By Beth Hood, founder and director, Verosa Leadership Development
In today’s workplace, very little seems fixed. Government guidelines in light of the COVID pandemic, individual needs and organisational policy are rapidly changing. The only thing that we can be sure about is that nothing is certain.
As HR teams grapple with establishing working practices and protocols that support a new reality, what can team leaders do to set themselves, and those who work for them, up for success?
As our reliance on digital platforms increases, so too should our investment in the relationships we form with those around us, the climate we foster and the impact we have as managers. In a hybrid setting, leaders are learning that taking care of the details they may have previously overlooked is now critical.
In a team where working patterns and locations vary, the first thing to suffer is clarity, as face-to-face meetings are reduced and in-person contact is patchy. In the absence of organic and frequent ‘check-in’ opportunities (a quick question raised on the walk to a meeting room, an update given in the lift), ensuring that our teams know precisely what is expected of them and how they should be delivering is vital. As managers of hybrid teams, we should be implementing strategies to counter these issues and ensure our team members are crystal clear on what is required.
In order to achieve this clarity, we advocate doing 3 things with your team this year:
- Share the purpose of the team and make the explicit link between the organisation’s aim, and that of your team. (If you yourself are not clear, there’s probably some work to do!). Brevity is key here. Imagine you were trying to explain to your elderly aunt what exactly your team’s mission is. What would you say? Start with the words: ‘this team exists to…’
- Agree clear objectives with each member of your team. Link them to the bigger picture, so that they know why they are delivering on these. Goal setting is an art – the more clarity you can bring, and the more invested your people are in their own objectives, the better. Schedule time for a 1:1 with every team member where you review and agree their objectives. Set the expectation beforehand that you would like them to bring their own suggestions and ideas to the session. Lots of models exist to support this process, and many organisations also offer goal-setting training to managers.
- Write a team charter and engage the team in this activity. This is your opportunity to set your boundaries and expectations, not only on what should be achieved, but also on how this should happen. Ideally, make this a team activity (although you will want to have your own clarity on this ahead of time), and set aside time to answer the question ‘In this team we…’ Great examples of what might be written on a team charter are:
- In this team we show up and offer our presence, even when virtual
- In this team ‘on time’ means being ready five mins before the event
- In this team we inform of challenges by exception and when action is needed
- In this team we commit to meeting face-to-face every fortnight
- In this team there are no mistakes, only opportunities for learning which will be shared by all
The second important thing to pay attention to in a hybrid setting is levels and means of communication. In two dimensions and at a distance, connection and communication can become easily muddled, misinterpreted, or unhelpfully augmented. Not receiving a reply to an email when you haven’t seen your boss for a few days can sound like deafening silence. This issue might be given far more weight than in an ‘in office’ setting, where it might be more obvious as to why the email is going unanswered.
The rule of thumb here is communicate more, and communicate often. Set aside time every week to do the following:
- Team update emails – Friday News, Monday Headlines, Thursday Thank Yous, Wednesday Words etc. Be disciplined and do this every week without fail. Communicate the top stories and anything that is coming into the team from outside, or above, that is relevant. It doesn’t matter if this material is also covered in other communications; different people digest information in different ways and variety is key in a hybrid setting.
- Schedule 1:1s on a regular basis (online or face-to-face) to talk through challenges, offer guidance and feedback, provide coaching and celebrate great work. Don’t cancel these unless you absolutely cannot avoid it. Employees who have regular catch ups with their line managers report being better focussed, more connected to the organisation and feeling more valued than those who don’t.
- Use ‘salt and pepper comms’ to replace the organic touch points and coffee machine moments. Salt and pepper communications are small, rapport building connections, across a range of platforms that keep the channels of communication in place, but which don’t carry important information. An example might be a WhatsApp to say good luck to a team member on a day of a big meeting; a Teams message to the whole team with a pic of your desk / pet / breakfast. Seemingly frivolous, light-touch connections can make a huge difference.
- Adapt to connect – stylistic communication differences are even more important in a mixed team setting. If you are someone who likes to work alone and quietly, but recognise you have team members who need more connection and social interaction, consider what you can do to meet their need – it will pay dividends in engagement and levels of motivation in return. Similarly, if you are sociable and relationship focussed naturally, but manage someone who wants a calm environment, and access to detail and data, make sure you seek out communication opportunities to meet this need. A phone call or email exchange may be more comfortable for this person than lots of video conferencing.
Every team needs an infrastructure and operating rhythm that is configured to support delivery. In a hybrid team, this is even more important. It’s not necessary to have meeting after meeting in the diary (there are far too many in hybrid teams already, where a 30 virtual minute meeting has become the minimal viable currency for any conversation).
Instead, start by asking your team what might work for them. Maybe a longer monthly meeting is better than a short one every week? Maybe you need different types of meetings for different aspects of your roadmap. Maybe the team want to meet without you to support each other and share their ideas and learnings.
The other structural necessity is knowing where to turn to if you are unavailable. Think about how this is configured currently. Do you nominate a team deputy, suggest they talk to another team leader (with that leader’s permission), or can they call you on your holidays? This is important in teams that are normally physically co-located, and even more so when the team is dispersed.
Lastly, consider holding regular open door ‘clinics’ at the same time each month. Your team will know that they can book 30 mins with you in this time as needed to talk through anything that is on their mind. This may reduce the feeling of disconnect and isolation that comes from working in a hybrid set up.
One of the hardest things to achieve in a hybrid setting is true connection, and this connection sits across three areas. For a team to be truly high performing, the team should feel deeply connected to:
- One another
- The organisation, its identity and culture
- You, their manager
It’s no surprise that – COVID restrictions allowing – team off-sites and socials are on the rise. Events that allow teams to come together both to work in a focussed way, as well as to play, are increasingly popular and highly valuable. However, it is imperative that the person who can’t commit to coming because of health concerns or personal circumstances isn’t left out in the cold.
As much as these well-intentioned activities can be a great way for teams to bond and connect with their organisations in these times, they can also be a catalyst for even more disconnect, when not carefully handled.
One of the things that can help here is to examine your own mindset. Feelings of disconnection can quickly turn to disengagement and ultimately to psychological opt out, where the employee has left in spirit – if not in body – and productivity suffers enormously at this point. We all carry narratives and judgements about others around with us and these unconscious biases can become limiting, destructive and sometimes even toxic, if not kept in check.
Word hard on your own thought patterns and try and keep the invisible people visible on your radar. In hybrid teams, an undercurrent of ‘us’ versus ‘them’, the ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’, can quickly take hold – even more so, if the leader themselves accidentally supports this with exclusive language and behaviours.
Use your team charter to agree on ground rules of inclusion. One example is to insist that everyone uses the online platform for team meetings, even if some people are co-located in the office together. The cliquey-ness and ‘in-group’, ‘out-group’ behaviours should be carefully monitored.