In our new world of work, hybrid working is the norm. What this means for HR policies and how this impacts ongoing requirements for office space is a key concern for many an HR professional at present. For leaders of hybrid teams, though, the key challenge is how to lead in this new and different world. What leadership approaches work with hybrid teams? And how can those at the helm best adapt to these new styles of leading?
Managing the asymmetric
The new edition of my book Virtual Leadership: Practical strategies for success with remote or hybrid work and teams devotes a chapter to this challenge and I’ll share some highlights here, drawn from over twenty years of working and leading in this way.
The main challenge you’ll find when you lead a hybrid team is that individuals have very different experiences day to day, depending on whether they are working in the office or remotely. A hybrid team is by nature asymmetric, with those in the office able to have casual conversations with those around them, at coffee machines, whilst waiting for meetings or even just in passing in the corridor.
The leadership style needed for success virtually is more facilitative, as autocratic, command-and-control styles tend to backfire
They can pick up on the nuances and dynamics of discussions in meetings by being in the physical room with others. If the office is where senior people are based, those frequently in the office benefit from proximity bias when bonuses, exciting projects or promotions come up, unlike those working from home, who are ‘out of sight, out of mind’.
Leaders need to be especially careful of those who are working remotely in the longer term, who are likely to miss out on meeting with colleagues and leaders in person.
So how can you lead a hybrid team effectively? Here are some practical ideas:
1. Keep up your virtual leadership style
Many months spent under lockdown or working from home during the Covid-19 pandemic forced leaders to develop new skills of engaging and encouraging people across dispersed networks, which is very different from working together in an office.
The leadership style needed for success virtually is more facilitative, as autocratic, command-and-control styles tend to backfire. With that in mind, make it easy for each team member to do their best work, wherever they are, while also encouraging them and their own wellbeing.
This works well in a hybrid setting, which, due to the asymmetry, is even more challenging than fully remote work, where at least everyone was equal even if in rectangular boxes on screen.
2. Make the most of the advantages
A noisy open plan office was never a good idea for tasks that require concentration, such as writing a report. With your team, work out which tasks suit working from home and which ones are best tackled in the office with other people.
Ensure that those who travel into the office have in-person time with their colleagues that day – this means aligning days in the office as appropriate, as there is no point having one person alone in the office. They might as well be at home!
As the leader of what is likely to be an asymmetric team, part of your role is to reduce the inequalities
3. Focus on outcomes
Rather than focusing on the time people spend working, why not give team members more flexibility about when and how they achieve those outcomes? The ability to drop children at school, visit elderly parents, take time out for daily exercise or even pursue a class can all be hugely meaningful to employees and great for their wellbeing.
Another advantage of hybrid working is the ability to employ people who might struggle to commute into the office every day of the week. Hybrid teams can include a diverse range of people this way!
4. Level the playing field
As the leader of what is likely to be an asymmetric team, part of your role is to reduce the inequalities. In meetings, think remote first.
- Address and ask questions to participants working from home before those with you in the physical meeting room
- Ensure that everyone can be seen and heard clearly by everyone else
- Give each remote participant an ‘in-room buddy’ or, alternatively, have one dedicated in-room facilitator, who can answer any questions and support remote colleagues
- Keep meetings short!
5. Make remote participants visible
It’s all too easy for them to be ‘out of sight and out of mind’ in meetings. Take steps to make remote workers visible in the room by setting out chairs and name tents. Even better, follow a client of mine who creates life size cartoon cut-outs to place on the chairs!
Model great hybrid working yourself to show that you too are experiencing the challenges just as your team is
6. Use the most appropriate technology
While we’re adept at virtual meetings now, hybrid meetings are more complicated. If everyone joins individually via Teams (or Zoom) from the same room, then there is likely to be audio feedback from multiple microphones, requiring judicious use of the mute function. If everyone joins via one system, it can be tricky to get good audio from, and a good view of, each in-room participant at the same time. With this in mind, consider carefully what the best combination of technology will be, and, if you can, test it the first time to make sure it supports a level playing field.
7. Model remote working
As a leader, model great hybrid working yourself. This will show that you too are experiencing the challenges just as your team is!
Leading hybrid teams can be tricky due to the built-in asymmetry and the challenges of organising and leading a partly distributed group of people. But on the flip side, there are rewards and possibilities that were not possible before, so leaders would be wise to embrace these opportunities.
Dr Penny Pullan has working in hybrid and fully remote leadership for over 20 years, since 9/11 forced her to run a project virtually. Through her company Making Projects Work she coaches others to be effective, using her Virtual Leadership Model and Tools. Her latest book Virtual leadership: Practical strategies for success with remote or hybrid work and teams 2nd Edition is published on 3rd March 2022. Previous books include Making Workshops Work: Creative collaboration for our time and Managing Successful Programmes, 5th Edition (co-author).