In the blink of an eye, the COVID-19 pandemic changed the way many Americans work. When the lockdowns hit in March 2020, 31 percent of U.S. employees were working from home some or all of the time. A month later, 70 percent of employees were working remotely, according to Gallup surveys.
In between was a dizzying race to get systems in place to allow people to work and communicate from anywhere. Remarkably, many organizations survived the transition. And, for the most part, fears of lost productivity resulting from a mostly remote workforce didn't materialize. In fact, 94 percent of employers responding to a 2020 Mercer survey about flexible work said productivity stayed the same or improved in the months following the lockdowns.
Now, as more employees return to physical workplaces, business leaders are facing a new challenge: how to manage a hybrid workforce.
Data supports the belief that hybrid work is the future: About 73 percent of employees want greater flexibility and 67 percent seek in-person activity and collaboration post-pandemic, according to Microsoft's 2021 Work Trend Index. In many ways, hybrid teams are more challenging to manage than all-remote or entirely in-person ones—which is why it will be essential for companies to implement effective hybrid work practices.
Many employers have cited lost company culture and reduced collaboration as reasons for wanting employees back in the office at least part of the time. Slightly more than 70 percent of HR professionals said they were more concerned about employee collaboration last year than they were before the pandemic began, according to the Gartner 2021 Hybrid Work Employee Survey.
When employees are in the same workspace, their interactions are more spontaneous and they tend to interact more with people outside their own teams, says Sunkee Lee, an assistant professor of organizational theory and strategy at the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University. But simply being in the same office isn't enough to achieve collaboration, Lee says. On the flip side, a hybrid workforce doesn't automatically doom collaboration and team building.
"Now it's about how we work, not where we work," says Tina Marie Wohlfield, SHRM-SCP, founder and chief people strategist for HR consulting and talent management company TIMAWO in Fraser, Mich. "The biggest mistake is the mindset that collaboration can only happen when everyone is in the same environment—either all virtual or all in person."
Companies will need to keep an open mind and rethink what types of work require collaboration and which ones don't, says Darren Menabney, global employee engagement lead at Ricoh Co. Ltd. in Tokyo. It's key to fending off two potential pitfalls of having a hybrid workforce: in-office employees who feel resentful of or impatient toward remote workers, and remote or hybrid employees who feel alienated from decision-making. Menabney is confident, though, that hybrid teams and team building are compatible concepts.
Do a Soft Relaunch
When offices closed in March 2020, there was barely time to make sure people had the equipment they needed to work at home, much less to come up with best practices for remote work
Now is a perfect time for companies to put thought into how they want hybrid teams to operate.
"Consider a soft relaunch or a kickoff event for your teams," Menabney says. "Even though your team is not new, their context now is."
Employees can discuss what a hybrid work environment looks like at their company and what role they will play in it. Menabney recommends that each team or department devise its own team communications charter. This document can include:
- An agreement that describes how team members will individually and collectively approach the hybrid experience.
- Solutions that address team members' individual circumstances, such as family commitments, commutes or other personal situations, along with their preferred work styles. Those who work on hybrid teams are more willing than onsite employees to accommodate their teammates' work preferences (69 percent versus 54 percent), Gartner's research found.
- Guidelines that ensure remote workers are able to contribute to decisions and provide feedback to the same extent onsite employees are. For example, if time is set aside for collaboration, make sure all team members are on their laptops so that everyone is collaborating in the same way. "If remote team members feel they're not being included, they will tune out, stop contributing ideas, and eventually individual and team employee engagement will suffer," Menabney says.
- Expectations about response times and which communication tools team members should use.
- A basic schedule that allows for flexibility but also includes core hours for collaboration. Software company Atlassian found that its team members needed about four hours of overlap in a day for collaboration.
Whenever Menabney launches a new global project team, he distributes a questionnaire asking employees to rank certain work preferences on a scale of 1 to 10. Topics can include preferences for working independently versus collectively or thinking quickly versus needing time to process. He then shares the results with the team members to help them get to know one another better. ("You'd be surprised how many HR people describe themselves as introverts!" he says.)
"You can use that knowledge to structure the team, work and schedule appropriately," he explains.
Working in the same office provides plenty of opportunities for chance and planned interactions. People chat while riding the elevator or waiting for a meeting to start. They eat lunch together or go for drinks after work. These encounters, which sometimes reach across departments, often spark great ideas
In a hybrid workforce, those interactions can still happen, but they must be more intentional.
"You need to build in time to have watercooler talk," says Amanda Kassler, SHRM-SCP, chief human resource officer for HR Forge LLC, a San Antonio-based consultancy.
Kassler stresses the need to encourage connectivity and fun at work. As an example, she cites an activity she came up with to celebrate her team's on-time completion of a project despite several setbacks. She created a "mega dessert" made up of all her team members' favorite confections and shipped each person a piece. The team members then dug into their treats while on a video call together.
"They all still talk about it," she says. "Now some of them do recipe exchanges with the really weird and unusual things they've made."
Other ideas for helping a hybrid workforce collaborate and interact include the following:
Hold non-meeting meetings. Kassler is a fan of non-meeting meetings. These are scheduled times during which a manager and an employee—or even two colleagues—can chat. These meetings might last anywhere from five to 30 minutes and should not have an agenda.
Expand connections. Collaboration is about more than workers on the same team or at similar job levels working well together. It also means having high-level managers actively engage employees in the decision-making process, says Steve Smith, vice president for human resources at OpenWorks, a facilities management company in Phoenix. Identify cultural ambassadors and form "Kaizen" teams made up of employees from various levels of the organization who are focused on improving business practices, he suggests. (The Kaizen concept was developed in the 1980s by a Japanese organizational management consultant and refers to progressive and continuous improvement.)
Rethink the purpose of the office. Pre-pandemic, the office was a place where both collaborative work and solo work happened. With a hybrid workforce, the office may need to tilt more toward being a place to collaborate. For example, companies might ask employees to come in for quarterly all-staff meetings and training sessions, Kassler says, but not require them to simply occupy a chair five days a week to do work they could easily do at home.
Bring the fun. Trina DeWitt, director of human resources for the Institute for Supply Management in Tempe, Ariz., says maintaining social connections among employees has been critical for the hybrid workplace. One of the company's key strategies for 2021 was keeping its employees engaged. That meant organizing activities such as bingo or Pictionary that could be done with both in-person and remote participants using platforms that allowed people to share screens and talk.
Find common ground. Early in the lockdowns, some employees at Avangrid Inc. connected virtually to sew masks for health care workers. Many members of the group at the Orange, Conn.-based energy services company didn't know one another beforehand. Instead, they connected over a desire to help and a bit of sewing savvy.
Additionally, Avangrid's business resource groups have become especially important during the pandemic to connect and support the company's roughly 7,000 employees across 24 states. The groups are typically made up of employees who have a shared interest or background.
Following George Floyd's murder in late spring 2020, for example, the company's African-American business resource group worked closely with Avangrid's benefits team to share information on stress and mental health resources with its members, says Peter Church, Avangrid's former chief human resource officer who is now chief people officer at Point32Health, a health insurer based in Canton, Mass. The business resource groups, which can have elements of both virtual and in-person interaction, are a good way to "have teams operate not as a hierarchy but as a pod," Church says. "Having a virtual component allows people to collaborate more readily without the boundaries of an office."
Allow for Vulnerability
The pandemic blurred the line between work and home. It shined a light into the personal corners of co-workers' worlds as they went about the messy business of working while juggling barking dogs, patchy child care, a public health crisis and tight living quarters
"We saw each other's puppies and the lunches we created. We celebrated getting loads of laundry done in between meetings and wore funny hats to surprise someone on their birthday—all through our laptops," says Marley Huckabee, director of human resources at 10Pearls, a digital development company based in Vienna, Va.
Before the pandemic, Huckabee worked in the office full time at IBA Proton Therapy in Herndon, Va. But she believes that her team going remote, and then hybrid, strengthened the bonds between its members.
"It forced me to check in more with my employees, and our team meetings were more robust because we valued the precious time together to collaborate," she says. "Having each other's backs became so important to us during the difficult and challenging times."
Professionalism is important in the workplace, as is a healthy separation between work and home life, but Huckabee believes one positive outcome of the pandemic was that it broke down barriers between team members and between employees and managers.
"As leaders, we have to adapt to and allow for people to bring their whole selves to work," she says.
Giving employees space to improve their work/life balance is crucial to collaboration, she adds.
For some employees, work/life balance has improved since moving to remote work: A February 2022 Pew Research Center survey found that 64 percent of U.S. teleworkers say it's easier now to balance work with their personal lives.
Measuring profitability in a business is fairly straightforward. But what about the squishier concept of collaboration? Are there signs and metrics you can use to gauge how well your hybrid team is functioning? The answer is yes, and, in many respects, it comes down to honesty and communication
Simple surveys can be a useful way to take the temperature of how well collaboration is going. Don't save your questions for an annual survey, Church says; instead, ask about collaboration or teamwork through weekly or monthly pulse surveys.
Since the start of the pandemic, Avangrid focused on making its employee outreach more timely and more targeted through pulse surveys and small employee focus groups.
Now, Avangrid has "multiple forums to collect employees' comments, and these comments create more dialogue," Church says.
It's also important to be open to different definitions of successful collaboration. Lee points to the processes his MBA students use to complete a final project for his strategy class. Some sit down, divide up all the tasks and only meet again toward the end of the project to put the work together. Other groups discuss every detail across multiple meetings.
"At the end of the day, if both groups complete an excellent final project, which collaboration is better? Both are good types of collaboration because the groups met their end goal and they were satisfied with the form of collaboration they engaged in," he says.
But Lee also suggests that business leaders and managers can and should create small milestones for teams and check to make sure those goals are being met. Then schedule chats with individual employees to see if they're satisfied with their team members and the way the work is being done, he says.
"If issues crop up in this process, it's highly likely that there are problems with collaboration," he says.
Understandably, there will be bumps along the road in a situation that's new for many companies. It's important to acknowledge that you don't have all the answers. Being honest and authentic in your communications will go a long way toward garnering employee buy-in when you need to make changes down the road.
"When people are involved in the ideation and problem-solving process," Smith says, "they feel heard [and] involved and have a sense of ownership in the solutions."
SHRM provide information and resources to help business leaders improve workforce collaboration and manage a hybrid workforce.
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