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Our Six Learnings from Leading Hybrid Teams

May 10, 2022
Otto Vehviläinen

One year ago, Smartly.io introduced a flexible hybrid work model. For us, being a hybrid workplace means we have easy, effective, and enjoyable ways of working as a global organization, regardless of where people work. To make this work, Smartlies need to be mindful to collaborate in ways that allow everyone, everywhere to be productive and feel included. And leaders need to be more mindful still.

We believe that, fundamentally, good leadership is the same regardless of circumstances. Nurturing trust, creating direction and clarity, emphasizing action, holding each other accountable and helping each other grow, as well as leading by example are equally relevant in hybrid, all-remote, and co-located teams.

Here are some elements of leadership that we believe warrant extra effort in a hybrid workplace.

Build trust and psychological safety

While trust and psychological safety are the foundation to any team’s success, building and maintaining them takes more legwork in a hybrid team. What makes trust and psychological safety tricky in a hybrid environment is that both of them are more naturally built in in-person interactions. So being intentional about socializing and designing opportunities for connecting with team members is crucial for hybrid teams. If you have the opportunity to bring all team members together in person for a team day or an offsite, take it, but weave hybrid-friendly opportunities for casual interactions in the day-to-day, too. Allow time for casual banter at the beginning of team weeklies, chat informally about life outside of work on Slack, and organize hybrid or fully virtual low-threshold team get-togethers.

Trust and psychological safety are also created by being open and willing to show vulnerability yourself, you can foster a culture of transparency where all team members are encouraged to share their experiences and discuss the undiscussable. Be reliable and consistent and encourage similar behavior in your team members in order to create a sense of stability and predictability in the team environment.

Make everyone feel included

One of the biggest risks in a hybrid workplace is that fully remote people or those who prefer to work more from home than the office become second-class citizens and feel left out of important conversations, knowledge sharing and career development opportunities. With a hybrid workplace, team cohesion is critical to avoid an “us versus them” situation, and conscious acts of inclusion are a way to reduce the likelihood that your team fractures into in-person versus remote groups.

As a leader, you should treat everyone with respect and fairness and make sure that everyone in your team has equal access to you. In team meetings, deliberately include and involve all meeting participants and pay extra attention to those joining remotely, since it can be difficult for them to interrupt discussion that happens within a meeting room. Create a team working agreement that if information is shared in person, then it will also be shared with remote team members.

Be mindful of and reflect on your biases, especially when assessing team members' performance and career development opportunities. It’s easy to slip into showing favoritism toward team members who you spend more time with in person. Or the other way if you work fully remotely yourself. If one group—in-office or remote—feels isolated or unequal, try working the same way to show empathy and support for them, and break down your biases.

Have and show empathy

Working in a hybrid team will require all members to adapt in some way. And with change comes a wide range of emotions. Also, your team members may live very different realities: Some of your remote team members may be confined in a small one-room apartment alone. Others may be at home taking care of sick children who demand their attention throughout the workday. Still others may be feeling down because they can’t spend time with all their team members at the office as much as they want. A leader needs to have empathy for their team members’ realities and how those may affect their work.

Demonstrate genuine caring for each team member’s wellbeing. Reserve time in meetings to talk non-work related topics and catch up. Remember to start every 1-1 meeting by asking how your team member is doing and really listen to how they respond. Use these opportunities to look for signs of struggle, demotivation and loneliness, and if you see them, act. Apart from making sure people feel heard and understood, it’s also important to go the extra mile to show respect to your team members and make them feel valued.

Put extra effort into communication

When a team is dispersed across locations and time zones, it takes deliberate care and attention to keep information flowing, collaborate effectively and create space to discuss big ideas. Leaders should prepare to spend more time setting direction and explaining their thinking, clarifying expectations and giving actionable feedback. They should also pay attention to documentation and making information easily accessible.

Team members, too, should reassess their communication patterns and form new routines to keep others up to date about what they are working on and why. The team should establish ground rules for communication together, taking into consideration the needs of remote and in-office team members. Use your working agreements to develop a predictable cadence and approach to information sharing.

Drive focus and accountability

When leading hybrid teams, you need to clearly articulate the priorities, set clear goals, and focus on achieving the results together. Focus on the outputs of the team’s work rather than the inputs. Take time in team meetings to review and discuss how the team is progressing on its goals. Ask about any blockers and bottlenecks that may stand in the way of efficient execution and commit to resolving them. Remind team members about the priorities and hold each other accountable for delivering results.

Use 1-1 time to discuss how your individual team members are progressing in their projects and give feedback on their performance. Remember to take detailed notes throughout the year so when the annual Feedback and Development round starts, you will have a lot of material to inform your decisions about the team member’s performance, leveling and compensation, and it will be easier to avoid bias in your thinking.

Strengthen connections between teams and functions

Fast-growing organizations are at risk of siloing and a hybrid work environment makes it easier for teams to turn inwards at the expense of cross-team collaboration. Teams should map how their work interlinks with and supports the work of other teams and find ways to keep in touch with those teams, aligning goals and building feedback loops between each other. This can be mapped and documented in working agreements.

Team leads need to make sure they aren’t bottlenecks for knowledge sharing between teams. When everyone can talk to everyone directly rather than pass messages through the steps of the organizational hierarchy, communication and information flow fast between teams, functions and physical locations. As a team lead, support the creation and maintenance of connections between different teams to share ideas and knowledge, coordinate work that overlaps with or influences the work of others, and create bonds of empathy and solidarity between teams.


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