At least in the near term — and possibly for much longer — hybrid work arrangements will be the norm for organisations across a wide range of industries. There are good reasons why many companies and employees are excited about this mix of in-person and remote work — and equally good reasons why many feel trepidation about the shift.
I've studied global teams and virtual teamwork for close to 25 years. I've heard the same concerns about hybrid work in my recent executive education teaching and in conversations with leaders and managers. The most common issues I hear fall under what I call the "5C challenges": communication, coordination, connection, creativity and culture.
If you're struggling to manage a hybrid team or workforce, start by understanding the five challenges, then use the 5Cs checklist to assess where your team stands and how to improve.
Our heavy reliance on technology has created fundamental communication challenges. Many of us had to overcome technological difficulties when we first transitioned to fully remote work at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic; the transition to hybrid work can be rocky as well.
Additionally, the fact that some people are more comfortable speaking up while on screen than others can further complicate communication and create imbalances.
All collaborative work involves coordination, but working in hybrid teams presents significantly more coordination challenges than working face-to-face. The risk is that what some researchers call "faultlines" can emerge between those who work together in person and those who work remotely. Because of the extra effort required to coordinate with remote teammates, they often get left out of small exchanges and minor decisions made by those working together in the office. Over time, as people grow accustomed to the knowledge of who's looped in and who's not, remote workers can get left out of more significant conversations and critical decisions.
Sadly, social connections can be endangered or lost when teams work remotely. We know that professional networks and mentoring relationships are essential for advancing in the workplace and that building and sustaining these relationships is particularly challenging for women and minorities. We also know from research that personal connections are socially sustaining and important for our psychological well-being. When employees feel peripheral, they will be disconnected not only from their work but also from the social aspects of the organisation. This can result in less happy and less committed employees who are more likely to search for opportunities elsewhere.
Two types of creativity are endangered by hybrid work. Perhaps the most obvious one is collective creativity. While people can brainstorm via zoom, programmed times and formats for generating ideas may not prove as fruitful as the more fluid conversations and unexpected things that can happen when we kick ideas around with others or work intensively on solving a problem together.
But individual creativity can be endangered, too. There is reason to believe that some social interactions and spontaneous conversations with colleagues may be necessary for all types of creativity.
Like creativity, this is a challenge that senior leaders are becoming more and more concerned about during our Covid-19-era. Now, as existing employees leave and new ones join, an increasingly pressing challenge is how to socialise newcomers and integrate these employees into the company's culture, whether they're interns, entry-level hires or seasoned executives.
In addition, corporate culture can be critical for signalling the organisation's distinctiveness to potential recruits, especially in industries where firms compete heavily for talent, such as tech, consulting or banking. If employees never or rarely come to the office or spend time together, how can a company's distinctive "feel" be maintained — and then, how can companies differentiate themselves from each other in the search for new talent?
While recognising the importance of culture for newcomers, we shouldn't overlook the reality that sustaining a positive culture and strong organisational commitment is just as necessary for the many employees who are not new to the company.
The 5Cs checklist
There's no reason to think the 5C challenges will disappear anytime soon. If they're not proactively recognised and managed, they're likely to get worse rather than better. So, what can leaders do to help?
Recently in my executive education work, I've been having energetic and generative conversations by asking executives to work their way through a checklist of the 5Cs. There are four simple steps in this process:
• Evaluate: For each of the five Cs, give yourself a grade on how you think your remote or hybrid workplace, unit or team is doing. You can use a simple letter-grading plan or a rating between one and 10. The goal is to use these grades to summarise whether you feel you're in good shape or have room for improvement on each C.
• Analyse: Identify the C you gave the lowest grade. This is where you can benefit most from focusing your attention — it's your maximum leverage point for making essential changes. Then, analyse the underlying issues.
• Plan: Starting with the C you gave the lowest grade, consider what you can do to improve in this area. Aim to develop three action steps you can take to begin addressing the problems you've identified. Identify potential barriers to implementing your action steps and ways to overcome these problems. Then, repeat this process for the other Cs.
• Implement: Set a clear schedule for implementing the changes you plan to make and a communication plan for them. Will they be rolled out over several weeks or months? And in what sequence? Who will need to be consulted and informed at each stage, and how should this be done? Establish key metrics for measuring the effectiveness of the changes. Finally, ensure that you set a time frame for reviewing how well the changes you've been making are working, perhaps six months down the line and again another six months after that check-in.
Just clearing some time in your schedule to focus on each of the five Cs can lead to some unexpected insights and a renewed sense of energy for making changes. It helps to meet with your team to brainstorm how your organization can change and develop a plan for implementing your ideas.
Hybrid working arrangements can be daunting for organisations about to adopt them and challenging for those who already have. But the good news is that we're learning quickly where the biggest obstacles lie and how to minimise them in advance and manage them as they arise. The 5Cs checklist can help leaders tackle — and prioritise — the most common challenges of hybrid work.
Written by: Martine Haas
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