By Valentina Kibedi
Think about your team right now. Would you say it has a high degree of cohesion? What about over the past two years? What about before that?
When we talk about cohesive teams, we’re referring to the ideal state when team members share bonds, feel connected, and remain united and productive in the pursuit of a common goal.
Cohesive teams are not easily driven apart by differences of opinion, or misunderstanding and confusion of role or purpose. Why not? They’ve got processes to prevent these things. They’ve got confidence that their working relationships can withstand differences of opinions. Team members feel safe expressing unpopular viewpoints. They are clear on their responsibilities, committed to individual and shared priorities, and understand how to work together to get things done.
We’ve been hearing from organizations that say their teams have lost their working bond. That hybrid work has dissolved the glue that kept them together, working as a unit. Teams that worked well side-by-side seem to be struggling now that they’re not consistently in the office 9-5 anymore. They are less efficient. They seem less motivated and slower to complete their work. They are making mistakes. They are pointing fingers, frustrated at the quality of their output.
New modes of work may seem the culprit. But let’s consider two simple facts:
- Hybrid work is not new. Granted, it is a work style new to many of us, but the concept has existed successfully for some time.
- The struggle to improve team cohesion is not new. Leaders were struggling with team cohesion issues long before hybrid work models became commonplace.
While it may seem as if hybrid is to blame for disrupted team cohesion in your organization, consider the possibility that the underlying symptoms were always there. Perhaps they pre-existed in another form — lack of trust; inadequate psychological safety; fuzzy goals and unclear priorities; ineffective or incomplete communication. Change has a way of throwing a spotlight on the weak spots in our teams and organizations.
This is good news!
It means we know what we need to do, and we already have many of the tools and resources to address the issues. With a few simple adjustments, we can tailor existing wisdom to solve for this newest challenge. The fundamentals of what transforms a group of people into an exceptional team have not changed — even if they’re working in a new context of a hybrid or remote environment.
What we’ll explore in this article:
- Is building culture harder in a hybrid environment?
- Keeping sight of the benefits
- Hybrid modes of work
- What do effective hybrid teams have in common?
- Embracing hybrid work in your organization
Is building culture harder in a hybrid environment?
One commonly raised concern is that the very concept of culture has died. We hear, “What does culture even mean if we’re no longer in the same place?” or “How are we supposed to do culture now?”
Many organizations are dealing with staff turnover, growth, or a shift in mandate that has moved people into new roles. It may not feel like the same place, and bringing back what we thought of as “our culture” feels hard in a hybrid environment.
What’s making it feel so hard to build and maintain culture in a hybrid environment? Research suggests three main contributing factors.
People are either in, or out of the office. We are either included or excluded from onsite events, conversations, and resources. We are subject to proximity bias (our own or others’) wherein employees with close physical proximity to their team and leaders will often be perceived as better workers. Proximity bias brews a perception that in-person workers receive preferential treatment or may find more success in the workplace than their remote counterparts.
Isolation also leads to FOMO or fear of missing out. Remote workers begin to fear what they’re missing – whether opportunities to advance their careers, further internal relationships, or gain access to resources that would improve their work.
All of this leads to issues of inequity which are difficult to overcome.
People are feeling disconnected from their organizations. We may sense a lack of shared purpose or fail to find common ground with colleagues.
People are confused about their roles or tasks. This is usually a sign of ineffective communication. Whether too much, too little, or whether the communication is simply imprecise, it just may not be landing as intended – especially for remote workers. We may not be privy to contextual cues leading to why a decision was made, or insight into judgement calls made in the moment. Without “back story” details, we may be dealing with conflicting, old, or incorrect information.
By identifying challenges introduced by hybrid, we can ensure greater focus in those areas as we map out a go-forward leadership strategy and improved management practices.
Let’s not lose sight of the good
Yes, hybrid work has made certain aspects of management more difficult, but it has also brought multiple improvements to our people and our workplaces.
Hybrid has provided many with the freedom to choose work arrangements that help them thrive. The flexibility has enhanced work-life balance, offered improved ability to focus, or even enabled more appropriate child or elder care scenarios.
It has also removed geographic, mobile, and physical barriers to work, making jobs more inclusive than ever.
Some clients who serve broad regions and have remote offices felt the pandemic levelled the playing field in terms of their ability to engage in meetings. Once everybody had to join virtually it enabled everyone to participate equally, without preference given to on-site attendees.
We’re also starting to see research that suggests that hybrid and flexible work arrangements have been especially beneficial to historically underrepresented groups, including Black, Indigenous, and people of colour, women and non-binary folks, and people with disabilities; as well as those with circumstances that made traditional work arrangements inaccessible, such as people with caregiving responsibilities, and returners to the workforce.
At a time when many leaders are working to improve their policies and practices and embed equity, diversity, and inclusion throughout their organizations, it turns out hybrid can help.
Leaders have an opportunity for increased breadth
In the in-person environments of the past, leaders tended to have a narrow band of people with whom they held deep relationships. In the new environment of hybrid, they may sacrifice some depth, but they are adding breadth.
Many leaders have been surprised about the benefits of this shift. They are now able to have connections across a broader span of the organization – beyond their direct leadership team, gaining greater insights into the organization than before.
Hybrid work – not just where, but when
Even before hybrid became the norm, we were often doing work at different times. But now there’s more complexity involved. Now we must consider both time and place when thinking about different ways of working together.
Synchronous Work means it’s happening at the same time. Everyone puts in a 9-5 shift, or similar. Synchronous work can be co-located (altogether in one place) or distributed (different places).
Asynchronous Work happens at different times. People work different shifts at the office (co-located), or perhaps they work 8 hours over a 12-hour period to accommodate school pickups or senior care while operating remotely (distributed).
The point of knowing these terms is to understand that one-size-fits-all policies can no longer apply to workplace planning. We must challenge assumptions about the scenarios in which people will receive messaging, or the environment or time someone may be doing their work.
Effective hybrid teams think deeply about how work happens across these two axes. They are challenging their previously held assumptions, and intentionally designing hybrid arrangements that work best for their specific circumstances.
Since “work” is no longer necessarily tied to a location, when we’re thinking about the type of organization and work environment we want to create, we’re actually talking about “culture”, not “place”. This is a mental shift that needs to occur throughout the organization — particularly at the management and leadership level.
In this way, the “work environment” has become how it feels to work at your organization.
What do effective hybrid teams have in common?
They unite around a shared purpose, such as an organization’s mission, and strategic or operational plan. Knowing this makes it easy for leaders to build tactics to reflect on or celebrate achievements toward purpose in group and 1:1 settings.
Effective teams also know how to answer three foundational questions of team culture:
- Who are we?
- Why are we here?
- How do we get it done?
Cohesive hybrid teams have established internal communications practices that are clearly understood and followed.
For example, thinking about the 4 modes of work from above, successful teams have prioritized what work needs to be synchronous and what can be asynchronous.
Synchronous work would include meetings for in-depth discussion or debate, or which involve higher-stakes decisions; 1:1s, coaching & feedback & mentoring, project kick-off meetings, some onboarding activities, and some team building activities. We’re asking our clients to set a high bar for synchronous work. In a hybrid environment, asking everybody to come together needs to be reserved for the right things.
Asynchronous work is no less important. It’s important to identify what can be done asynchronously, and where this would could or should happen. Asynchronous work tends to include ongoing status updates, straightforward questions and information sharing, and individual focused work.
Successful hybrid teams have been trained around the use of the right technology or communications channel for the right work style. For example, synchronous work requires video meetings and phone calls. Asynchronous work takes place on group messaging channels and email.
Where information is shared is important to hybrid teams. Standardizing channels and mediums and communicating expectations around what goes where can help create a level playing field. Hybrid teams must be intentional about information sharing to ensure everyone has access to the same knowledge. Hallway conversations, or ‘walk and talk’ discussions create inequity, wherein some team members are ‘in the know’ and others are not.
Keeping workflow conversations on collaboration platforms like Slack or Teams is a terrific way to create a searchable, transparent flow of information. Knowledge management systems such as Guru can help organizations build a repository of institutional knowledge accessible to everyone.
Hybrid teams should default to “public” communications channels whenever possible to ensure the flow of information remains open, accessible, and searchable to everyone. Note that notifications management is helpful for those who feel bombarded with platforms like Slack.
Using the right systems can assist with feelings of fragmentation and eroded trust that comes from feeling left out, or legitimately being left out of the loop on important decisions or details.
Effective hybrid teams design and schedule relationship practices and team connection opportunities. Leaders and managers must be thoughtful about their relationship practices; lack of intention can exacerbate proximity bias and create exclusion and inequity.
Effective hybrid teams also treat team building and team cohesion development time as seriously as they do “real work”. This means making team culture, social connection, bonding, and inclusion efforts as important as other business.
How do you do this? You build it right into your success metrics. You get buy-in and support from leadership. You declare champions within the organization to implement and push things forward. However, as noted before, if the leadership level doesn’t adopt this as a priority, it’s not going to be sustained, teams will struggle to build cohesion long-term.
Anticipate and navigate “cohesion roadblocks”
Successful hybrid teams ensure equity in participation and work to identify and address behaviours or practices getting in the way of cohesion, such as lack of policies that create respect and safety; proximity bias; erosion of trust.
This means taking care to ensure everyone feels (and is) included and that policies and practices are frequently being considered to ensure respect, safety, and equitable practices. It means ensuring opportunities for development and support, such as coaching and mentoring, are offered to everyone regardless of location, identity, or work arrangement.
Another good practice is the commitment to adapt and iterate. Successful hybrid teams are responsive and open to making changes as needs evolve. It is recognized that there is no perfect “final state”. They accept that team needs are ever evolving — and that’s ok.
Priya Parker, a master facilitator and author and who wrote a book called The Art of Gathering, talks about creating “connection mechanisms”, which are ways we create intentional and socially acceptable space for people to connect.
According to Parker, effective connection mechanisms need social permission as well as social pressure to connect. When one of these elements is missing, the mechanism isn’t very effective.
When COVID-19 pushed us to remote settings, Laridae tried to create opportunities for team connection. We started with optional, open, drop-in office hours. This was a case of social permission (although with limited buy-in) but no social pressure. Not surprisingly, it didn’t work.
In our case, a lack of structure meant our conversations would devolve into work topics, which didn’t serve to refresh or engage anybody. And in a very short time, the meetings became quite awkward because most people shopped showing up. Obviously, this did little to improve cohesion, because the people who did show up felt no one else wanted to invest in being a team. And the people who didn’t show up felt like the team didn’t value their time.
Realizing the shortcomings of our initial attempt, we adapted our approach to design a more effective “connection mechanism”. The result was what we call our Monday Team Coffee Chats.
Here’s what we changed and what each design element supports:
- No longer optional; everyone is expected to attend, cameras on (social pressure and permission)
- We set a rule that conversation would not be centred around work (creates permission for a different kind of connection)
- Everyone gets a turn to speak, and can share or not share based on the level of their comfort (inclusion, engagement, and safety)
- We introduced a rotating facilitator element. All participants are in the rotation; facilitators have full responsibility to “own” their session (engagement, shared ownership)
- Loose – but intentional – structure: Facilitators are tasked with preparing a weekly question that each team member answers when ready and called upon. This could be a fun question, or a deep question – anything to help us get to know each other a bit better. In addition to answering the question, everyone also shares a “Notable” – this can be almost any tidbit that they feel like sharing with the team; anything from past weekend adventures or upcoming plans they are excited about, to a personal hardship they may be experiencing such as family health challenge.
The new format was a hit and still continues to this day.
It can be tempting to long for “the way things used to be” at work. But we know hybrid work is here to stay, and we’re learning that eliminating hybrid isn’t actually the fix that leaders might think it is. Hybrid may be exacerbating certain issues – but chances are these challenges were already there, just in another form.
Done right, hybrid and flexible work can make our teams stronger, more accessible and equitable, and more effective.
To develop true cohesion in the context of hybrid teams we need to evolve our leadership and management practices.
We’ll explore this further in future posts, with topics like:
- Running great hybrid meetings
- Trust and psychological safety on hybrid teams
- Designing hybrid approaches
Are you looking for support designing a hybrid future that works for your organization? Or with navigating conversations around team cohesion?
Get in touch and we can setup a call to learn more about your challenges and goals, and how we can help.