Managing Hybrid Teams: How to Keep Culture Strong and Productivity High When Employees Are Working From Home and the Office

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The pandemic-driven shift to mass remote work has had its fair share of challenges, like a disrupted work/life balance and widening communication gaps. Despite that, many employees have come to prefer the flexibility of working from home over the rigidity of working from a shared office.

At the same time, some roles will require a return to the office once doing so becomes feasible, and some employees are excited about the prospect of working from the office once again. How do you handle a workforce composed of both people who love working from home and people who would rather — or are required to — work from the office again?

A hybrid office that merges the benefits of on-location and remote work can be a best-of-both-worlds solution that keeps everyone happy. The question is: How can a company successfully go hybrid?

What Is a ‘Hybrid’ Office?

A “hybrid” office model is one in which employees have the option to choose where, when, and how they work. Employees can choose to work from the office, work remotely, or even alternate between the two as desired. For companies, hybridity provides a way to maximize productivity and flexibility while meeting the diverse needs of employees.

Understandably, some company leaders are hesitant to embrace hybrid office models. Many leaders worry employees will take undue advantage of such a system. They should know, however, that 60 percent of employees  feel they are more engaged and productive when they have flexible work options. That suggests a hybrid office could actually boost performance.

That said, there are certainly challenges that companies need to consider — and solve — before going hybrid.

Common Challenges Faced by Hybrid Teams

Every business has its own unique culture, processes, and procedures, so hybrid offices will pose different challenges to different organizations. That said, a few challenges are more common than others:

1. Communication Gaps

Unrestricted, easy communication is one of the biggest perks of a traditional office setup. If an employees has any doubts or problems, they can simply walk to a colleague or superior and sort it out.

Because hybrid offices mix colocation and remote work, employees have to rely on video conferencing and messaging tools to facilitate communication between all team members. This kind of communication may not suit everyone, and it is more susceptible to communication gaps. For example, employees can miss important details or even entire meetings due to tech problems. There is also the risk of hacking: Zoom has experienced serious breaches that compromise employee privacy and company security.

In a hybrid office, simple things like holding urgent meetings and checking in with employees can become tricky if everyone is not on the same page. To mitigate communication problems, make it a point to record every meeting and log every chat. Keep meeting minutes in project management tools like Asana or Notion, where they will be easily accessible to all employees.

Leaders and managers should also invest in educating employees in remote-friendly and hybrid-office best practices. Proper training, along with comprehensive communication policies and procedures, will help keep all employees aligned, regardless of where they’re working from.

2. Lack of Clear Structure and Leadership

Employees often have varying opinions about how and when work should get done. When everyone is in the office together, it’s relatively easy for coworkers to align on their expectations. In a hybrid office, on the other hand, the different needs and preferences of in-office and remote employees can easily lead to misalignment.

To make matters worse, leadership hierarchies can be less clear and less effective in hybrid offices. Leaders may find themselves with uneven levels of authority across in-office and remote employees. Moreover, in-office employees may be perceived as being treated better than their remote counterparts, and remote workers may feel isolated and even resentful toward other team members who are still in the office.

Employees need defined policies and procedures that clarify the scope of and expectations for their work without doing away with the flexibility that makes a hybrid office attractive in the first place. It’s also crucial to determine where to position your leadership teams: in the office or remote? Both options have their advantages and disadvantages, so be sure to take into account the needs of both individual teams and the overall company when making the choice.

Holding regular meetings for all team members to touch base with their leaders and one another can also go a long way in maintaining team cohesion, leadership hierarchies, and workplace structures.

Best Practices for Managing a Hybrid Office

The best way to handle the challenges of a hybrid office is to avoid them in the first place. You can do that be following some key best practices that set your hybrid teams up for success:

1. Give Employees the Resources They Need

Offering your employees the right resources is a vital first step. Don’t just leave it to workers to figure out how to communicate and collaborate — provide them with specific tools and software solutions everyone can use. If you want your team members to use Slack to communicate and G Suite to collaborate, make sure every employees has access to those platforms.

2. Ensure Equal Opportunities

Hybrid offices can quickly devolve into us-vs.-them infighting if certain groups of employees are given more support, attention, or praise than others. For example, if only in-office employees seem to receive promotions, remote workers will quickly grow dissatisfied and disengaged.

In a hybrid office, leaders need to be especially careful about giving equal opportunities to all employees. Take a good, hard look at your management style, and be honest with yourself. Are you giving in-office employees the benefit of the doubt? Do you tend to overlook the needs of employees you don’t see every day?

Combating bias — whether conscious or unconscious — is notoriously tough, but you can start by ensuring that you make all decisions about employees according to predefined criteria and clearly outlined procedures. By giving some structure to your decision-making process, you can keep the playing field more level.

I would also recommend making it a habit to focus on the overall value any given employee brings to the team. Consider how each employee helps you make better decisions or achieve business goals. When you take stock of all your employees’ positive contributions, you will be less likely to (unconsciously) favor any one group over another.

3. Make Work Fun

Bringing some playfulness into an otherwise monotonous workday can have very positive effects on team performance and cohesion. Hold informal virtual meetings at lunchtime to promote the “water-cooler culture” that can easily disappear when workers go remote. You can also create an open channel on Slack where employees can discuss their latest Netflix and Hulu binges, share photographs of their kids, swap recipes, and so on.

4. Keep Goals and Expectations Clear and Consistent

Hybrid offices require specifically tailored practices and protocols to ensure smooth operations. Every employee of the company — whether they work remotely or in the office — should have a clear understanding of their role, workflows, expectations, and communication norms. Structuring the average workday and each employee’s work hours is particularly important, as you need to strike the right balance between flexibility and discipline.

COVID-19 has forced us all to adjust our business goals  and practices to suit these unprecedented times. While managing a hybrid team brings its own set of challenges, it can also offer serious benefits to employees and employers alike. As long as you take steps to build a healthy team culture and company structure that maintain cohesion between in-office and remote employees, a hybrid office can be the best thing that ever happened to your company.

Nahla Davies is a software developer and tech writer.

By Nahla Davies