Australia and New Zealand are not out of the woods, or the lockdowns, by any means yet, but with vaccination pathways ahead many organisations in both countries have shifted to hybrid working conditions. Typically, this entails some team members working in offices whilst others work virtually, often on rotation. As vaccine rollouts gather speed globally, it is expected more organisations, teams and people will adopt hybrid working conditions. According to McKinsey four to five times as many people will work virtually than before Covid.
Given the huge upheavals we faced into over the last twelve months, it is perhaps not surprising that the focus to ensure hybrid teams work effectively is not garnering the levels of energy that were expended this time last year as leaders and teams grappled with the immediate challenges of working from home in lockdown.
But overlooking the “new normal” of hybrid teams, and assuming pre-Covid patterns of working will resume by default underestimates human behaviour and exposes organisations to increased risks at the very time many can least afford to.
The Serendis team, drawing upon conversations with hundreds of leaders and emerging research on hybrid teams, has put together a list of five steps for leaders leading hybrid teams. We believe actioning these steps will harness cross-team energy and focus to increase your organisation’s speed-to-market, innovation, and execution.
Step 1 – Focus on the “How of Hybrid Work”
When teams get together, the “how” of work often plays a distant second fiddle to the “what” of work. Research though is compelling that teams that successfully discuss and agree how they work outperform teams who focus solely on doing the work.
The complications hybrid teams face are varied. Team members switch between working in the office and working remotely two or more times a week. With a confusing smorgasbord of communication platforms at their fingertips to choose from such as email, zoom, text, mobile, MS teams, slack or WhatsApp, communications can go badly awry and team members can become digitally exhausted.
A critical early action is for teams to identify the patterns of working that were particularly effective during full lockdown that they will continue to use and harness in a hybrid world. This might be daily ten minute morning “huddles” for one team, for another team it could be the dedicated use of a single communication channel for specific work projects, and for a third team it might be the leader continuing to have short check-in calls with team members on a regular basis.
The window for doing this is short. As human beings we often forget things more quickly than we admit. Leaders need to ensure this conversation happens before hybrid work patterns are established.
At the same time, leaders need to encourage their team to identify unhelpful working practices that emerged during full lockdown that the team will curtail as they shift into hybrid working. According to Microsoft’s research of 30,000 people’s working habits across 31 countries, average meeting durations have increased by nearly 30% over the last 12 months, and on average 42% more emails and chats are sent outside of typical working hours in the same time period. These are just two example areas that many of our clients are focusing on addressing.
Other key areas for the team to nut out are the specific platforms to use for team and project-based communications, and how the team will manage different team member’s needs and responsibilities given an increasing expectation of working more days in the office. Failure to work this through can negatively impact team cohesion, exhaustion and productivity.
Focusing on the “how” is not only the domain of local team leaders. Business unit leaders and CEOs are also encouraged to use their authority to support actions that drive effective ways of working. In this vein, one of Australia’s big four banks have recently mandated a popular ruling that no meetings should be scheduled from 12-1pm.
Step 2 – Rebuild Networks of Teams
For organisations to perform at their best, networks of teams spanning the value of chain need to problem solve, prioritise, and work together. In retail this might involve teams across distribution, digital and product creating new working rhythms devoted to enhancing the customer experience, or in a University, it could mean teams from scholarships, finance and future students intensely collaborating to ensure faculties have full quotas of future students.
Two lockdown factors in particular created conditions where teams feel more distant from one another. Working from home put the kybosh on those incidental connections and conversations that happen day-in day-out between members of different teams in lifts, corridors, and kitchens. Secondly, whilst many teams did excellent jobs caring for their own team members over the last 12 months and inventing ways to allocate and complete often new types of work within their teams, the level of cross-team connections and collaboration has reduced dramatically.
The role of rebuilding networks of teams sits primarily with leaders. Relying solely on updates in leadership meetings to get the latest on what other teams are up to is not enough.
The place from which to organise and execute this work is the diary. Planning weeks and months ahead, leaders need to carve out time with other leaders to better understand their team’s challenges and priorities, and to find new ways to work together that will create efficiencies and value.
Leaders can also organise and recognise team members that do the same. For example, hosting cross-team innovation labs to solve new problems together, inviting a member of an adjacent team to a team meeting to share a current challenge they are working on, or ensuring informal connections across teams are encouraged.
Step 3 – Beware of your Brain
The big organ in our head has had quite the work out over the last 12 months, findings ways for us to navigate economic, work, family, health, and other challenges Covid has thrown at us. Just when most brains feel due well-earned rests, a raft of new, innocuous, challenges lie in wait for it, with the potential to derail the quality of decision making and upend a hybrid’s team momentum and cohesion.
In particular, leaders need attention to be paid to noticing and managing distractions and over-confidence.
If you find you are frustrated because your team are distracted, then join the club. Technology with its ubiquitous rings, pings and dings is becoming more compelling and although there is a lot of good coming from that, it is important for us to make sure it does not turn action into distraction.
Nir Eyal, author of “Indistractable” recommends leaders name and discuss distractions with their teams, and ways to overcome them. He is a big believer in team members rigorously planning the time they will take to complete a task, and hacking back external triggers, for example by turning off notifications on Apps and comms channels, excluding devices from meetings, and using “do not disturb unless urgent” signs when people are concentrating deeply.
A good rule of thumb for leaders is to apply the maxim that habit formation is more about the removal of temptations than will power. So, coming up with ways for the team to remove distractions is a key that can unlock greater productivity and quality. For further suggestions on frictionless ways to form new habits, check out the episode called “A Creature of Habit” in the Hidden Brain podcast.
– Over Confidence
Businesses that have thrived through Covid run the risk of an over-confidence permeating their culture and decision making, leading to a reduced ability to accurately discern challenges and threats.
Over-confidence can increase the higher someone is in an organisation. Research by AHRI found middle managers have a rosier view of what is happening in an organisation than the employees beneath them, and that CEOs have a far rosier picture than middle management. Research by Microsoft shows senior leaders are 23% more likely to report they are “thriving right now” relative to employees without decision making authority, and are 12% more likely to take all of their allotted annual leave.
Senior leaders need to consciously focus on enhancing psychological safety in their teams, set expectations that bad news should travel faster than good news, and challenge themselves to be mentally agile and curious when hearing new information.
Step 4 – Get the Team in Person at the Right Time
Most work can be done to a very high quality by hybrid teams. But not all work.
There are certain tasks that achieve significantly better outcomes when people are together in person in the same room, able to deeply discuss, debate and think through complex ideas together.
This might be onboarding a new starter in the team, an innovation lab, sensitive feedback or a team workshop or offsite with Serendis.
Leaders need to plan and schedule these events in advance, and strongly encourage people to participate in person, so the team can achieve better outcomes. Plus, in-person events typically positively impact trust and team cohesion.
Step 5 – Strike the Right Balance of Strategic and Operational
The last year threw an enormous number of new, complex challenges at businesses, and a common refrain we hear clients say is that they “are on the treadmill”, constantly reacting and responding to new situations and regulations as they emerge.
Leaders, particularly the more senior the leader, need to strike the right balance of being operational and strategic.
Operations is about the present. It involves execution; ensuring team members are clear on and progressing work effectively; short team huddles; weekly progress meetings; making sure teams are identifying risks and methods to mitigate these; and administration.
Strategy is about the future. It might be a meeting with an external stakeholder to hear different perspectives, a 1on1 team member conversation focusing on their career development and growth, a cross-team meeting to nut out an approach to solving a strategic problem or dedicated “do not disturb” time to concentrate deeply on writing a strategy paper or reading some research.
To assess how you are managing the challenge of being both an operational and strategic leader, take a few moments to forward scan your diary for the next four weeks. Give yourself rough percentages for time spent doing operational versus strategic work.
A rule of thumb to aim for is a minimum of 10% strategic work if you are a front-line leader running a highly operational team, all the way up to 80%+ for C-Suite leaders. If your strategic work tally is low, how might you change it? What meeting might you delegate? Or decline? What responsibilities will you empower others with? How might you carve out more time in advance for strategic work – and keep it.
Given the best ideas usually come from teams, leaders also need to ensure their team makes time to step down off the treadmill and up to the balcony to take stock of their situation, to review priorities and mobilise the energy and effort of the team to focus on strategic priorities. This might be at a quarterly offsite or ad-hoc sessions to solve for an emerging issue or problem.
Having weathered the storm through a hugely demanding twelve months, organisations are increasingly experiencing or getting prepared to work using hybrid teams. By applying the five steps above, leaders will ensure the conditions are right for hybrid teams to perform at their best.
About Tim Youle: https://www.serendis.com.au/our-people/