Over the last 12 months we have all been working through the world’s biggest unintended experiment in mass remote working. For some this has been liberating, for others, a real struggle.
The result of this experiment is that we’ve now reached another pivotal point in the world of work and its evolution. Recent research from the Forever Flex report by Flex Appeal, shows that over 70% of companies plan to continue some or all of the flexible working practices they have deployed over the past year. The workplace landscape is undoubtedly changing and with this brings a very exciting opportunity.
The great news for leaders transitioning to manage remote and hybrid teams, is that there are already tried and tested approaches and techniques they can learn from. Many national and international businesses have worked in this way for a long time, operating across multiple sites and countries. My own personal experience of this was the 11 years I spent at Royal Mail managing hybrid teams across multiple business sites, including teams working remotely from home. We had a mixture of a process and leadership approach and a culture that created a strong team bond, allowing us to operate as a one cohesive unit… most of the time. It also helped to highlight issues, when we had them, along the way.
So, here are my top 5 tips for managing hybrid or remote teams:
Communication plays a vital element in every aspect of our lives – and high performing teams have communication at their core. Communication is a key component of any business. In high performing teams people have the psychological safety to be themselves and share their opinions. There is a strong feedback culture, a focus on refinement and improvement, and teams are encouraged to work through conflicting options and scenarios before arriving at the best approach.
One key challenge, when you’re not all in the same room, is that a sense of distance can creep in. You can’t see when someone is snowed under with work or having a bad day, you don’t share those fun team exchanges as easily, and it’s harder to feel that shared sense of team purpose. As a result, remote working teams can begin to feel team bonds weaken and communication concerns quickly rise to the top of the agenda.
There are a few essential things to consider when it comes to implementing a successful communication process for remote and hybrid teams:
Frequency: What’s the best frequency to communicate to make employees feel part of the company, to share information and to progress activities, but to avoid creating 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 become 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, with face-to-face meetings once a quarter.
Companywide all hands meetings will depend on the situation, but as a general rule, if things are uncertain, or regularly changing, more frequent meetings are advisable. We’d vary from quarterly to monthly depending on the position of the business at the time.
Format: It’s a painful experience trying to follow the conversation of those in the room when you are not, so it’s best to ideally all be remote or all in the room. We had a meeting once when the chair was remote, and the rest of the team weren’t… total chaos!
So, think about parity, giving everyone the same experience, and be careful not to fall into the trap of focusing more on the people in the room as opposed to those working remotely or at other sites.
Creative idea generation and relationship building are a lot harder to do remotely, so if possible, face to face activities 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. Consider whether emails, Slack, phone etc. may be more efficient.
Flexibility: Collectively work out when it’s most productive to meet, and when its best to get on with tasks, alone. We had Friday morning catchups with various teams, to understand progress made, the support needed and agree the focus for the week ahead. Other teams ran this on Mondays to kick-start the week. Some companies, such as Channel 4 have meeting free days, so consider what would work best for your team.
Fun: Having a bit of fun can bring enjoyment and spark into the workday, but it can also make people feel more connected and create a sense of community. The informal 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, wellbeing and interesting news is time well spent.
Two key areas make hybrid and more agile working structures a success:
- Encouraging a high degree of autonomy for people to make decisions, innovate, and get things done.
- Creating a high degree of alignment across groups so that the right things get done in the first place.
In practical terms, when you are managing a remote team, most of the time you can’t see what is going on anyway, so autonomous working is the default. The challenge to resist is not to revert to micromanagement to plug the visibility gap. For autonomous working to be successful, trust must be at the heart of the relationship. This goes both ways though. Managers must trust employees to be effective and productive while employees need to be flexible and comfortable being mobile, taking on the increased responsibility this offers.
The only thing we can be certain of at the moment is that change will happen. It’s therefore very important for teams 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 is essential. Those working in a physical office typically work more regular hours, due to commuting considerations versus employees working remotely who may have more flexibility and wish to work when they are optimally more productive. It is important to agree and clearly communicate expectations that can be measured 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 regardless of work location.
Processes are vital. Where clear and simple processes have been implemented, remote teams are easier to manage. Circulating information such as key points and actions to avoid misunderstandings is a good trait to emulate.
A lack of understanding between team members regarding who is doing what work, when, where and how, can lead to feelings of isolation for remote workers and feelings of resentment for office based workers. It’s therefore important to clearly define this and set expectations accordingly, so it works for the whole team.
4. Learning and Development
Teams are motivated when they feel like they are making progress. Undertaking the same activity, within the same environment every day 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 helps to break up daily routine and provides new opportunities and perspectives. In this new world of work practical tasks such as learning how to run effective online meetings, presenting and pitching virtually, and using tools to make the process more engaging and productive are all new skills that need to be mastered.
As a leader, coaching is also a really valuable skill to develop. It’s now doubly important to understand your team’s individual circumstances and 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 in identifying, resolving and overcoming them.
The importance of company culture should never be underestimated. It is key to creating a sense of belonging between employees and the organisation they work for.
In these times of rapid change, organisations with agile approaches to business are reaping the rewards. A culture that promotes teamwork, transparency and open communication, limit’s unnecessary bureaucracy and empowers employees to make decisions are core foundations to build upon.
In a hybrid-remote structure there are fewer opportunities for colleagues to form strong bonds through casual interactions and it’s therefore more challenging 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 face-to-face. Therefore, culture does need some focus. The starting point is to clearly articulate the vision of the organisation and to then get the team involved in discussions around how to build the culture, with everyone realising they have a part to play . We ran virtual wine tastings, walking meetings, and even had a team hike going from the sea to the top of Snowdon. The list is endless!
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. Buddying up is a simple and effective approach, as well as scheduling fun time for the whole team, to get to know their new colleague.
So, consider all of the above ideas when it comes to leading and managing hybrid and remote teams, and make sure you experiment together. Your employees will benefit, and your management skills will be instantly improved.
Tony Lamb is a Director of Nua Training. If you found this article useful and would like to know more about how to transition your teams to a new hybrid working model, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
- ‘Forever Flex report by Flex Appeal/ Sir Robert McAlpine 2020 – explored how 1,420 employers used flexible working through Covid-19
- Being the Boss, with a New Preface: The 3 Imperatives for Becoming a Great Leader by Linda A. Hill, Kent Lineback