A hybrid or partially remote team brings many challenges that even fully remote teams don’t have. Especially when the majority of the group is collocated in an office, and the rest is remote. It can easily create us versus them culture. It may lead to envy and resentment. It may lead to out-of-sight, out-of-mind dynamics, and unfair treatment of the remote workers.
One of the primary roles of any manager is to support their team. It requires compassion and open-minded thinking. People have different needs and ambitions. While some may be resentful when you ask them to come to the office, others may be worried about their career prospects if you ask them to work from home. A hybrid environment requires adaptation.
1. Flexibility should be the guiding principle
Even things like working hours need to be renegotiated as those in the office probably want a more traditional schedule with a clear separation of the working and non-working part of the day, while those at home may prefer more fluid working hours with bigger breaks during the day and working longer to the evening. If the team needs to work together, some sort of compromise may need to be reached.
2. Beware of proximity bias
Proximity bias is a condition otherwise described as out of sight, out of mind. We tend to recognize those working in the same location as being more productive. We see them do the actual work and therefore have a higher opinion of their efforts than about those who are remote and not that visible. This is extremely visible during meetings. Suppose half of the team is present in the room and rest on the phone or video. This dynamic favors those in the room. They are more engaged, there is friendly banter, while those on the video spend all their focus trying to understand what the people in the room are saying. To make meetings more inclusive, you should consider asking everyone to get on a video even if they are in the office. That way, you equalize those at home and the office. Similarly, if it is a decision time, then instead of an impromptu meeting in the office, make sure that remote stakeholders get the opportunity to join over the phone.
3. Remote workers tend to overwork
Since their day is more fluid, they can easily get trapped into working all the time, leading to constant stress and ultimately burnout. In fact, various studies have shown that people who work from home tend to work longer hours. For example, during the Covid-19 pandemic, Becker Friedman Institute at the University of Chicago analyzed data from 10,384 R&D employees at a large Asian IT services company and compared it with the pre-pandemic data when employees showed up in the office. The results are rather bleak. The hours worked increased by 30%, including an 18% increase in working after business hours. Similarly, The Office for National Statistics in the UK looked at working habits during the Covid-19 pandemic and found that those who worked from home had on average 6 hours of unpaid overtime a week, while those working in the office only 3.6 hours. Again, about 10% more hours worked for those at home versus those in the office when considering 40 hours workweek.
For a manager, this means you need to make it a point to keep checking on the workload and well-being of those not in the office.
4. Any work-from-home policy should always be reason-neutral
If you start judging reasons for allowing or disallowing someone to work from home, you are on a slippery slope of bias and discrimination. You may consider one reason stronger than another, yet the importance might not be the same for someone else. You may say that it is fine for a parent to stay at home with their sick kid, but it is not OK for a single person to visit a sick friend. They each care about someone who is sick, and you are imposing your value system on them. When you set up hybrid office policies, make sure that employees can take advantage of them without feeling guilty about it. If you allow two days a week to work from home, then you shouldn’t question if someone works from home, and you shouldn’t penalize them for it. And more importantly, they need to feel safe and believe that you won’t hold it against them.
5. It all starts with psychological safety
It is the belief that you can speak your mind without risking ridicule, humiliation, or even punishment from your colleagues or boss. A team without psychological safety is not a team at all. It is a very toxic place to be.
Historically, psychological safety was about creating an environment in the office where people can speak candidly, but that is not enough on a hybrid model. People need to feel safe to discuss not only work topics but also more personal issues like work-life balance, values, life choices, and even their identity. It is not only about what they can or can’t say, but also about how included they feel and how comfortably they can choose when and where to work. For example, if they feel they can’t take vacations or work from home when the rest of the team is in the office because they worry about not getting the same opportunity for promotion or salary increase, they won’t experience psychological safety.
6. Initiate frequent formal and informal conversations
As a manager, to show you are there for others is to initiate frequent informal connections without specific agenda. Just see how the employee is doing, what’s on their mind, if they need help, or struggle even with personal things. Starting with “just checking how you are doing,” “is there anything I can help you with?” “Do you have any questions for me?” “Just saw a Netflix series about dogs and remembered your dog had puppies. How is everyone?” Don’t rely on the employees to ask for help when they need it, be proactive and make it about more than just work.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, Microsoft’s head of people analytics, Dawn Klinghoffer, and her team studied the impact of remote work on Microsoft’s employees. Considering the 150,000 people, it was a substantial source of data. The results pointed clearly that the key for remote workers is to improve team connection and that managers play a bigger role than ever in making it happen. According to Klinghoffer, “When managers stepped in to help teams prioritize, feel productive, and maintain work-life balance, employees felt more connected to one another.”
The data from Klinghoffer and the team suggests that managers can do quite a bit to help employees feel connected. Specifically, those satisfied with their work-life balance were 1.3 times more likely to feel connected to their teams. Those whose co-workers behaved in supportive ways were 1.6 times more likely to feel connected. It goes back to creating a trusting, psychologically safe environment and helping the employees to prioritize. Manager’s role is to show that the employee is not alone and lift the weight of the world from their shoulders.
7. Be aware of sources of power
Mark Mortensen and Martine Haas point to two sources of power that will impact a hybrid workplace. Hybridity positioning and hybridity competence. Positioning means that employees have a different level of access to resources and different visibility based on where they are located. Those in the office have faster access to resources, technology, information, including informal around-the-water cooler chats. Therefore have bigger access to power. Those at home may not have such good equipment, internet connection, and by not having access to informal sources of information may react slowly or even be left out of the loop completely.
Those in the office, or rather those in the same location as management, have more visibility and, therefore bigger chance to show off their competence and dedication. They may have more encounters with their bosses and build better relationships. Again, bigger access to power and potentially a bigger chance of promotion.
Hybridity competence shows in how well you are able to work within the hybrid environment. It is a skill, and therefore those with the skill have bigger power than those without it. The best will find a way how to operate seamlessly across the boundaries and get the best of both worlds. They will get an advantage over those who are fully remote or fully in the office.
8. Leadership is critical for highly distributed teams
The so-called transformational leadership characterized by inspirational motivation, direct influence, and intellectual stimulation works great for co-located teams but may not work well in highly dispersed teams due to leaders being too far removed to be seen as authentic, trustworthy, and wanting to make a difference for each individual. These are the prerequisites for transformational leadership to work.
Empowering leadership is much more successful in such scenarios. It relies on so-called emergent informal leaders empowered by the higher management and trusted by their colleagues. It is often those who recognize the leadership void in the hybrid world, step up and lead, who make all the difference.
Running a hybrid organization is more demanding and requires a more thoughtful approach. Things need to be better planned and better communicated. This additional effort is not wasted as it leads to better results.
As a manager, you need to make sure you make everyone feel they belong. If you spend all your time with people in the office, you, by default, don’t treat those who are remote fairly. Make it a point to give enough attention to everyone on the team regardless of location.
The more you can design your practices to equalize access to power, the better. And of course, you need to educate everyone on how to work effectively in the hybrid environment and what the pitfalls and potential biases that can impede fairness and inclusion are. Discussion about hybridity should become part of regular check-ins with the employees and part of the performance reviews to identify how it potentially impedes employees’ development.
What is your take on the topic? Did the role of managers change during the Covid-19 pandemic? What do you expect from your manager when you work remotely? Do managers have more or less work when managing a remote team?
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