Adapting to hybrid work models

While there are challenges — from clunky collaboration to spotty communication — Liane Davey says hybrid work will have advantages over the long haul

Liane Davey (MASc '95, PhD '99) is known as the "Teamwork Doctor," and has advised hundreds of teams on how to work together effectively. Her book, The Good Fight, explores how you can use conflict to get your team and organization back on track.

For many of us, reopening will mean acclimatizing to work arrangements in which our colleagues are working in different ways. The new norm is likely to be hybrid teams, with some members physically co-located and others working remotely. While I expect that organizations will ultimately realize many benefits from this model (including enhanced productivity, greater access to talent and better opportunities for diversity and inclusion), I suspect that hybrid teams will be a challenge in the short-term.

I’m focused on three challenges in particular: uneven trust, clunky collaboration and spotty communication.

How to avoid in-groups and out-groups

Let’s start by admitting that it will be challenging to develop uniform levels of trust when some teammates are together, and others are not. We have millennia of evolution on the side of trusting those with whom we’re physically close so we must make a conscious effort to avoid in-groups and out-groups by connecting with people who are working in the opposite mode.

If you’re remote, prioritize check-ins with your office workers throughout the week. If you’re in the office, reach out to remote teammates to share a conversation that happened at the water cooler. Try to find at least one occasion a month to have a full-team video call where you’re eating and chatting, with no formal agenda. With a little effort, you can build a high-trust hybrid team.

A second concern is how to optimize your use of collaboration technology. During the pandemic, many teams have fallen into a rut of using only Zoom calls or email. Recent research suggests that when you want to collaborate productively, it’s best to use audio and screen sharing but to turn the video off. That approach improves focus and reduces the bandwidth we normally use interpreting people’s facial expressions. Another research-based tip is to revert to a good oldfashioned phone call when you need to foster a strong connection. The phone outperforms video chats on empathy. If your team is in a collaboration rut, try a new mode and see how it unlocks new ideas.

Be aware of risks of uneven communication

Finally, be aware of the risks of uneven communication among team members. Not only are in-office employees likely to get important information from casual encounters or overheard conversations, they’re also able to access contextual information from how people are behaving. For example, imagine you see your boss leaving a meeting looking frustrated. If your boss is a little curt in your team meeting, you’ll likely attribute it to the prior meeting. Your remote colleagues, who didn’t witness the episode, might take the boss’s tone more personally. In a hybrid team, it’s important to invest extra energy in making sure you’re communicating frequently to provide both content and context. Be mindful of the messages you’re getting and who might be left out.

There are going to be many advantages to using a more flexible approach to work. If you pay attention to some of the potential pitfalls, you’ll be able to realize those gains without paying the price in eroded trust, awkward collaborations or spotty communication.