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Creating a Level Playing Field Across Your Hybrid-Remote Team

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A remote worker for many years, Julie resigned herself to constantly feeling slighted. Maybe it was because she always seemed to be missing vital information her office colleagues shared during impromptu meetings, or that her name never came up to lead the next big juicy project, or that she was excluded from social activities. Or all of the above.

When Julie shared her frustrations with her manager Pat in their 1:1s, Pat claimed he “didn’t have the bandwidth to figure out how to manage this remote work thing,” reminding her that she chose to work from home. Pat was a big proponent of management by walking around, which he felt just wasn’t viable when some people worked outside of the office. From his perspective, out of sight really was out of mind.

Enter Covid, when literally overnight, the entire organization went all-virtual. Julie and her long-time remote colleagues were thrilled that finally, everyone had a chance to be seen and heard the same way during team video meetings. Hallway conversations were replaced by asynchronous conversations that anyone could join, at any time from anywhere. Location became irrelevant when it came to choosing project leads, and team collaboration became a lot easier with the roll-out of new virtual communication tools. To keep social connections going, Pat hosted popular weekly video check-ins where people could say hello, share ideas, or celebrate victories large and small. Team members took turns hosting occasional virtual Friday happy hours one or two times a month.

Fast-forward to today, when people are slowly returning to the office, with about 70% of Pat’s 40-person team expected to return at least three days a week over the next few months. When he expresses his relief to Julie that finally, things will be back to “normal,” she replies: “Wait, what? Why would we go ever back to the way it was before? Why not permanently change how we collaborate so we can all feel like equal members of the team?”

Why not, indeed? For this article, I interviewed three senior leaders whose teams went all-virtual last March and are now moving to hybrid-remote models. Among them: A Chairman of a diversified consulting engineering firm with 24 global offices, the Deputy Director of a nonprofit energy conservancy organization, and the Chief Administrative Officer of a large commercial real estate firm with more than 14 offices. My question: How will can you maintain a level playing field with some employees staying home and some returning to the office? Here’s what I learned.

  • Be explicit about who gets to work where, when and why. Make sure your remote work policy is well-thought-out, clearly-communicated and perceived as fair. If only some people are required to come in while others are allowed to work from home, explain the rationale. Be specific about the latitude employees have to shift their workplace on occasion. Of the leaders I interviewed, one is bringing their entire team back to the office as soon as it’s deemed safe, one is giving all employees the option, and the third is asking certain groups of employees to work in the office part-time.
  • Think “remote first” when creating norms for your hybrid-remote team. Even if just a minority of employees will work remotely, consider first how best to integrate remote workers into the flow of the rest of the team as you schedule meetings and agree on other communication protocols. Otherwise, the needs of remote workers tend to be an afterthought.
  • Consider locating leaders and executives outside of the main office. According to GitLab, a pioneer in establishing successful remote-first workplaces, having leaders work outside of the “mothership” has many benefits. Among them: It helps reinforce the notion that the head office is no longer the epicenter of power or decision making, prevents senior leadership from conducting their work in ways that give preference to people working in close proximity, and helps leaders to better understand what tools, technologies, and training need to be prioritized to support remote-first workflows.
  • Agree on a consistent set of apps, tools and processes to create, access and share digital assets easily and quickly across the organization. This way, no one will have to delay their work as they scramble to find a needed document or verify it’s the latest version, something that can be a special burden for remote workers. Be sure that all employees have easy ongoing access to technology hardware and expertise, as well as thorough asynchronous training in new software applications As hybrid-remote teams get settled, it’s a good time to establish agreed-upon norms that govern the creation, access, ownership and flow of shared information.
  • Rethink performance management methods and measurements. Realize that remote employees may have an even greater need for ongoing dialogue and feedback than co-located team members, which means that virtual leaders need to find new techniques for “managing by walking around.” Consider giving more weight to the quality of output, versus the number of hours team members put in each week. Agree on expectations team leaders and members have of each other, and establish how best to report on progress and how frequently. Many leaders have a tendency to micromanage remote workers, which can seriously breach trust, rather than investing time early on to help remote employees establish self-sufficiency and autonomy. Clarifying decision-making protocols is particularly important.
  • Agree on a window of time when everyone on the team will be accessible at the same time, timezone differences permitting. One of my clients refers to this as the “golden hours.” For example, it might be that everyone must be available for a certain four-hour window for team meetings, customer calls, rapidly responding to emails or chats, or whenever when real-time collaboration is essential, either every work day, or a just a few days during the week.
  • Establish team agreements about the use of multiple communication channels and level of responsiveness needed. All team members should be competent and confident when it comes to communicating in respectful, effective ways. Explicit team norms will be crucial here. For example, team members should agree the best uses of text, IM, their team portal, email, phone or video meetings as a rule, and then also share with each other their individual preferences, especially when it comes to communicating during high-pressure situations. Jumping back and forth between digital platforms, email, and texts can be both inefficient and frustrating to all parties.
  • Step up the use of asynchronous communications for conversations and idea exchanges. This way, people can start or join the conversation, post or answer questions or ask for or offer help at any time, from anywhere. In-person, off-the-cuff conversations may be great if you’re in the same office, but those who work from a distance will be excluded, unless you get into the habit of automatically including them.
  • Have everyone attend team meetings the same way. When some people are together in one place and others are remote, it’s almost impossible to create a truly level playing field. Instead, have everyone participate virtually, from their own workspace, even if they’re in the same building. For every meeting, there needs to be a great technology platform, a cultural mandate for inclusiveness of the entire team, regardless of location, and a strong filtering process to question the purpose and value of mandatory in-person meetings. The Chairman of the engineering firm I interviewed pointed out that design team meetings will continue to be all-virtual, even when some are back in the office, giving everyone an equal chance to speak and be heard.
  • Include remote employees in impromptu meetings. Many of us miss those serendipitous conversations where we make connections, hatch new ideas, build relationships or generate energy. We can usually find ways to share key content with remote colleagues. For example, people can post or record relevant “aha’s” for those who could not be present, or send a text or chat to see if a remote team member can hop in for a few minutes. By making the effort, remote colleagues are less likely to believe they are missing valuable information that onsite colleagues are privy to.
  • Maintain virtual social gatherings. Just because many people are returning to the office, don’t forsake those casual gatherings where people can drop in from anywhere on a particular day and time for the equivalent of a professor’s “office hours.” Invite those who work onsite to gather in one location or from their own workspace, with those joining remotely using video. Unlike team meetings, these casual conversations can be considered optional, with people joining any way they feel most comfortable.
  • Maintain the habit of checking in frequently, regardless of location. During the pandemic, many leaders have gotten into the habit of frequently checking in with team members, beyond reviewing the work at hand. Whether people have moved back to the office or remain working from home, don’t suddenly cut back on checking in, which can be a lifeline for many.
  • Provide equivalent perks for those outside the office. Consider the benefits that office workers enjoy, such as an onsite health club, occasional free meals, pizza or birthday parties, coffee mugs and other SWAG, and then think about how you might be able to provide the equivalent for remote employees. It may take some creativity, but it’s almost always possible.
  • Be a curator and connector for your team. Remote workers in particular may have a tough time finding the right information or the best people to connect with. Be proactive about suggesting resources or making connections on their behalf. Think about creating “mentor pairs” where team members with complementary skill sets and knowledge can learn from each other.

Maintaining equity among members of a hybrid-remote team generally requires considerably more effort to pull off successfully than managing either an all-remote or a co-located workforce. While it might be tempting to revert to an office-centric model once some or most people have returned to the office, think instead about how to create processes and communication channels that capture the best of both working environments, rather than creating compromises that give you the worst of both.

Links

Past Communiques from Guided Insights

Don’t Leave Remote Participants Hanging: 8 Tips for a Meeting of Equals (guidedinsights.com)

Stop Playing Favorites for a Stronger (Virtual) Team (guidedinsights.com)

Untangle your Virtual Team with 10 Most-Needed Norms (guidedinsights.com)

What Have You Learned About Your Culture During the Covid Crisis? (guidedinsights.com)

Checklists, templates and tips guides from Guided Insights

Leading Virtual Teams tips, remote team tips, tips for leading remote teams (guidedinsights.com)

Creating and Adopting Norms for Your Virtual Team – Quick List (guidedinsights.com)

Team_charter_questions_checklist.pdf (guidedinsights.com)

Articles

Integrating face-to-face and virtual meeting participants – Meeting Planners International

3 lessons COVID-19 has taught us about remote work (fastcompany.com)

7 Strategies to Build a More Resilient Team (hbr.org)

What’s next for remote work: An analysis of 2,000 tasks, 800 jobs, and nine countries (mckinsey.com)

Help Your Team Beat WFH Burnout (ampproject.org)

The Surprising Power of Simply Asking Coworkers How They’re Doing (hbr.org)

Why the first five minutes of a meeting shape its outcome (strategy-business.com)