Virtual Teams

Remote work can cause silos and other risks – unless we manage differently

I read a useful study from Microsoft last week. They have been systematically measuring the impact of remote working on their people. In this latest study of 61,000 people they found that remote work can lead to even stronger ties within a team, but at the expense of connections between teams.

This is something that other studies have found and also matches our experience of working with many thousands of people around the world on hybrid working. Teams and individuals have become more siloed and more likely to focus on their stronger connections rather than their weak ties.

As another of our areas of expertise is matrix management, we are very familiar with the risks of siloed behaviour and the ways to connect people horizontally across the organisation.

Reconnecting siloed teams and repairing key interfaces is going to be a key challenge in reconnecting the hybrid organization.

It starts with making sure that hybrid teams take into account their key interfaces and the teams they need to align with in determining their pattern of work so there are sufficient overlaps and opportunities to connect both face-to-face and virtually. This forms part of our training for leaders who are managing the hybrid return to the office.

We are seeing a host of these articles now as people start to get to grips with the idea of hybrid working, even if large parts of the world haven’t yet been able to implement it in practise. Most of them seem to take the theme that people who work remotely will struggle with factors like becoming siloed, less career progression and visibility, and fewer opportunities to learn.

Many of them conclude that the answer to this is to go back into the office en masse.

These are valid concerns if we continue to operate the way we used to before we made the change. But that’s like setting up an international organisation and saying that anyone in another country won’t be able to be effective because they’re not in the home country.

I don’t think any experienced manager would expect to introduce a change of this magnitude and not expect there to be a need to change skills, processes and culture – why wouldn’t we?

Another example is proximity bias. It is true that in the past people who stayed closer to the centre of power and more visible to senior leaders tended to progress more quickly. International organisations have long been aware of this risk and have introduced processes for sharing information about talent and calibrating across different markets to help make people with potential more visible across the organisation.

We’ve been working for over 25 years with remote management training that includes sections on how to stay visible when working remotely. It is different but it is achievable. However, now with hybrid working at scale, organisations are going to have to change their processes to enable people to be creative, to be visible and to progress, and to ensure people are not siloed within their teams.

If we keep doing things the same way as we did in the past, the risk is high. But that is the same with almost any change. If we change our way of operating, we can adapt to this new reality.

Another area is creativity. It’s a persistent concern that people who work remotely will be less creative. However, when we ask people if that means that their organisation has become less creative during the pandemic., the answer is usually “no, actually we’ve been more creative and implemented more change.”

It turns out that some aspects of creativity, such as being able to connect more broadly to sources of expertise and having time to focus and think hard about challenges can be done even better from home. In hybrid world we will need to be clearer about what is best done remotely and where the office adds value

If you’d like to find out how to overcome some of these challenges in remote and hybrid working please get in touch.

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