With a transformational mindset, leaders can overcome challenges and maximize opportunities for their in-person and remote workforce.
"Can you all hear me? I've been trying to make a point for the past 15 minutes."
Remember a mostly full conference room with a voice crackling though the speakerphone? Chances are your organization dabbled in hybrid (in-person and remote) work long before the pandemic turned it into a buzzword.
While that may seem a lifetime ago, the pandemic fast-tracked remote and hybrid work, giving us shared experiences in adaptation and teaching us many lessons in resilience, trust, and communication.
As vaccination rates increase and pandemic restrictions begin to lift, we now embark on a long-term transition to hybrid working. That transition is significant and will require dedication and well-planned efforts from team leaders to be done successfully and sustainably.
In August 2021, the Center for Creative Leadership surveyed more than 600 leaders about hybrid work for a related webinar, and more than 80 percent said they were still working on learning how to implement hybrid teams. Many teams and their leaders are adapting to where some team members are physically together and working in a traditional sense, while other members are physically remote and may be separated by multiple time zones and geographies.
Add in the team members who shuttle back and forth between the office and remote environments on either a regular or fluctuating schedule. Pre-pandemic, few teams had to manage this level of complexity to accomplish their work.
How can leaders of hybrid teams adapt themselves and their team members to this new reality? A first step is to recognize and acknowledge the new challenges that arise from the situation. Through CCL's collective work with leaders in training sessions, coaching, and consultations with hybrid team leaders around transitioning teams to hybrid work, three primary challenges emerged.
Creating a shared team culture where everyone feels valued and included. This can be especially difficult for those who remain remote because they may have a fear of missing out that comes from not being able to participate in hallway conversations or other spontaneous, informal interactions.
There's also the larger fear that their remote status hides their contributions and limits opportunities for recognition and advancement. The more individuals feel a sense of dislocation and separation from one another on the team, the more likely work will happen in silos.
Leaders must make clear that all workers are equal regardless of where they work and enhance existing practices in areas such as meetings, surveys, and staff development conversations to promote inclusion and belonging. Team leaders have a similar role in constructing an inclusive culture in a hybrid environment by attending to the contributions—and concerns—of remote and on-site employees in equal measure. Acknowledging the inherent challenge enables leaders to tackle inclusive practices head-on in ways that make sense for their team and organizational setup.
Keeping everyone emotionally healthy and mentally engaged. While uncertainty and anxiety may be widespread among team members, individuals will experience it differently based on their unique circumstances.
Leaders must listen and empathize with team members' disparate experiences and expectations. They also must work across team members to develop shared approaches to teamwork that strike a balance among the differing needs.
Emphasize actions that acknowledge that keeping workers healthy and engaged is a corporate responsibility. Balance individual and collective needs when it comes to planning and executing events that affect everyone, including team celebrations, meeting-free days, and any mandatory on-site meetings.
Maintaining communication and coordination to continue accomplishing work. The way employees accomplished work when everyone was remote during the pandemic is not the same way they will accomplish it in a hybrid situation. Regular adjustments will be necessary, as will clear communication about them—sometimes multiple times to individuals and groups within the team.
Communicating in a clear, efficient, and inclusive way requires leaders' intentional efforts. That could look like team meeting agendas distributed broadly and in advance, equal opportunity for remote and on-site team members to speak, and notes added to a shared site.
Trust to overcome challenges
An undercurrent in those three challenges is trust. In the August 2021 survey, 30 percent of leaders identified trust as more critical to their team's success than other areas of improvement.
One team leader said that some team members felt bitter about having to return to the office and interpreted it as a sign that the organization didn't trust them. Additionally, those who choose or need to remain remote may worry that the trust they established when everyone was required to work from home may erode and be replaced by previous perceptions that remote workers are loafing or shirking responsibilities.
If those are the realities and challenges that leaders must accept and face, what does that mean for how they lead going forward?
While the temptation may be to try and fix everything at once, a more focused approach enables leaders and their teams to work together and share in their progress.
Implement direction, alignment, and commitment
Traditional approaches to leadership focus on individual leaders' qualities and impact. However, CCL research suggests that leadership lies not in one person's talents but in the collective efforts of a group of individuals working toward a shared goal.
In that way, leadership is less of a task-focused process of guiding others and more of a socially driven process of working together to produce collective results that no individual team member could accomplish on their own.
The unique challenges that hybrid teams face require direction, alignment, and commitment. The DAC framework makes it possible for individuals to work together willingly and effectively to realize organizational achievements.
Direction is agreement on what the collective is trying to achieve together. In a hybrid environment, it's easy for communication to take place in disconnected pockets or, when remote members are left out, not happen at all.
Dispersed and incomplete communication is an impediment to establishing shared goals. Cultivating a shared sense of direction requires intense, intentional efforts to engage one-on-one across the spectrum of views and to convene collective conversations.
Alignment is effective coordination and integration of the different aspects of the work so that it fits together in service of the shared direction.
One leader in the survey described their hybrid team's work as "a hodge-podge of expectations." That is a recipe for confusion and conflict.
At the outset, take time to solicit input on when, how, and by whom work should be done in a hybrid setting. Establish clear, concise agreements that are broadly understood and easy to reinforce.
Commitment is when people make the collective's success—not just their individual success—a personal priority.
Teams succeed when everyone feels like they're in it together. But in a hybrid environment, it's easy for others to feel disconnected, left out, or—worse—like they don't belong.
To create a shared sense of belonging, engage in behaviors that promote security, confidence, and psychological safety among all team members that enables them to be their best selves without fear of repercussion. Encouragement to provide input, ask questions, share ideas, solicit help, and admit mistakes all contribute to a healthy team climate that fuels engagement and commitment.
Team success is determined by much more than the internal dynamics. To be truly effective, a team must have an impact on the broader organization, its customers, and even society.
That requires focusing on managing external dynamics and is even more challenging in a hybrid environment, given the high degree of fragmentation and the silos that can easily form.
Working through that challenge involves committing to a specific set of behaviors CCL calls boundary spanning. When boundaries are consistently and effectively spanned, silos break down, connections form, and new possibilities emerge.
A team has limited time and resources, so leaders need to give consideration to which boundaries to span and how best to span them. Engage with members of the team to think consciously about its network within the company. Ask:
- How is our team connected with other teams?
- How do we best interact with those teams?
- How are we currently spanning boundaries?
- How can we foster interaction, better conversations, and effective collaboration between departments in a hybrid workforce environment?
While hybrid teams may present new challenges to collaborate and navigate across boundaries, the solutions to today's most pressing business challenges are often found at the intersection of multiple boundaries.
Leaders have an opportunity to reset teaming and move team members forward together in new, highly effective ways. One leader shared that the transition to hybrid has taught lessons in flexibility, patience, and respect. Another was "thrilled with the talent pool that this has opened us up to."
And another commented that "we have more insight than ever before into each other's personal lives. We create wonderful things together. However, it does take more time and more deliberate effort than before."
The word deliberate underscores part of the critical mindset shift that leaders need to engage in if they're going to successfully guide their teams through the transition to hybrid. That mindset transformation will not occur organically.
The shift to hybrid teams puts a spotlight on some issues of growing importance and concern, such as equity, burnout, retention and engagement, and team leader development and support. If employers don't address such factors directly during the transition, then it's likely those issues will become more difficult to manage.
Sustainable success with hybrid work will require a commitment to continually experiment, adapt, innovate, and transparently share learnings and best practices. To succeed, leaders need to focus on the broader system, tune into the right levers, and facilitate a collective process of learning and growth.
Transitioning to hybrid work offers immense challenges. But with those challenges come opportunities for greater innovation and the ability for every employee to thrive.
The journey will take experimentation, courage, and resilience; yet by working together, you can create a new way of teaming that is more agile, inclusive, and engaging.
Kelly Simmons is global director of consultative solutions at the Center for Creative Leadership. Contact her at [email protected].
George Hallenbeck is CCL's content director. Contact him at [email protected].
Fostering a New, Productive Hybrid Team
The Center for Creative Leadership initiated plans for transitioning to hybrid work and used the DAC (direction, alignment, commitment) framework to do so.
Direction: CCL conducted conversations to get input from all employees to guide the hybrid work model. It acknowledged that the workforce had been successful working remotely throughout the pandemic and valued staff's input on work arrangements moving forward. Creating that upfront inclusion across multiple boundaries was important to ensure success.
Alignment: After determining a strategy, the company established a clear set of requirements for each type of work situation: on-site, remote, a combination of the two, and flexible scheduling.
It provided managers with resources, including guidance on holding conversations with staff to determine the individual's best work arrangement option. It upheld employees' wishes and was clear for each respective group to follow.
Commitment: CCL encouraged managers to solicit employee input in an ongoing fashion and to surface unaddressed needs to incorporate into future iterations of the strategy.
The company clearly communicated that hybrid work options should not lead to additional overtime requirements for staff and encouraged managers to pay close attention to employees' work hours to prevent overwork and burnout and maintain a healthy, engaged workforce.
CCL initiated engagement and culture efforts to span boundaries and bring disparate groups together to work on supporting the transition to a hybrid culture over time. By implementing a hybrid work model, the company has made strides in retaining staff who proved they could work in remote settings and attracting new, diverse talent to the organization.
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