By Liane Davey
Has office life changed forever?
Many teams won’t return to the same office-centric approach that existed before the pandemic. Instead, the future of work will include a melange of arrangements, on a continuum from permanent work-from-home to full-time in the office. The middle ground will be occupied by employees who split their work weeks into a mix of remote and in-person days.
I think hybrid is a great answer for most individuals — but I’m nervous about the impact of hybrid models on teams.
When we all worked together in an office, we had a shared experience with our teammates. When we all worked remotely, we had a (mostly) shared experience. But now, people on your team might have vastly different experiences, which might cause rifts. Here are the risks to look out for:
Challenges in forming trust
Trust is critical to all teams, but research suggests it’s even more crucial to virtual teams. The irony is that it’s harder to build trust when you aren’t physically together. Now play out the hybrid scenario. Some coworkers are physically together. They have downtime at the coffee machine. Perhaps they sit together while they eat (studies suggest that eating together forges connection). At the very least, they can observe one another’s body language and pick up contextual cues that help them interpret each other’s behavior more accurately. It’s a significant disadvantage for the remote workers who don’t have the same informal contact. The gaps in trust are sure to have consequences.
Disparate Access to Information
Remote employees must rely on meetings, email, or activity in the Slack channel for their content. In contrast, in-office employees can chat in the elevator, learn from overhearing conversations between two other colleagues, or get an update from the boss as they come out of a meeting. That likely means that in-office employees are more in-the-know than those at home because they have access to more content. Being better informed can translate into greater productivity, efficiency, or innovative ideas.
It’s not just more content that advantages in-office employees, it’s also the context they pick up. Imagine that the boss coming out of a meeting is conscious of the communication gaps, and therefore chooses to forego the chat with the in-office employees and replaces it with an email to everyone on the team. Although this solves the problem of different access to content, there are still imbalances. The in-office team might see the boss walk out of the meeting looking frustrated and red in the face. When they receive the email with the boss’ description of the meeting, this context will make a meaningful difference in how they interpret it. Without the contextual cues, the remote employees might interpret the tone in the email as hostility toward them. Both content and context matter.
The Friction of Asking for Help
Research has shown that remote employees experience more ‘social friction’ in asking for help than people in the office. It’s difficult for them to know what information they need or whom to ask when they know what they don’t know. Social friction also includes the embarrassment of admitting you need help and the fear of being seen as incompetent. As a result, remote employees are less likely to ask for help.
It’s not all about whether someone asks for help or not. When you’re working side-by-side with someone, and they’re grunting and groaning over a task, it’s easy to know that they might need a hand. When a remote teammate is out of sight, you miss these cues and the chance to offer help. Over time, the cumulative impact might cause you to assume that in-office people are more talented, more effective, or more efficient than remote workers when the issue is really that the remote team hasn’t been set up for success.
“I’m glad that the future of work can work better for each of us. I just want to make sure that while it works for each of us, it also works for all of us.”
How to Minimize the Issues with Hybrid Teams
The genie is not going back in the bottle, the toothpaste is not going back in the tube, and the whole team is not going back to the office, so we’ve got work to do to make hybrid teamwork work. Here are a few things to try to get all the benefits of hybrid teams while minimizing the downsides:
- Invest in bringing everyone together when forming teams or hiring new employees. Relationships that start with in-person connections can be sustained remotely for a long time.
- Try to coordinate days where everyone is in the office, preferably weekly, but if not, monthly.
- Have pictures of your whole team in prominent places in the office and shared online spaces. Out of sight doesn’t have to mean out of mind.
- Avoid hybrid meetings. If you’re meeting while some people are remote, have everyone join through technology rather than having some people together in a room and others on the screen (or phone).
- Use an exercise at the start of your meetings to share contextual information that helps reduce miscommunication and judgment.
- Establish buddies that pair in-office and remote employees and encourage them to have at least a weekly check-in to share their experiences informally.
- Use the virtual knowledge-sharing approach to reduce social friction. Pair people up for weekly or bi-weekly sessions to share one thing they’ve figured out and one thing with which they’re struggling. This approach was shown to be highly effective in removing the social friction of asking for help and showed enhanced performance for almost all employees.
- Provide unscheduled time for the team, including open, agenda-free time for team members to talk about what they’re working on or ask for help and off-task time where everyone can socialize.
I’m glad that the future of work will look different than the past. I gave up full-time office work more than six years ago, and I would never want to go back. I didn’t like the hour spent commuting, the inability to fit in personal tasks during my day, or the exorbitant amount I spent on pantyhose (seriously!).
I know other people who are just as keen to abandon the work-from-home phase and get back to the joys of instant communication and collaboration, the convenience of grabbing lunch in the food court, and the time between home and office to decompress. I’m glad that the future of work can work better for each of us. I just want to make sure that while it works for each of us, it also works for all of us.