More than 80% of executives say they are worried about their remote employees’ ability to collaborate fully on team efforts and build relationships with their colleagues.
The findings are part of a recently released survey by Cisco on remote and hybrid work models, which includes more than 1,500 global respondents — a majority of them identifying as C-suite executives.
“Remote [work] was a big step forward where people got to see, ‘Hey, this is something I can do from anywhere,’” said Jeetu Patel, executive vice president and general manager at Cisco. “Hybrid's going to have an additional layer of complexity because when there's four people in the room and three people are not in the same room, do the three people feel left out and do the four people have an advantage?”
Patel was joined by MIT Sloan professorand senior lecturerduring an MIT Sloan Management Review webinar, where they discussed actions to reduce disadvantages in hybrid spaces and foster an organizational culture that amplifies everyone’s voice.
Here is some of their advice:
Encourage team autonomy, but give new employees extra support
Don’t establish one overarching hybrid work rule for an entire organization. Most firms are made up of different groups with different functions that require different onsite and remote expectations, said Pozen, author of “Remote, Inc.”
Give teams autotomy to decide what their hybrid structure will look like, but be clear on success metrics such as what each team should be producing by the end of a week, month, or project.
And while it’s good to offer teams some independence, that doesn’t mean organizations should leave new or less experienced employees to fend for themselves. Connect these employees with a mentor or work buddy who can answer any questions and guide them as they learn the new culture.
“Have a really good orientation package which tells the people coming in: Who are the members of the team, what are the ground rules, when they can come in the office, what choices they have,” Pozen said.
Set expectations for hybrid interactions, and make them meaningful
Leaders should set ground rules for their hybrid workers such as when they are expected to be remote vs. onsite, what online meetings they need to attend, and what response times for emails and direct messages should be.
While the actual work is important, it’s also important leaders encourage team bonding — such as facilitating a virtual group activity like wine tasting or playing a game — while ensuring each employee feels included.
“If a leader wants to promote camaraderie, one of the things I'd like to see in a remote environment is for a leader to have one-on-one [meetings] with members of his or her team, because people tend to feel a little isolated,” Pozen said.
To promote the informal relationship-building that happens in the breakroom or during lunchtime chats, leaders might consider starting virtual meetings with 10 minutes of open conversation where attendees can join and interact with one another. Or save the last 15 minutes of a meeting for informal interactions among those who are still online.
Pozen and Patel both said it’s good practice to have cameras on for virtual meetings, while acknowledging not every lunch or school pickup needs to be broadcast.
Employees who routinely keep their cameras turned off prevent others from picking up on their nonverbal signals and creating a level of bonding and communication, Patel said.
“If you are not keeping a camera on for a majority of the time, don't be surprised if the quality of interactions that you're going to have with your coworkers is different,” he added.
Ensure all voices are heard
In every group or individual meeting, try to ensure someone is monitoring, listening, and intervening on behalf of the voices not being heard, said Kochan, an expert in employment policies and labor-management relations.
Take advantage of available technology to draw out those voices, Kochan advised. After a large all-hands meeting, for example, consider breaking into smaller groups to talk about issues and gather feedback.
Importantly, leaders can’t be complacent about employee satisfaction once their organizations have established a hybrid work culture. Despite positive survey responses from board members and C-suite executives who say their work culture has improved since their offices went fully or partially remote, studies show that executives and employees have a different sense of how things are going.
“There is a divide … between the people at the top who see this as a way of building their culture and they’re doing a good job as leaders, versus the people on the front lines,” Kochan said.
Kochan advised that leaders need to forge a new social contract that takes into account the experiences and insights of an organization’s lower levels. This contract isn’t necessarily written down, Kochan said, rather it’s fulfilled through actions like respecting people’s right to have a voice, using the workplace as a forum to bring together different viewpoints, and tapping the technology available in hybrid cultures to empower those who don’t feel heard or included.
“We need to harness that energy that the technology allows us, but we have to do it with respect, and we have to recognize that empowering people from below can strengthen our organizations,” Kochan said. “That's a mindset, that's a cultural change in management that I think we need to take on.”