While many leaders are eager to get their teams back together for face-to-face interaction, the biggest mistake they could make in the coming months is confusing "return to office" with "business as usual."
In the new hybrid work model reality, leaders have an opportunity to reimagine how their teams work together effectively and connect on a human level - regardless of where they are physically located.
Old norms around business travel, meetings, employee productivity, and more were challenged by the pandemic – and new ways of collaborating have emerged.
[ What should a hybrid workplace model look like? Read also: Hybrid work model: Qualcomm IT, HR execs share 6 priorities for leaders. ]
How to lead hybrid work teams: 9 mistakes to avoid
Consider the potential pitfalls of hybrid work as you shape your return-to-office plan. We talked to CIOs, consultants, and other executives about the hybrid work mistakes they are actively working to avoid right now – and how to approach the challenges:
1. Mistake: Not embracing hybrid work at the executive level
“As companies blend remote and in-office employees, be meaningful and diligent in the awareness and possibility of work-location bias,” says Jason James, CIO of Net Health. “In other words, as you will now have both in-house and remote team members, favoritism should be avoided for those working in a traditional office. Someone that comes into an office frequently is no more engaged nor more productive than a remote employee.”
"Leaders can reduce the risk of this work-location bias by setting an example and working remotely, even for large or critical meetings. Ensure that a two-class system is not happening by embracing hybrid, even at the executive level.”
2. Mistake: Slipping back into bad habits
“Don’t backslide into measuring inputs (butts in seats, timesheets, etc.) as productivity metrics and continue to measure outcomes that relate to business value,” says Dave Egts, chief technologist, North America Public Sector, Red Hat.
“If you haven’t yet, make sure your managers have been enabled on how to manage a remote and/or hybrid workforce. I know of many senior leaders who have managed people on-site for their entire careers and have yet to have the opportunity for this enablement. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure – the small investment in enabling people managers for remote leadership is way less than the cost of turnover, low morale, and lost productivity.”
3. Mistake: Sending a message of distrust
“Employees everywhere have worked tirelessly for almost a year and a half to drive the success of their companies, while also balancing family, education, health, and justice issues in their personal lives. On the whole, they have earned significant trust and credibility, and deserve a bit of autonomy and flexibility moving forward,” says Christine Andrukonis, founder and senior partner at Notion Consulting.
“In the shift back to a physical workspace, please do not call it a ‘return-to-work’ or imply that they are only productive when inside company walls.”
4. Mistake: Returning to old meeting planning techniques
“Prior to Covid, you knew how to run an in-person meeting. During Covid, we all learned how to run remote meetings while still driving engagement and collaboration,” says Rich Theil, CEO of The Noble Foundry.
“As we return to the office we’re all naturally tempted to run meetings the way we’ve historically done it, which assumes certain things about our audience (namely, that they’ll be in the office). In a hybrid world, meetings need to be designed for remote team members and in-person members – and they need to be treated equally.”
“Practically speaking, this means you’re probably not returning to paper Post-Its anytime soon and that things like lunch for the team can leave someone feeling like they’re not part of the team – unless you send them DoorDash. When you master the art of remote collaboration, you’ll open your business up to all the possibilities of a hybrid workforce (bigger talent pool, happier employees, more engagement, etc),” said Theil.
[ Get exercises and approaches that make disparate teams stronger. Read the digital transformation ebook: Transformation Takes Practice. ]
5. Mistake: "Set and forget" hybrid work policies
"Most leaders have never transitioned to a hybrid work environment. From a policy standpoint, we don’t know what not to do,” says Jonathan Feldman, CIO of the City of Asheville, N.C. “That said, one thing that I won’t do is ‘set it and forget it’ when creating our hybrid work strategy.”
“We’ve never done this before so we need to keep an eye on things, listen to feedback, and adjust as needed.”
6. Mistake: Amplifying issues of inequity
“Providing greater flexibility and options for remote work can make or break issues of equality in the workplace,” says Andrukonis. “For all those who want and need flexibility due to family or personal commitments (often women), please do not let their remote work hold them back from the type of visibility and career-advancement opportunities they deserve.”
“Squash old norms regarding face-time and drive a culture of outcomes instead.”
[ Remote work can lead some people to slip into micromanager behaviors. Read also: Are you micromanaging your remote or hybrid team? 10 questions.]
7. Mistake: Ramping up travel too soon
“Be mindful and deliberate about business travel,” says Egts. “Not everyone may be ready to travel for in-person meetings. The days of flying coast to coast for a one-hour meeting may be a thing of the past given the productivity, cost, and quality of life impacts.”
“Also consider that your clients may not be going into an office anyhow, so in-person meetings may happen at the coffee shop next to their home. Imagine how silly, frustrating, and embarrassing it would feel to travel all day to get to a client location only to do a video call with a mostly remote audience.”
8. Mistake: Letting poor management skills slide
“People’s managers have the greatest influence on their levels of performance and engagement. If you have managers and leaders who needed to brush up on their leadership and coaching skills either before or during the pandemic, stop letting these skills-gaps continue as you shift into what’s next,” says Andrukonis.
“Nip management skill gaps in the bud and train them now to coach, communicate, and develop their teams for long-term commitment, performance and growth with the company.”
9. Mistake: Dropping communication structures that work
“A lot of people are itching to get back into an office environment and interact with colleagues in person, but it’s important to not lessen the engagement with remote workers,” says Adam Riggs, CEO of Frameable.
“The communication structures that were put in place and worked well during the lockdowns should remain in place. For example, the impromptu ‘water cooler’ chats over video and virtual access to leadership should continue so remote workers don’t feel out of the loop or left out.”
[ Culture change is the hardest part of digital transformation. Get the digital transformation eBook: Teaching an elephant to dance. ]