There are undeniable benefits to virtual working, but it can also generate a sense of isolation. In the virtual workspace, opportunities for the casual conversations that help workplace socialisation are missing. Now you almost have to make an appointment to be social. Having to ‘book a time’ to have an informal meeting creates its own formality. In order to be a good people manager, one of the key goals to keep in mind is building trust, because Dirks and de Jong found that trust is essential for initiating and maintaining social relationships at work.
However, a 2020 study found that 23% of leaders say they “aren’t effective at all at leading virtual teams” and leaders reported having the least confidence in their digital acumen and ability to lead virtually. Communication and trust are therefore potentially threatened by virtual working, and this is one of the reasons for hybrid working, overcoming some of these issues by having people come into the office on a regular basis. The following three key areas can assist in managing a hybrid workforce
1. Review and reflect
It is timely to consider whether the policies that were put in place for working from home are still fit for purpose. Many organisations introduced policies in a hurry, as a response to COVID-19, and it is well worth taking time to see what is useful now, and what is not. Similarly, what happens in practice may be different to what you think is happening. It is a good idea to ask your staff what is working well and what needs improvement. Are the tools that they are provided with working well? Are there some staff who would like to return to the office full time? What about the Workplace Health and Safety issues in the home office - have they been considered and taken into account? Has the right equipment and sufficient training been provided? The answers to these questions enable a targeted solution for your particular circumstances. Another area to reflect upon is whether all of your staff will be in office together at any point. If part of the reason for having people in the office is to build connection, camaraderie and trust, then never having everyone together seems counterproductive. What hybrid working arrangements that your organisation or team really need?
A key challenge for managers and leaders is remaining connected to those that they see rarely. When people are separated, leaders and managers need to be intentional about articulating purpose, discussing the big picture and ensuring people feel their work is connected to the success of the organisation. Regular check-ins, team meetings and work in progress discussions can really help a hybrid workforce to feel a part of the organisation. Consider how you can use things like video and phone conferencing to ensure that offsite team members are able to participate as much as possible with the other team members. Likewise, taking the time to share good news, and your appreciation for the efforts of remote team members really helps the team culture you are trying to generate.
Although communication with a hybrid workforce might need some more thought and planning, it is important to ensure that you are attuned to those who are working remotely. Do they prefer phone or video? Is an email better for some things? How would you prefer that they communicate with you? You also need to have times that you are available for offsite team members.
One possibility is to have a ‘virtual workspace’ where people can join in and work quietly together for an hour or two. This has the advantage of working alongside colleagues, and being able to ask questions of others who are in the virtual room as they arise. There are a lot of different ways to build a strong team that includes remote team members. It is about remembering that this will require a bit more planning.
3. Rethink performance
The final thing to consider when managing hybrid workers is how you will measure performance. What do your meetings look like? How do you assess performance from your meetings? It has become tempting to invite more people to online meetings, as there is no additional cost, and it can provide more information and input. However, a smaller group who are genuinely interested seems to provide better results. It may be worth developing some ground rules for your online team meetings. To maximise engagement, it seems that ‘video on’ and ‘no multitasking’ are minimum requirements for productive contributions to meetings.
When examining the performance of individuals, it is generally better to look at the outcomes, rather than to try and micromanage every element of the process. With advances in technology, there is often the capacity for managers to measure things like time spent ‘online’, but that depends on what you are trying to achieve. As long as you are getting the things you need, on time and of a good quality, do you need to be concerned about the time spent logged on? Many of us spend time thinking about a problem while walking or driving, so being ‘online’ is not a great measure of the work that was done. Generally speaking, it is better to trust that the person is doing the work, if the outcomes are satisfactory. The alternative is you spending a lot of time trying to use digital surveillance and ‘measures’ to catch someone out.
The importance of trust in managers and leaders is widely acknowledged, because meaningful workplace connections are important. Don’t let your hybrid workforce lose the most important elements of a successful team, just because you don’t physically see them as often!