10 Tips for Leading a Hybrid Workforce
Workplaces were forced to change radically — and overnight — when the Covid-19 pandemic swept the globe.
In the wake of that sobering reality, many workers concluded that they didn’t want to return to the office. Managers, for their part, became less willing to continue paying for empty office space.
Some employees want to return to the office. Others do not. The obvious solution is to consider implementing a hybrid team of remote and in-person employees. That sounds ideal…but be advised that the road itself is fraught with landmines. However, most of these can be successfully avoided by adhering to the following 10 guidelines.
1. Don’t pretend that remote and in-person are the same thing.
One of the biggest mistakes you can make as we enter somewhat hesitantly into the era of hybrid work teams is to pretend that in-person and remote positions are (or should be) identical in every way. They’re for sure not, and you risk offending both your remote and in-person employees by insisting that they are. The simplest and most obvious example of a significant difference is that remote employees miss out on many of the distinctive aspects of office life culture. In many cases, they haven't even met the in-person team, so start things off on the right foot with a welcome video. Remote employees may be able to wear jammies as they toil but, on the other hand, they miss out on every single water-cooler conversation. Acknowledge and respect the differing needs. (Start by making sure your remote workers have access to important conversations that happen offline.)
2. Step up your communication game in meetings.
Your best friend as you move ahead with implementing a hybrid team of employees will be to regularly ask yourself one simple question: “Will this meeting be valuable and inclusive for everyone invited?” Keep in mind that every seat in the room — virtual or otherwise — represents a paid employee. You might consider appointing a staff member or two to create a set of expectations or meeting agenda for everyone to follow. It will take trial-and-error as you figure out how everyone communicates best and how to disseminate information in an easy-to-understand way. But your team will be on the same page more often if you strive to figure this out early on.
3. Set objective, empirical performance standards ASAP.
Your company may already have developed one performance evaluation standard for in-person workers and another for remote employees. That may or may not be entirely appropriate. Just make sure that employee evaluations, pay assessments, and performance metrics take into account the variables that are different for your remote people and in-person staff. As a manager, your primary consideration should be making sure that all of your employees are pulling their fair share of the load. Resentments can be astonishingly quick to foment in this new era of hybrid offices. When an in-person worker begins to grouse about a remote employee (or vice versa) be quick to pay attention. Is this a one-time deal, or does it happen frequently? Find out and fix it.
4. Encourage consistency. Start by setting office hours for everyone.
This is an area where “acceptable” office hours will vary from business to business and from remote worker to in-person. However, in general, you want to avoid problems that can crop up whenever anyone’s expectations are foiled. If, for example, a remote employee fully expects to complete an important project with input from “Jim,” the dead last thing you want is for someone at the office to inform the remote employee that Jim is off the grid. The implication is obvious. Management must maintain a calendar of availability for every employee, regardless of where they happen to do their job. Any employee should be able to glance at the shared company calendar and discern at once who’s available, who’s not, and how it affects project completion.
5. Anticipate setbacks and communication snafus.
Ask around. It’s almost a 100% sure bet that not one company transitioned from being fully in-person to hybrid without encountering several problems related to effective communication. Remote employees living in rural areas have terrible internet connectivity. Projects come to a standstill simply because one in-person employee caught a cold — let alone Covid-19 — and failed to designate an alternate to take over. Even as your company begins to find its “sea legs” running with a hybrid team, additional issues are sure to arise. As a manager, your best bet is to go from having a solid Plan A and Plan B to having at least four or five fallback positions to which your people can flee in the event of unforeseen difficulties. A simple example would be to schedule an important team meeting for two different time slots should connectivity fail.
6. Identify and dismantle artificial workplace boundaries.
Is anyone in your work setting still naive enough to dare to use the phrase “the way we’ve always done things around here?” As a rule, most people tend to resist change, which is rather unfortunate given that things seem to be changing every single day since March 2020. Keep the all-too-human resistance to change in mind as you develop processes and procedures for your remote and in-person employees. Pay attention to casual remarks, memos, and messaging that in any way splits your company into two teams. For your hybrid team to work, everyone has to be on the same page with this. If, for example, one of your in-person staff resists responding to the request of a remote team member — for whatever reason — this is a situation that needs to be wrestled to the ground immediately.
7. Secure and deploy the right tech for the right people.
If you’ve ever tried to sit through a meeting where technical difficulties are grating on everyone’s nerves, you know full well the value of making sure everyone has the tech they need. Effective leaders will call off a meeting rather than pay staff to sit through these sorts of torture sessions. “We’ll reschedule everyone for later in the day” can be a lot less expensive than having your staff spend 30-90 minutes sighing deeply and wishing they were anywhere else. When developing a hybrid team, many managers focus almost exclusively on the technical needs of their remote employees. Head off technical problems by assigning one (1) team member to be 100% in charge of any meeting’s technical requirements. Have that person engage with every employee days ahead of a big meeting to run tests, diagnose issues, etc.
8. Prioritize worker safety above everything else.
More than one otherwise-effective workplace manager has fallen into the snare of trying to make everyone happy with regard to face mask policies, vaccination requirements, and social distancing. As more and more employees begin returning to work, keep in mind that there is a wide spectrum of fear in operation throughout our culture. Keep drumming the same message into everyone’s heads over and over again. “We care far more about your physical safety and that of your loved ones than we do about anything else.” Do you hope to foster employee loyalty? Say those words as often as you need to…and mean them.
9. Foster a culture of open, transparent communication.
Whether you are implementing a hybrid team or not, every manager should be committed to a workplace culture where problems are discussed openly…without recrimination. Cliques and whispered conversations carry with them the capacity to destroy any relationship, whether a workplace, a softball team, or a marriage. Leaders have the opportunity to set the tone by being open about their own failures, flaws, and painful lessons learned. Where employees do not fear bringing up difficult problems, solutions are more likely to be implemented quickly.
10. Solicit (and pay attention to) employee feedback.
You might be a top-notch manager, but when you implement a hybrid team of in-person and remote employees, you’re simply not going to get everything right. Yes, the acceptable structure for your hybrid team should be a top-down imperative, but it will be vital that everyone involved be open to feedback rising up from the ranks.
Any manager worth his or her salt knows that making every employee perfectly happy is never going to happen. However, in the rush to implement a hybrid approach, managers can be blinded by tunnel vision. Counter this tendency by scheduling regular time slots for considering the merits of employee feedback.