will move between both work environments. With much of the business world throwing in for some version of remote work for the long haul, managers need to figure out how to manage two groups of employees—in-office and remote—who have different needs, expectations, and responsibilities.
A key element of managing any workplace is making sure that workers are able to communicate with each other and work together effectively. This can be particularly tricky when employees aren’t all in the same physical location. Fortunately, implementing certain best practices can help managers navigate the challenges of promoting teamwork in a hybrid environment.
The Basics of Teamwork in a Hybrid Environment
The way a team plays as a whole determines its success. You may have the greatest bunch of individual stars in the world, but if they don’t play together, the club won’t be worth a dime.
Part of a manager’s role is to keep a close eye on team dynamics, “the unconscious, psychological forces that influence the direction of a team’s behavior and performance.”1 If team dynamics are a mess, the team can’t work well together. And if a team can’t work well together, it can’t accomplish its goals and eventually ceases to actually be a team. In a hybrid workplace, many factors can damage team dynamics, but one of the biggest obstacles leaders need to overcome is the phenomenon of “out of sight, out of mind.” When a manager doesn’t see someone every day (or at least pretty frequently), they might not think of that employee as often as they should—which means that the employee isn’t getting all of the support, oversight, encouragement, and accountability they need to do their job. For this reason, most strategies to improve teamwork in a hybrid environment focus on facilitating positive, high-quality, interpersonal interactions.
Pay extra attention to communication. Managers need to communicate regularly with all employees to understand what they’re doing and what support they need. Remember that when people aren’t face to face in the same room, certain communication cues (such as body language and tone of voice) are greatly diminished. Therefore, managers must be especially mindful of what they say—and how they say it—in video conferences, phone calls, and (especially) e-mail.
Make it possible for people to work anywhere—whether that’s in the office or remotely. Give all employees the tools, training, and other resources they need to do their jobs. Technology can lend a major assist here: recent years have seen a boom in video conferencing software, virtual whiteboards, and other productivity and communication tools that make it easier than ever for people to do their jobs and connect with their colleagues and bosses.
Schedule interactions. Many people prefer remote work because it allows for flexible scheduling. (For example, one person might want to plan their work hours around their kids’ school drop offs and pick ups. Or maybe someone isn’t a morning person, and their brain doesn’t really get going until around midday, so they’re more productive if they can start and end their days a few hours later than the usual 9-to-5 schedule.) As long as people get their work done, flexible hours are great—but watch out for any barriers they might create. In order to make sure that the remote workers aren’t totally cut off from their in-office counterparts, require some overlap of hours, such as a one-hour window every day (or a two-hour window three days a week, or something else) when everyone is “on the clock” at the same time. By providing shared time for meetings, collaboration, and even just friendly social chats, this overlap facilitates synchronous, real-time interactions that help keep everyone connected to each other.
Leverage virtual tools. When there’s a team meeting with onsite employees, send the Zoom link for it out to all team members so that remote employees, too, can join the meeting and stay in the loop. Remote employees don’t get to do the in-person watercooler talk, lunch outings, and happy hours that help officemates connect with each other. So come up with virtual social events that give them similar socializing and networking opportunities.
Trust the team. Use feedback and coaching both to check in with all employees and to help them develop. Ensure that they have the training and resources they need. Hire good people and people who have potential, put them in roles for which they are prepared (or offer training to get them to that point), then get out of their way. No one likes micromanagers, and that management style is especially irritating to remote workers, who have a reasonable expectation of being able to do their jobs without someone looking over their shoulders.
Walk the Talk: Lead by Example
Leaders can’t just tell their people, “I want you to do X and Y so everyone can get along better.” They also need to be doing those things themselves. By modeling a few key behaviors, managers can inspire their teams to adopt those behaviors, too.
Be a better listener. Good managers don’t multitask while someone’s trying to share information with them. Instead, they give their employees their full attention and refrain from formulating responses in their heads while someone else is talking.
Be welcoming. Leaders can create communication-friendly environments by actively greeting others—including people they don’t already know—at every encounter (“Good morning!”). They should keep their doors open to project friendliness and invite drop-by interactions (though closing a door for a bit is fine when they’re up against a deadline and need to get work done).
Share information. In times of uncertainty, employees need more communication, not less. Managers should hold regular meetings with their staff. And if a manager or their boss (or both of them) is working remotely, the manager should send their boss weekly updates, which not only keeps the higher-ups informed but also reminds them that the manager is getting stuff done.
Solicit feedback. Leaders should do regular check-ins with their teams to find out what’s working (and what isn’t). At each weekly meeting, for example, a manager could ask their project teams for a “one thumb up, one thumb down”—a quick assessment of one thing that’s going well and one thing that needs improvement. Treating the “thumb down” points not as harsh criticism but as recommendations that can help everyone will make this kind of feedback easier both to give and to receive.
Help colleagues. A manager should strive to be the mentor they wish they had. Even if they have a boss who isn’t a great mentor, that manager can still be a great leader or mentor themselves to others in the department.
Be trustworthy. As much as possible, leaders should exhibit tact, diplomacy, empathy, and sincerity. They should deliver on their promises and admit their mistakes when they make them.
Great things in business are never done by one person; they’re done by a team of people.
The way an organization works as a whole determines its success. A company may have the greatest bunch of individual stars in the world, but if they don’t play together, the organization won’t succeed. Now that it’s possible for team members to work separately from each other at least part of the time (and sometimes exclusively), managers need to be proactive to keep everyone—regardless of their work location—engaged and connected.