The hybrid workplace is going to be a big part of the future of work. And while this presents many opportunities, it also creates new challenges for leaders.
One I’ve been thinking about a lot is: how do you maintain a sense of belonging and team cohesion in the hybrid workplace, especially in a diverse team?
As Amy Edmondson explains, managers need to create a strong foundation of psychological safety so all the members of their diverse team feel a sense not just of tolerance or inclusion, but belonging. This is vital so everyone can bring their full and authentic selves to work, and perform at their best.
So what are the main things you as a leader should consider? How can you make sure this sense of belonging, which you’ve worked hard to cultivate, isn’t lost when your team shifts to hybrid working?
Opportunities to speak
Let’s say you have one team member who chooses to work mostly in the office in your new hybrid model, and another who spends more time working from home. How do you as a leader make sure they both feel equally empowered to bring up issues with you?
Of course, your work building a foundation of psychological safety really matters here. But it’s also simply a practical matter. Someone in the same place as you can swing by your desk to ask if you have five minutes for a chat, without it feeling like a big deal. Make sure you initiate low-stakes chats with team members who are out of the office, and actively check if they need to speak about anything – don’t put the onus on them all the time.
Physical and psychological distance
As HBR points out, “physical distance can lead to psychological distance”. This mental distance is not a foregone conclusion, though. As well as regular all-team meetings, you can build informal communications into your structures. Encourage people to chat casually, perhaps by setting an ‘available’ status on Slack or Google Hangouts, and try to set up both online and in-person catch ups.
The key here is nurturing those casual interactions which bring a sense of closeness and team cohesion. When everyone’s in the same place this might happen naturally when getting a cup of coffee, or even walking to a meeting. When some people are working remotely, you need to find different ways of encouraging this.
Different working styles
To get the most out of a diverse team, you as a leader will have given much thought to everyone’s working styles. Team member A thrives when given opportunities to discuss problems and have plenty of social contact. Team member B needs periods of uninterrupted quiet, in a low-stimulation environment.
In an office setting, you might have an open meeting room where people can have off-the-cuff chats, plus designated quiet working spaces with noise-cancelling headphones. But how are you giving remote workers the same options?
Team member A, when in the office, would benefit from having an easy video call setup in that open meeting room, to bring people working from home into those discussions. For team member B, simply being able to set a ‘do not disturb’ status and know it will be respected will make remote work much more productive.
The risk of presenteeism
Naturally, when some people are in the office more than others, team members might begin to worry about proximity bias. Will their manager forget about them – even pass them over for promotion – simply because they don’t see them as frequently?
Some people might come into the office more than they want to, even if they’re more productive working from home. And those who do opt for more remote work may start doing longer hours. “Well, I’m not commuting so I could just spend that time working, right?” Of course, this sets a bad precedent, and ends up damaging both remote workers and those in the office.
As a leader, it’s your job to make sure this doesn’t happen. Make sure that you’re always including remote workers in discussions and decisions, actively recognising that they’re part of the team even when not physically present. Regular and informal interactions will help you avoid slipping into proximity bias, and reassure the whole team that you view them equally.
Flexibility and individual needs
You can foster a sense of belonging by, as a manager, being as inclusive and adaptable as possible. Make sure everyone gets the benefits of hybrid working’s more flexible style.
Does someone have a chronic health condition, or caring responsibilities? Personal or family obligations? As long as everything is handled transparently, there’s no reason they shouldn’t be able to work around those.
I think a hybrid model can work brilliantly in many different sectors. But it’s so important that those in leadership roles consider the complex new challenges presented by this style of working. Do it wrong, and you’ll have an anxious and disorganised team. But do it right, and you’ll have a group of psychologically safe, empowered people working in the ways which best meet their needs.