Virtual Teams

I have worked in virtual teams before, is there anything new about hybrid?

Many of our clients are busy preparing their teams to return to work in a hybrid mode where people may work from the office, from home or from a third location such as a coffee shop or coworking space. They are combining this with more flexibility in working times. Others, particularly those who worked in remote teams in the past, say this is no different from how they used to work in the past are assuming that hybrid will not be any different and they will be able to get back to “remote working as normal”.

It is a fair challenge and one what we need to think through. Is it back to business as usual for people who already worked in remote teams, or has something fundamental changed?

Obviously if you already have the core skills of working remotely this has already been very helpful in surviving working from home, but here are some reasons why we think hybrid will be different and a couple of reasons why it may be the same if we aren’t careful.

  1. Hybrid will be at much greater scale with far more people working remotely as part of many more teams. With the exception of teams where all members are able to be in the same place at the same time five days a week , every team will become hybrid. Even those that are not physically remote may be dislocated in time so it will become rarer for all members of the team to be able to meet together. This means our face-to-face time will become even more scarce And we will need to restructure our collaboration accordingly.
  2. If multiple hybrid teams are given flexibility over their working patterns this will cause significant interface issues with other parts of the organisation and other teams. A lot of employers are giving high levels of flexibility, which is welcome, but there will need to be more alignment than most organisations are currently discussing. Where people work on multiple teams within the same organisation, which is now the norm, the complexity will be compounded.
  3. Some of the traditional challenges of working remotely such as staying visible will move from being a challenge for peripheral team members to being a challenge for everybody. Performance evaluation, career development etc. will need to adapt to this being a majority concern amongst professionals have managerial people
  4. Leaders will need to adjust the balance of control and autonomy. People working from home have become used to much higher levels of autonomy and will expect that to continue.

There are some aspects of hybrid working that will be familiar to the many millions of people who now have at least 12 months of experience of working remotely. We will be collaborating more through technology; we will need to be productive when working from home whilst maintaining wellbeing etc. However, there are a couple of questions about these aspects too

  1. Were we good at these things over last 12 months (or before)? For example, people tell us they are now much more familiar with working through tools like MS Teams or Zoom. But at the same time, they tell us their diaries are packed with back to back meetings from morning to night and that many of the meetings lack participation and engagement. If virtual meetings are going to be the bedrock of our collaboration in hybrid teams and on average are taking more than two days per week of peoples time, then we do need to fix the way we run virtual meetings and the way we manage our diaries.
  2. Are we prepared to work this way for the long haul? In many cases organisations have seen improvements in productivity over this period. But often this has been bought at the expense of working longer. We need to find ways of making working from home sustainable for the long term rather than just survivable during an emergency.

There may be other aspects of virtual working that we were used to in 2019, but where we have learned better ways to work during the pandemic. For example, people often feel more connected to their senior leaders than they did before, and many people appreciate the new focus on wellbeing and the human face of leadership that came from us all “being in it together.”

For these reasons, we don’t recommend just blindly going back to how it used to be. We need to discuss what changed, particularly the flexibility and new pattern of work that we will adopt. This will have consequences for how we collaborate, what we do when we meet and how we organise our work. We don’t think every team can do this in isolation without regard to its customers and other interfaces.

We also need to process the learning of the last year to identify opportunities to improve and to embed new ways of working.

We are running a lot of kick-off webinars at the moment for hybrid teams and we find people have a tremendous desire and need to discuss their experiences and what they have learned. People want to make sure we do not just automatically go back to how things were before.

This is a historic opportunity to revisit our ways of working and come up with a new pattern which gives us more autonomy and flexibility at the same time as more productivity and engagement. It would be a shame to miss this opportunity by thinking nothing much has changed.

Perhaps the worst thing that could happen after this experience is if nothing much has changed.

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