The future of leadership will be managing hybrid teams

The part-in/part-out, hybrid team is here to stay.
The part-in/part-out, hybrid team is here to stay.
Image: Reuters/Carlos Barria
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In places around the world where Covid-19 is substantially under control—such as in Australia, Taiwan, and Singapore—governments and companies are allowing, and even encouraging, people to head back to the office. Once vaccines become widely available, many companies will hope to return to “business as usual.” But one new feature is likely here to stay: the part-in/part-out, hybrid team.

Working from home has distinct advantages: a smaller office presence cuts infrastructure costs; fewer commuters reduces planet-destroying emissions, and some people love it. In a recent survey of 4,700 knowledge workers conducted by Slack, nearly three-quarters of respondents said they prefer a hybrid model in which some work happens at home. In an earlier poll by Adecco, respondents were split about whether or not working from home has been a positive experience.

In a forthcoming survey done by Bates Smart, a designer of workspaces in Australia, younger employees were four times as likely as older ones to want to return to the office. Kellie Payne, the firm’s director, says this may be due to a disparity of home amenities. “They don’t have wifi powerful enough to make their hair stand on end, hence need to post a wifi usage schedule on the fridge in a shared flat.” Confidentiality was also an issue for younger workers, including four roommates who are lawyers in competing firms.

Leaders should respond to this mixed desire by offering employees real workplace flexibility, where feasible, creating hybrid teams in which those who work best from home continue to do so, while others return to the office.

Managing a hybrid team may sound complex, but leaders of multinational corporations have been doing a version of this for years. I’ve spent much of my career running Asia-Pacific business for companies including Google, Twitter and Cloudflare. This has me living in Singapore alongside some of my team members, while managing groups in a dozen countries across Asia. As I’ve learned, the real challenge in keeping a hybrid workforce energized is not technological or logistical, but emotional.

Emotional connection helps workers feel engaged, which can improve overall profitability by more than 20%, according to research by Gallup. Connection is key to having motivated, successful employees. I think of it as removing the “r” from remote, as in emote. Here’s how.

Help employees build social connections

Social capital boosts employee morale and is essential for the collaborative work of so many firms today. In headquarters, during normal times, workers create relationships with colleagues and executives naturally—through hallway chats or serendipitous meetings at the local take-out joint, as well as at planned social events such as rooftop happy hours and office picnics. Leaders of hybrid teams will have to do what regional and global leaders have always done: work extra hard to create opportunities for connection between their onsite employees and those they need to know far away.

When social gatherings return, leaders should ensure they’re appealing enough to entice the at-home team to come in. Food still draws a crowd, as does an unusual activity people wouldn’t try on their own. Many companies have recurring events like annual sales conferences where distributed staff meet to celebrate accomplishments, plan for the year, and laugh their hearts out.

In Singapore, at one pre-Covid quarterly kick-off for which managers flew in, people from all levels strapped on helmets to race around a track in noisy go-karts, including those who would never, ever, in any other circumstance do something like this (such as me). It was fun and unexpected, and people turned out for it. Richard Alfonsi, who’s held global leadership roles at Stripe, Twitter, and Google, says that annual employee conferences and everything around them were often a highlight of the year for the team and a much needed “shot of pure company adrenaline.”

During lockdown, at Cloudflare, we invited all 200-plus people in our Asia Pacific region to play a virtual game called “Unlock-It,” in which small groups solve clues to pick locks and “rob” a bank. Go-karting, Unlock-It, and other in-person and virtual social and activities allow people to express aspects of their personality that don’t come out in the normal workday (including, in my company, one always-quiet employee from Japan who revealed an unknown inner speed demon).

Far from frivolous, these kinds of activities break down the walls between “boss” and “employee” and allow people to see each other as whole individuals. Emphasizing the “human factor” is critical to helping hybrid teams gel.

Make everyone feel included 

One way home-based team members can stay connected is by logging onto an always-on video or audio conference.  At Hive in San Francisco, for example, all employees have an open Google Hangout on their desktop during the workday. These open rooms mimic having office mates around.

Managers of hybrid teams should over-communicate company news and updates to ensure everyone feels tied to what’s happening. Silicon Valley firms have weekly town halls to share the company’s strategy and priorities; as they’ve gone global, these town halls have become virtual, allowing people everywhere to attend. In the future, companies will have a choice: they can allow local home-based workers to log in, or encourage/require them to come to the office once a week. (A snack or donuts and coffee increases attendance, I’ve learned.)

Catalyzing employees around a cause is another great way to increase their sense of being included. It also builds company loyalty by helping people feel good about themselves. Compelling cause-related opportunities are especially important when recruiting and retaining young workers, many of whom say a company’s values determine their desire to take a job. Some, like the mustache growing fundraiser Movember, allow people to share the physical experience of growing a mustache remotely, creating a feeling of “being in it together” regardless of where their desk is.

Offer public praise, and private support

Home-based workers aren’t second-class citizens, but consistently being away from the office can make them feel that way. One risk with a hybrid workplace is that dispersed workers will feel—or genuinely be—overlooked and/or under-recognized.

In the regional office, I’ve always relied on the power of public praise to help people feel valued and seen. Leaders of future hybrid teams will need to do this, too. At Cloudflare, weekly town halls end with “shout-outs” from employees to colleagues, read aloud by our COO. Google puts its money behind the praise mission, offering “peer bonus” funds for employees to give to helpful colleagues. At Mediacorp, Singapore’s national broadcaster, workers at all levels can give “kudos” to fellow employees; these appear in the company’s online Hall of Fame.

Even those choosing to work from home can feel isolated or anxious about their roles, and fatigued by hours of video conferencing. Leaders should make sure to limit video participation to what’s truly necessary, and make an extra effort to connect with employees who seem to be suffering.

Model boundaries

Regional workers often have to get up early or stay up late for meetings due to differences in time zones. This can blur the line between work time and personal time—a reality for everyone today that will remain a challenge for tomorrow’s home-by-choice workers. At regional offices, to keep our sanity and prevent our days from feeling like “time soup,” we have to establish clear boundaries that include breaks for our personal lives. Leaders need to communicate these boundaries. Alfonsi says he avoided sending emails at all hours, not wanting to make his far-flung teams think they should be online 24/7 to respond.

If I have a late night meeting, I take time to exercise or handle other personal tasks between 9am and 5pm, and keep my online calendar accessible, which lets team members see how I’m spending my time, including my daily gym visit. I also let headquarters know that midnight or dawn meetings can only happen twice a week.

Redesign offices with more collaboration space 

Companies need to adapt the office space they do keep to better facilitate collaboration and mingling. For big tech firms, this may mean using workspace only as a hub for social, cultural and creativity needs that can’t be met virtually, says Payne. Some companies may eliminate private desks altogether, as Dropbox has decided to do.

Other firms rely on regular face-to-face interaction, and will need to do so going forward. As the head of a global law firm recently told me, young associates aren’t learning as much now because they need to be able to ask questions of more experienced lawyers easily and frequently. The firm worries about a “lost generation” of attorneys due to a year of working at home. It plans to reformat future offices to increase joint working.

The future of work means returning to some of what functioned well in the past, keeping the lessons learned during the pandemic, and harnessing the best of both going forward. In a way, this is something leaders of dispersed teams have always done. As I’ve seen, a little extra effort can make off-site colleagues feel close, and inspire great things in everyone.