How to Lead Hybrid and Remote teams: learning the lessons from the “Old Normal”
When we talk about hybrid or fully remote teams, they are often referred to as part of the “new normal”. But for many companies, this was also the “old normal”. If you have a national or international workforce, the challenges and opportunities of working from home, or operating across multiple sites have always been there. So the great news, for managers transitioning to this new way of working, is that there are already tried and tested approaches they can learn from to make it work effectively.
My main personal experience of this was the 11 years I spent managing hybrid teams at Royal Mail, across four core business sites, plus people who worked remotely from home. We had a mixture of process, leadership approach and culture that created a strong team bond, and allowed us to operate as a one cohesive unit… most of the time, but it also helped to show up issues when it didn’t work.
So, my top 5 lessons for running hybrid or remote teams are as follows:
1. Communication Heartbeat
Communication plays a vital element in every aspect of our lives whether we realise it or not. As humans we’re instinctively social creatures and we have a desire to make friends and establish human connections. Communication is a core component of any business and without it, the tasks and procedures to allow the business to run efficiently would not occur. We use communication to help build relationships, encourage innovation by sharing ideas, create a feeling of belonging, leading others and growing the company, amongst other things.
Many research studies including that by Willis Towers Watson have found that “companies that communicate with courage, innovation and discipline, especially during times of economic challenge and change, are more effective at engaging employees and achieving desired business results.”
Conversely communication concerns continually rise to the top when it comes to discussions about the challenges faced by remote teams.
In the distanced working environment, a process is needed to make sure communication is happening effectively amongst individuals and teams, and the company as a whole. The key things to consider are:
Frequency: What’s the best frequency to communicate, to make employees feel part of a company, share information and progress activities, but not create a culture of micromanagement or meeting fatigue? Team meetings will usually vary from a quick daily check-in, to a weekly call, and it’s for you and your team to agree what works best.121’s are now even more important to get into the detail of how team members are coping, and where they need help. In my team, we ran these once a fortnight, but tried to get face to face once a quarter. Companywide all hands meetings will depend on the activities you are undertaking, but as a general rule, if things are uncertain, or regularly changing, the more frequent meetings need to be. We’d vary from quarterly to monthly dependent on the position in the business.
Format: It’s a painful experience trying to follow the conversation when others are in the room and you aren’t, so it’s best to ideally all be remote, or all the room. We once had a meeting when the chair was remote, and the rest weren’t… total chaos! Creative idea generation or relationship building are a lot harder to do remotely, so if possible, face to face sessions really make a difference here. Meetings are also not always the best way to communicate and can often cut into people’s days, reducing productivity. Emails, Slack, phone etc. may be more efficient.
Flexibility: Consider the team’s time demands to collectively work out when it’s most productive to meet. We had Friday morning catch-ups with various teams, to understand progress made, the support needed and agree next week’s focus. Other teams ran this on Monday’s to kick-start the week.
Fun: Having a bit of fun can bring some enjoyment and spark into the workday, but it can also make people feel more connected and create a sense of community. The social connection builds the feeling of a strong team, so virtual team drinks, or a 10 minute pre-meeting general chat on our own personal lives and any interesting news is time well spent.
The only thing we can currently be certain of is that the future is uncertain. It’s therefore very important for everyone in the team to understand what’s currently most important, and what’s a “nice to have”. This may change over time but focusing on the most important work will bring results faster.
Mastering the skill of virtual performance management means agreeing and clearly communicating expectations that you can measure in any setting, with metrics specifically tied to output rather than activity. This also ensures that employees are held accountable and management can respond quickly, providing support and motivation where needed.
Processes are vital. Where clear and simple processes have been implemented, remote teams are easier to manage. Acting like a project manager and circulating information such as key points and actions to avoid misunderstandings is a good trait to emulate.
If you are running hybrid versus fully remote teams, those working in a physical office typically work more regular hours, due to commuting considerations. On the other hand, an employee working remotely may have more flexibility and wish to work when they are optimally more productive. A lack of understanding among all team members about who is doing what work, when, where and how, can lead to feelings of isolation on the part of the remote workers, and feelings of resentment from team members still in the office. The importance is clearly defining both aspects for the team and setting expectations accordingly, so it works for the whole team.
If you’re running a hybrid team, the trap to fall into is focusing more on the people around you, and not on those working remotely or at other sites. This can be really demotivating, and also mean opportunities are missed, so a bit of extra effort is often needed.
Everyone should be on a level playing field to ensure that remote workers don’t feel disadvantaged by not being in the room. As a visible demonstration of this, we used to vary where monthly team meetings were held, whilst keeping an eye on cost, and making sure each site was visited at least once a year. The Midlands not surprisingly was a popular venue choice for our national team, and required everyone to travel.
Culture is the key to making employees feel like they are part of a family, creating a sense of belonging to the organisation they work for. The importance of your corporate culture should never be underestimated.
In these times of rapid change, organisations with agile approaches to business are reaping the rewards. A culture that promotes teamwork and open communication, limit’s unnecessary bureaucracy, empowers employees to make decisions and shares information are core foundations on which to build.
In a hybrid-remote structure, because employees are working under different circumstances, there are fewer opportunities for colleagues to form strong relationships, so it’s more complex to maintain a positive culture. Remote teams lose out on the spontaneous daily interactions inherent in an office environment. This is particularly true for new employees who may never have set foot in the office or met their work colleagues. All those casual interactions lead people to bond and form a strong culture over time.
Therefore, culture does need some focus. The starting point is clearly articulating the vision of the organisation, and how each person can play a part in realising this. Then get the team involved in discussions around how to build the culture. We’ve run virtual wine tastings, walking meetings, and even had a team hike going from the sea to the top of Snowdon. The list is endless!
5. Learning and Development
We are currently going through a period of history that none of us envisaged a year ago. Some people have coped well, others have struggled, but generally things are tough.
As a leader, coaching is a really valuable skill to develop. It’s now doubly important to understand your team’s individual circumstances, find out about their worries, what they’re finding hard and how they’re holding up. The very process of talking through issues can often be a first step to overcoming them, and there may be some serious issues growing that are important to quickly identify and resolve.
A core part of motivation is to feel like you are making progress. Undertaking the same activity, within the same environment everything else happens in can become quite demoralising, particularly when results aren’t happening.
According to Linda Hill, professor at Harvard Business School and co-author of ‘Being the Boss: The 3 Imperatives for Becoming a Great Leader,’ a great way to start is by asking yourself: “What is the experience my employees are having at work, and how can I empower them to do the best they can?”
Learning new skills breaks the daily routine and provides new perspectives. There are also the practical demands of operating in a virtual environment, such as learning how to run effective meetings, presenting and pitching virtually, and using tools to make the process more engaging and productive – all new skills that we now need to master.
Lastly, don’t forget to pay particular attention to onboarding and induction training for new recruits. It is important to ensure they feel embedded and can quickly add value to their teams and the wider organisation as a whole.