Over the last decade or so, many organizations have adopted hybrid models for in-office and remote work. In some cases, this meant one or two employees worked from home a few days a week. In other instances, company-wide policies enabled regular telecommuting for everyone. However, until February 2020, remote work was still considered the exception – not the rule. As such, most management strategies still centered on the in-person model.
COVID disrupted this entirely. In May 2020, Gallup reported that nearly two-thirds of the U.S. workforce was working from home. By August, one in four employees was still working entirely remotely, and a majority of those employees have said they’d like to stay remote. Even those returning to the office likely won’t be there full time; nearly 80% of top executives expect employees to spend at least a quarter of their time working from home in the future.
This in-and-out-of-office blend presents a whole host of new workforce challenges. Now that they can no longer rely on the in-person model of operating, companies have had to reinvent routine tasks. Recruiting, hiring and onboarding are all being reimagined. New hires must somehow be assimilated into a workforce culture that, overnight, moved out of the office and into people’s homes. And, no one is feeling this pressure more acutely than leaders and managers.
How do you develop and manage employees remotely, have difficult conversations over web camera, and ensure that geographically distributed teams are collaborating and contributing successfully and equitably? There is no single answer to these questions. However, the one thing all solutions have in common is effective, authentic communication.
Communication is hard. Hybrid communication is harder.
Communication is essential to a functioning workplace. According to a national survey by Pew Research Center, 85% of people believe communications skills are “extremely” or “very” important to be successful in today’s economy, and that’s from a year when most employees were still in their offices.
Communication is important, but it’s even more critical in a hybrid workforce. Managers risk falling prey to the “out of sight, out of mind” mindset. It feels natural to check in with an employee when you bump into them in the kitchen or cafeteria; it’s much harder to conduct that spontaneous interaction when the person is miles or time zones away. Employees often experience a similar problem: It can feel much easier to troubleshoot a small issue when they can pop into their manager’s office for a quick chat than when trying to describe it over email or scheduling a meeting to resolve something minor.
Furthermore, there are issues of teambuilding and collaboration to consider. For example, you may have a team meeting scheduled, and one employee is working remotely. To include them, you dial them in on speakerphone. Then, you and your team conduct the meeting and – at the very end – turn to the speakerphone and ask, “Okay, do you have anything else to add?”
This sort of environment can quickly create an in- and out-group dynamic, with remote employees feeling overlooked or even punished for not being in the office. If left unchecked, dissatisfaction can turn into disengagement, which will result in loss of productivity or even loss of the employees themselves.
Fortunately, there are ways to mitigate these communication issues and maintain a healthy, inclusive and cooperative culture among your teams no matter where members are based. More importantly, you – as a leader within your company – are the one who can execute these strategies. In fact, they all start with you.
Be present by eliminating distractions.
Being present is more than just paying attention. When you are fully present, you emanate presence. Your presence is a combination of your focused attention and who you are at the core of your being. It works to create an emotional and intellectual connection with those around you.
Why is this important? It’s key to building trust and motivation.
Active listening is step one, but the nature of virtual communication requires some adjustment. For instance, when you are on a video call, it’s much easier to get distracted by an email alert or other pop-up. So, turn these off!
In the office, you would normally use body language, such as leaning in and establishing eye contact, to indicate your engagement with whoever is speaking. However, on most video calls, all anyone can see is your head – making eye contact especially crucial. To make eye contact with someone on the other end of a video call, you want your eyes to be focused on a point as close to your computer or phone’s camera as possible. Depending on the position of that camera, this may mean looking directly at the camera rather than at the screen. However, if you’re working on a laptop, positioning the video-conferencing window at the top and center of the monitor should suffice.
Emphasize inclusion. Don’t leave it up to chance.
In a hybrid environment where some people are in the office while others video conference in, on-screen employees are often forgotten and have a harder time participating in the conversation.
One way to get around this is to have everyone dial in “remotely.” It might seem awkward to have employees video conferencing while sitting at adjacent desks, but conducting the meeting virtually puts everyone on a more level playing field. By having everyone video conference in, you can set the same expectations of every participant regarding how they should engage in the call.
Unfortunately, this solution still doesn’t fix the issue of water cooler conversations. For instance, let’s say six colleagues meet virtually to prepare an important presentation; four are in the office, and two are at home. When the meeting is over, the four in-office employees go to lunch together and finish the presentation — effectively excluding the two remote employees.
Left unchecked, this sort of behavior can destroy camaraderie between team members, ruining relationships and even careers. That’s why it’s crucial to help your team shift toward a hybrid mindset and way of collaborating.
Start by providing clear expectations. For example, all work-related conversations must be held via agreed-upon communication channels. Then, model the behaviors you want your reports to display. Stop someone when they drop by your office to chat and ask whether this needs to be communicated to others on the team. If so, how do they intend to do that? Finally, enforce equitable communication with appropriate rewards and consequences.
It’s hard work to change a culture, but it’s necessary work. The end result will be a more cohesive and truly inclusive workplace.
Create moments to connect.
When you can’t just grab someone for a quick coffee, you have to find other ways to connect with them on a personal level. Virtual happy hours are a popular way to build comradery, and –with a little more effort – you can host virtual talent show or trivia night to help your team, department or organization bond.
In one-on-one conversations, try asking less predictable questions to elicit a more personal response. A simple question like “What are you doing for fun these days?” can get a discussion going. And, instead of simply asking how employees are doing, ask employees to use an animal or weather comparison to describe how they’re feeling. “I’m feeling like a heavy rain cloud,” or, “I feel like an anxious puppy,” is far more descriptive than, “I’m fine.”
Focus on what’s achievable for you.
Virtual happy hours and animal metaphor questions are all great if they fit with your leadership style. But, opening up lines of communication with your reports doesn’t need to be a big production; it can be as simple as holding open office hours and inviting folks to drop in to ask a question or just catch up. The key is finding ways to communicate that are congruent with who you are as a person and as a leader. At the end of the day, you have to find methods that are natural and sustainable for you. That is how you will be the most effective in making the hybrid workplace work for your organization.