Hybrid work: 5 tips to help build connections

A balanced, productive workgroup depends on strong connections. Here are five ways to foster community and collaboration among your remote and hybrid teams
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Businesses have spent the last year or so trying to figure out how work will work going forward. People are slowly returning to the office, but there’s no going back to the way things were. A more flexible working model has been embraced and now it’s time to put theory into practice.

Maintaining connections with colleagues hasn’t been an easy or equitable experience for many workers. Without the in-person social norms, rituals, and ad hoc interactions, relationships have become fractured, and many employees feel disconnected.

Building social capital through intentional interactions

As a leader, you set the tone for your teams. They look to you for a steer on how to navigate the new landscape. As you balance the dynamics of employees who are eager to return and those who are less so, focusing on rebuilding connections will help everyone perform at their best.

[ Also read Hybrid work: 4 ways to strengthen relationships. ]

Here are five practical ways to create a sense of connection – wherever your teams work.

1. Small talk, big impact

Casual conversations can make a big difference if they’re done with intent. This means making time for personal connections at the start of every meeting and putting some context around their importance.

There will always be people who don’t like or see the point of small talk. Still, by setting the expectation that each meeting will start this way and providing some structure – for example, asking what shows people are currently watching or what they did over the weekend – small talk helps build an emotional connection before you transition into the purpose of the meeting.

2. Plan to be spontaneous

Ad hoc interactions took a hit during the pandemic and are difficult to recreate virtually. Try using your communication channels, such as Slack or Teams, to host virtual coffee lounges where employees are encouraged to connect outside meetings. Bridge the in-office/remote divide by installing screens in break rooms and “gateway” areas for informal interactions. Set office hours where people can jump in and ask questions or share ideas.

3. Reset the culture

In the early stages of the pandemic, we were scrambling for solutions and riding high on the novelty of remote work. As we move into the next phase, it’s vital to ensure that the culture is reset to suit these new ways of working. Expectations should include not just where and when people work, but how. Agree on behaviors and collaboration principles for the team, including how you will communicate. Hold each other accountable and address any issues.

4. Communication is crucial

Make sure your people get the right information at the right time – and at the same time. If there is an in-person announcement, arrange to have it streamed live to remote employees. Be clear ahead of time if there will be an opportunity for questions and have resources available to facilitate this.

Support asynchronous sharing by creating video updates and live shared documents. Mixed reality is likely to be our new reality – research by Cisco finds that 98 percent of all meetings post-COVID are expected to include at least one remote participant.

5. Lead with trust

The quickest way to erode connections is to micro-manage and monitor employees. Once you’ve set expectations and provided the conditions for collaboration, your teams should feel empowered to get on with it. In remote and hybrid environments, connection replaces separation, productivity replaces procrastination, engagement replaces exasperation, and social capital replaces forced fun.

Getting all this right won’t happen overnight. Give it time, experiment with different approaches, expect some bumps in the road, and stay open to feedback, refining as you go. But remember that without connection between team members, nothing will get done as it should – and some leaders will try to use that to justify returning to the old ways of working.

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

Colin D. Ellis is a culture change expert, an award-winning international speaker and a best-selling author. His latest book, "Culture Fix: How to Create a Great Place to Work" (Wiley), has seen him travel all over the world to help IT departments transform the way they work.