Before COVID-19, just 3% of HR managers reported that their salaried employees worked remotely, according to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). When offices closed abruptly due to the pandemic, that number dramatically increased to 64%. As businesses begin their reentry plan, 59% of employees who work from home want to stay put, according to Gallup.
If organizations grant their wishes, many managers will be supporting hybrid virtual teams for the first time, with some employees working on-site and others remotely. While having the proper tools and technology in place is essential, effectively managing a hybrid virtual team requires a corporate culture built on trust, collaboration, and clear, continuous communication.
Managers and their companies must challenge the assumptions and habits they’ve developed after years of on-site work and embrace a new, more flexible mindset when working with hybrid virtual teams. Greg Besner, author of The Culture Quotient: Ten Dimensions of a High-Performance Culture, recommends that managers start by asking themselves tough questions.
“How are things getting done at my organization? How are employees relating to each other? To their managers? To their customers?” he asks. “Once managers understand their existing culture and determine their desired culture, they can collaborate with their respective team to articulate the shared mission, values, and the defined purpose of their work.”
Establish Open Lines of Communication
While researching his book, Besner studied culture data from more than 1,000 organizations and found that communication is the most challenging cultural dimension. To bridge the gap between on-site and remote, managers need to proactively enable collaboration and ensure that information can flow freely and easily among the team members regardless of location.
“As technology continues to deliver new channels for us to connect, communication in the workplace is becoming more accessible but much more complicated,” he says. “No longer is it a matter of communicating more; instead, we must focus on communicating more effectively.”
In a company that is effective at communication, people can send, receive, and understand one another and any information they share. This relies on two key components, says Besner.
First, teams need a common vocabulary that allows employees to understand others and any necessary information. This could include acronyms, colloquialisms, abbreviations, or symbols. It’s often industry specific: An engineering team may use different terms than those who work at an advertising agency.
Second, employees need the proper channels and processes that enable information transfer, both to and from managers and employees and within and between teams.
“Each company has its own paradigm for which channels are default for communications,” says Besner. “For example, at one company, the typical communication is to send an email but another may be for people to pick up the phone.”
Only about half of employees say they know what is expected of them at work, according to Gallup. Expectations, however, are necessary for moving a hybrid organization forward. Managers must effectively communicate to employees their responsibilities and provide transparency around how performance will be evaluated.
Expectations are especially vital for those working remotely, as they will have more autonomy over the structure of their day. Provide clear expectations by setting goals, timelines, and milestones. Besner says it's essential to have regularly scheduled check-ins to stay aligned.
Hybrid virtual teams will also need to have clear expectations around availability. On-site employees will likely have traditional work hours, but remote employees may develop a more flexible schedule. If those working from home must be available at certain times or respond to calls or messages within a set period, this needs to be established upfront. Since remote employees may be working outside of “normal” working hours, on-site employees should establish expectations and boundaries around their off-time.
Create an Atmosphere of Trust
Technology can help facilitate team communication and performance management, but a positive culture requires trust, says Besner. The pandemic proved that an employee’s output doesn’t suffer when they work remotely. In fact, many companies have reported a boost in productivity, instead.
While it’s natural to confuse presence for productivity, managers need to trust that their employees are capable of getting their job done no matter where they’re working and avoid micromanagement.
“Release control, empowering your employees to drive and innovate,” says Besner. “They are closest to the opportunities and issues and can realize greater impact if they feel ownership.”
Strive for Fairness
It’s important to be mindful of how you accommodate remote and on-site employees. Out of sight can be out of mind, so managers need to be cognizant of their inclusion efforts.
Set up systems that foster the feeling of a team. For example, during meetings, make sure employees can participate equally. The Zoom meetings that everyone is holding during the pandemic could continue, with some employees in the office and others at home, to ensure every employee has an equal presence and ability to talk.
When assembling cross-functional teams and initiatives, be purposeful about adding remote workers to projects. It can help them gain more visibility and exposure in the organization. It also spreads the workload in a more equitable manner instead of always defaulting to those in the office.
“Many employees are feeling isolated right now as a result of working from home,” says Besner. “Managers leading hybrid virtual teams should host frequent team meetings, one-on-one check-ins, and virtual team-building events to maintain a high-performance culture.”
Fairness should also extend to on-site employees. Some may become envious of colleagues who are working from home and can fit in personal tasks during the day, such as picking up their children from school or stepping out for doctors' appointments. This could erode trust among the team. Avoid the risk by offering flexibility to on-site workers when they need it.
Take Full Advantage of the New Normal
Establishing a culture of communication and trust not only facilitates collaboration between your on-site and remote employees, it builds the infrastructure necessary to augment your teams with freelance and on-demand talent, as well. Setting up safe, secure systems for remote work can allow companies to hire freelancers from around the world, opening up the talent pool well beyond the geographic boundaries necessary for on-site work. This gives managers another tool to quickly fill gaps in experience or skill without increasing permanent headcount. A common language, proper communication channels, processes for setting clear expectations, and a culture of equality and trust will make it possible for freelancers to quickly onboard and work efficiently with their full-time teammates.
Effectively managing hybrid virtual teams will take an open mind and a willingness to try new things. Organizations that have a flexible, resilient culture will not only be able to support a hybrid virtual team, they will be able to tap into new, innovative ways of accessing talent, ensuring that they stay competitive in the years to come.