For many leaders, 2020 brought a mass migration to remote work — one driven by necessity. And while we see more employees returning to the office, hybrid teams — where employees interact both in person and virtually — are becoming the new normal. Many leaders have years of experience managing teams and employees in face-to-face relationships, and the past year has taught many more how to extend their leadership skills to manage remote employees effectively. However, managing both remote and in-person members on the same team comes with its own set of unique challenges. How do you manage both remote and in-person reports fairly? EWF International has some strategies to help you create the right environment for everyone to succeed.
Common Leadership Issues with Hybrid Teams
The most common issue with hybrid teams is that they’re geographically separated. This can make it difficult to communicate and bond — which can create isolation or an “Us vs. Them” mentality. When only one or just a few team members work remotely, this can be especially problematic. Team members in the office can feel like the remote workers can’t be relied upon or that they’re not part of the team because they don’t take part in the small, informal conversations and activities of the office with teammates. And remote workers can feel excluded and isolated.
This feeling can quickly grow into a proximity bias for coworkers and managers. The bias happens when we see people working in the office and we naturally assume they are more productive than employees we can’t see working. This perception can persist even if all the evidence points to the contrary. A remote employee or team can perform above average, and still, the lack of visual evidence and direct communication can trick you into thinking that is not true. Some leaders respond by creating more frequent meetings, direct communication, and status update requests that can unintentionally place more administrative work on a team’s plate, making them less productive.
Proximity bias isn’t just a one-way street because it concerns in-office benefits as well. Often remote workers on hybrid teams are very cognizant of the advantages on-location employees receive. These perks start with simple things such as company-furnished coffee, snacks, and purchased lunch for the office. It also includes more essential benefits, like in-office training programs/workshops, easy access to an employee’s manager, and the opportunity to build strong relationships with teammates. Missing out on these benefits of working in the office can make remote workers on your hybrid teams feel like second-class team members. That is why it’s so crucial to be intentional about including and valuing remote workers.
Reinforcing Remote Worker Inclusivity
One of the best ways to improve inclusivity is to continually affirm for yourself and your team that there is an actual human on the other end of your communication. When possible, avoid relying solely on email or chat for communication. These channels don’t create very deep human connection. Because much of human communication is nonverbal or based on things like tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language, consider using phone and video calls for core team interactions, while relying on text, chat, and email as support.
You can help reinforce remote worker inclusivity and normalcy with your hybrid team by having all team discussions happen via video chat, even in-office team member meetings. While it can be a quirky idea to sell your team, it creates an even communication playing field in meetings for in-office and remote teammates. When two or more in-office employees meet as remote employees meet, this tactic can help ensure zero difference in collaboration and meetings when all are included on an equal basis.
To soften the proximity bias for your remote workers, take time to consider what you can offer them as an alternative to in-office workspace benefits. You could provide them coffee or a monthly subscription snack box. You should also ensure any training your team receives is equally accessible by remote workers.
Another way to improve remote worker inclusivity for your hybrid team is by creating a digital water cooler. Create a time, or virtual meeting space, where team members can jump in and out while they’re taking a break, eating lunch, or having a normal non-work conversation with their coworkers. Consider using a team messaging platform like Slack, and create a channel for non-work-related communication. Here, your team can share videos, pictures, and silly gifs and get to know each other personally. Having a defined work-free area can help your hybrid team build stronger team relationships. Avoid the temptation to use this free area to gauge team member productivity. The digital water cooler’s purpose is to promote team bonding, and your team’s participation is beneficial to enhancing the team dynamic.
Challenge Personal Bias and Improve Hybrid Team Impartiality
Proximity bias can be very clever in the way it presents itself. If we see an employee at their desk five days a week, eight hours each day, typing away at a keyboard, talking on their desk phone, and reviewing documents, we see them as productive. However, hundreds of articles, studies, and reports on work performance that show more time worked does not necessitate more productivity. Still, that idea exists in our minds. So when we cannot physically observe a remote worker doing the same, our bias is that they are less productive. It’s vital as a leader of a hybrid team to reframe your measurement for performance as work output and quality, not the number of hours worked. Review progress made and tasks achieved without including a time component can help you combat proximity bias.
If you have been working with a remote team over the past year or more, you may have realized that it exacerbates your predisposition between high- and low-performing members of your team. When we cannot visually observe each member of the team, our assumptions carry more weight. Without evidence, we expect a top achiever to continue to be a top achiever and a low performer to continue performing low. Those are dangerous assumptions to make as a leader, especially if you lead a remote or hybrid team where an employee’s working conditions are often subject to change. To improve impartiality, change your evaluation of hybrid team members from direct observation to more impact and output focused measures. This will improve impartiality and reassure your remote team members they are not judged differently because they in a different location.
When you have a hybrid team, it’s even more important to create clear expectations and reinforce accountability. Start simple by defining set working hours when team members are accessible to each other to solve problems, collaborate, answer questions, and connect. If team members have varying working hours, keep a visible calendar showing when each team member works to make connecting easier and more inclusive. This is especially important when scheduling virtual meetings. Ensure you and your team are including the necessary teammates in your meetings, calls, decisions, and projects. There can be an inclination to avoid including hybrid team remote members if it adds an extra layer of complexity. Ensure the best resources of your team are being used and not being avoided due to inconvenience.
Make sure that all team members have equal access to important information and discussions. Being a remote member of a team is already a disjointed experience. When you’re not looped into important conversations or can’t find the information and resources you need to do your job, you feel even more isolated and excluded. Promoting access and communication will also help you avoid a situation in which a remote employee is overlooked, feeding proximity bias and the “Us versus Them” mentality. Setting a clear schedule and clarifying weekly and daily expectations help you create consistency for the team and improve employee productivity — both in and out of the office.
Support Your Hybrid Team
Reach out and support your team, no matter their physical location. Reassure your hybrid team’s remote employees by committing to give all team members equal time and focus. Create time, both formal and informal, to reach out to your hybrid team members and make yourself available. Good leaders naturally do this with in-office employees and spend the extra time to build a solid leader-staff relationship. Make sure you carry that vital relationship-building and maintenance across digital communication as well. Doing so is essential to supporting your team, no matter their physical location. Stay current with your employee’s circumstances, challenges, and how you can help them feel like a connected and valued member of the team.
Keep watch for signs of burnout on your team. Remote workers can be particularly prone to burnout when the lines of work and home blur together. While it can be challenging to spot the signs of burnout in an office environment, it’s even more difficult to perceive in remote work when you cannot directly observe all your hybrid team members. Here are a few signs of burnout:
- Feeling Drained, Tired, Exhausted
- Decreased Productivity
- Increased Absenteeism
- Feelings of Alienation
- Irritability, Cynicism
If you identify the signs of burnout in one of your employees, see how you can assist. Look for ways to lighten their load, streamline their work, or switch projects if they are roadblocked. You want to avoid a situation where a teammate’s stress reaches a boiling point or manifests into physical illness.
Also, consider the work environment for hybrid team new hires and employees interested in transitioning to remote work. Remote work requires a set of skills for success in addition to those necessary for an employee to fulfill their duties. Successful remote workers require skills like punctuality, exceptional time management, responsiveness, self-direction, and self-discipline. In addition, a remote employee needs a functional workspace. These are points you to consider when hiring remote members for your hybrid team.
More Resources for Hybrid Team Leadership
Managing hybrid teams and fully remote teams is still an area experiencing growing pains for many leaders. In many ways, managing a hybrid team is more complex and nuanced than leading a 100% remote team or in-office team. At this point, leaders adapting to the change in the modern workplace should be striving for improvement, not perfection. For more tactics to improve your remote leadership, see our article on the Remote Manager Hierarchy of Needs, and Building Professional Influence Virtually.
If you are looking for a way to improve your organization’s ability to manage in-office, hybrid, and remote employees, see EWF International’s customizable, turn-key leadership development and training corporate programs. We can provide a leadership training program to elevate your organization and make your corporate leadership an example for your industry.