How do you lead hybrid teams? 5 essentials

How do you lead a team that's combining office and remote work? Some old rules don't apply: Consider these essentials for managing in the hybrid work era
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A growing body of surveys and other research suggests that hybrid workplaces aren’t a short-term fad. Employee interest in a hybrid work model is particularly high: The overwhelming majority (83 percent) of more than 9,300 workers surveyed by Accenture said they’d prefer a hybrid model going forward, for example.

More business and technology leaders are evangelizing this approach - considering, implementing, or already managing hybrid teams.

“This is the future of work,” says Vivek Ranjan, chief human resources officer of Zensar. The firm had already embarked on a “work from anywhere” (WFA) transformation prior to the pandemic. It first rolled out in India, where the company has hired 500 remote employees, with plans to expand its hybrid WFA approach to its offices around the globe. “Hybrid workplaces are here to stay,” Ranjan says.

(Hybrid models entail some defined mix of both in-person and remote work. For more detail and examples, read our related article: What is a hybrid work model?)

Surveys also suggest there may be a difference of perspective between the C-suite and the rest of the organization in terms of building culture, equity, and other important issues in hybrid workplaces.

[ Read also: Hybrid work: 4 best practices for fairness and Hybrid work by the numbers: 14 stats to see. ]

How leaders need to evolve for the hybrid work model

That means leadership approaches need to evolve for the hybrid workplace for various reasons, including the fundamental one: If your management style has long been rooted in face-to-face interaction, the hybrid office will shake that up.

Here’s another reason: Many people on your team will need to continuously readjust after a long-term period of disruption and change – from working on-site to suddenly working entirely from home and now, in the case of hybrid workplaces, potentially doing a bit of both.

Let’s dig into five essential leadership traits for the hybrid workplace.

1. Be transparent in everything you do

Transparency is often a leadership virtue in any type of organization, but it’s an absolute must for hybrid teams. It’s the basis for mutual trust and productivity when people aren’t consistently working together in the same location.

This starts with a clear, highly visible method of setting goals and expectations – and a shared belief in how you’re tracking progress.

“Leaders need to be transparent on a shared set of objectives and how they are measuring employee productivity,” says Thomas Phelps, CIO at Laserfiche. “For me, it’s not about how many hours you work or when you were last online.”

Set expectations and measure performance in a highly visible manner that emphasizes consistency and equity.

You can do this in a manner that makes the best sense for your organizational or team context. The Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) approach may be a good fit. No matter your approach, make sure you’re setting expectations and measuring performance in a highly visible manner that emphasizes consistency and equity. Share widely and make sure people have the right tools to do their jobs.

“We need to build transparency, accountability, and trust at all levels,” Phelps says. “Employees need to have access to the right information and tools for their jobs.”

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2. Dig deep on regular communication and feedback loops

Hybrid workplaces will require seriously deep thought about and commitment to how you communicate with your teams. That means not only how you share information, but also how you listen and act on information.

Making broad assumptions about everyone’s shared understanding and experience is probably a bad idea in a hybrid work mode, for example. Make sure you’re checking in with people, listening to them, and making positive changes when they’re in order. Phelps says Laserfiche has been regularly soliciting employee feedback about current and future operational plans since the company’s pivot to fully remote/WFH last year.

Nayan Naidu, head of DevOps and cloud engineering capability center at Altimetrik, likewise emphasizes the importance of transparently setting expectations and reinforcing them regularly. Naidu adds that it’s important to develop multiple mechanisms and channels for hearing from people – from lunch-and-learn conversations to casual 1-1 meetings to polls – about how things are going.

“Compile their feedback and explore different ways to update your policies as necessary,” Naidu advises. “Without a physical office space, asynchronous communication through daily check-ins and status updates also becomes essential.”

Bottom line here: You’ll need multiple means of staying in touch and ensuring that you’re not only sharing info with people but enabling them to share information with you. And if something isn’t working, try something else.

3. Find ways to bring people together in person

“Humans are social beings who need some sense of physical interactions – especially to foster mentoring, learning, and growth,” Phelps says. “We need to actively build a sense of belonging and shared culture, which I feel is not possible to do only virtually. ‘We are so done with virtual events’ is something I’m hearing more and more from my peers.”

For hybrid organizations that have people who are largely or entirely remote, this is especially important. But it’s something to keep top of mind in any setting that has shifted from being entirely or mostly on-site to a long-term hybrid model that requires less face-time in the office.

Even when it’s not actually possible to bring people physically together, the principle needs to remain in play.

"I feel it's crucial to treat remote workers and 'locals' as equals."

“As for team building and keeping the spirits high, I feel it’s crucial to treat remote workers and ‘locals’ as equals,” says Marcin Stoll, head of product at Tidio. “Thus, if a part of the team decides to go hang out together at lunch, remote employees have to be integrated – it’s a nice gesture to have a Zoom call and spend some time together, even if physically apart.”

As vaccination rates increase and public health advisories allow, many hybrid organizations will also look to schedule in-person gatherings that bring remote employees together periodically.

“We plan to organize more in-person team integrations – book a couple of days in the calendar, arrange travel details (if somebody is in another city or country), and come together for something like a ‘workation.’” Stoll says. “It helps achieve this magical understanding that the team is real and full of cool people, increases inspiration and productivity, and helps to recharge.”

4. Don't have one foot on-site and the other foot remote

A halfhearted approach to hybrid work will likely lead to a halfhearted response from the team. A committed approach starts at the top and requires full buy-in from the leadership team; if you’re just biding your time until you can order everyone back into the office, it will show.

“The success of this hybrid way of working hinges on a shift in the mindset as well as capabilities of the workforce [and] more importantly, of the managers [or] supervisors,”  Zensar's Ranjan says.

That principle should permeate everything, from the technologies you’re providing to employees to communication to processes and more. Ranjan’s department, for example, essentially did a digital transformation of its HR systems to ensure they deliver on the “work from anywhere” motto.

“From training that is provided remotely to all HR-related information available on one platform, we have seen more engagement than ever before,” Ranjan says. “Our constant focus [on the] well-being and happiness of our associates will enable this further.”

Ranjan adds that senior leadership also needs proper organizational support to make all this happen. It’s not enough for the board or other stakeholders to simply say, “Make it happen.”

“We are equipping our leaders and managers with requisite skills through capability-building programs on how to lead virtual teams,” Ranjan says. “Significant focus is being laid on orienting them on the new ways of working.”

5. Empathy, flexibility, and empowerment are no longer leadership soundbites

Call it the “new normal,” the “next normal,” or reject those phrases altogether. However overused they’ve already become, they at least attempt to recognize that there’s no Wizard of Oz moment where everyone will wake up and realize this has all been a bizarre dream.

Leaders who insist on pretending everything is as it always has been are probably setting themselves up for conflict and disillusionment among their teams. Practices such as leading with empathy are no longer fashionable experiments, but necessary.

[ Read also: Silver linings: 7 ways CIOs say IT has changed for good. ]

“Leading a hybrid team requires a lot of coordination, trust, and flexibility, no matter what department it is,” Stoll says.

Bad news: There is no standard-issue playbook for doing this right, even inside one organization. “Leadership varies from team to team, depending on what people do,” says Chris Nicholson, CEO of Pathmind.

You’ll have your own learning, but Nicholson shares a few fundamentals that have served him well with remote and hybrid teams.

  • Learn more about the concrete challenges of different roles; i.e., ask lots of questions over time.
  • Get to know people and communicate with them through several different channels, while learning which channels they prefer.
  • Above all, remember that hybrid will involve more writing and organization to stay in touch with the remote workforce.

If trust, empowerment, and flexibility amount to hollow buzzwords in your organization, hybrid will be a struggle. (Then again, any operational model will sputter in that organization.)

“Don’t forget to lead with empathy,” says Phelps, the Laserfiche CIO. “Truly empower your employees by giving them real authority to make decisions based on your organization’s culture.”

[ Get exercises and approaches that make disparate teams stronger. Read the digital transformation ebook: Transformation Takes Practice. ]

Kevin Casey writes about technology and business for a variety of publications. He won an Azbee Award, given by the American Society of Business Publication Editors, for his story, "Are You Too Old For IT?" He's a former community choice honoree in the Small Business Influencer Awards.