In most organizations, the plan to “return to normal” looks nothing like our pre-pandemic version of “normal.” While some organizations have chosen to stay remote, most have engaged a hybrid model for their return to work plans. Hybrid teams allow flexibility to adapt to various employee needs while reducing the number of employees who are on-site on any given day. From the employee perspective, this is a great compromise and acknowledges that each person’s work style preferences are unique. From a leadership perspective, frontline leaders will now experience unique challenges that test their soft skills more than ever before.
First, there are logistical challenges. When the leader needs to pull together a quick meeting, they have to remember who is in the office on which days, find a room for the meeting, and ensure they also set up the virtual call for remote staff. Once the meeting starts, the leader will need to ensure that both the in-person team members and those attending virtually are all engaged and able to contribute equally. This may seem simple, but once you consider that most organizations are still having employees wear masks and social distance, this also means that some team members will be socially distant from the telecom microphone as well. When you add in the normal sound interference from people chatting in the room, it can be incredibly difficult to ensure each team member has an equitable meeting experience.
However, the logistical challenges are minor compared to the broader issues that will challenge frontline leaders of hybrid teams. Beyond driving results, leaders are ultimately responsible for supporting, empowering, and developing their employees. Leaders will need to work harder than ever to communicate effectively and equally with each employee. Employees who work remotely may feel left out of spur-of-the-moment conversations or be the last to know the latest updates. They may begin to feel isolated or less central to the success of the team. Similarly, leaders will need to coach their employees on how to be inclusive of all team members (regardless of who is on-site). It isn’t enough for the leader to be the central point of communication; every team member will need to work harder to include others.
Leaders also need to be hyper-aware of proximity bias. Leaders need to be aware of who they spend time with and ensure that they haven’t excluded virtual team members. It will be easy for leaders to build affinity and trust in the team members they see in the office more often. They may incorrectly believe that these employees work harder or are more capable than those they see less frequently. They may also be more likely to assign new or exciting projects to the in-person team members. Each of these actions will drive a deeper wedge between team members and make remote employees more likely to disengage and turnover.
Finally, coaching and developing team members equitably will be an even greater challenge in a hybrid team model. It will be easier to identify development needs and identify coachable moments for in-person employees. This may mean that in-person employees will grow and develop at a faster pace than their remote coworkers. Additionally, remote employees are often overlooked for new project and promotion opportunities. This will be further exacerbated if leaders fail to give equal time and support for developing critical competencies and career coaching.
While adapting a hybrid team model can be an excellent way to adapt to the unique needs of each team member, its success is dependent on the leader’s ability to engage, include, and empower every team member as if they were all in-person together.