Hybrid Workforces: How to Manage a Partially Remote Team

Posted in Organizational Development

As workforces the world over start to trickle back to the office (not always willingly…), many managers find themselves in an awkward position, managing a partially remote team.

You mightn’t have given it much thought but that’s actually a big problem. 

Dr. Ben Waber (Co-Founder and President of Humanyze) articulated this in his June talk at the virtual re:engage 2020 summit. Looking at millions of datapoints, he suggested this middle option is the worst of both worlds (for various reasons which we’ll explore…)

But right now, hybrid’s a situation many businesses can’t avoid.

Perhaps you desperately need some people in-office because you’ve got systems they can’t access from home, for example. Or because team collaboration is suffering and it’s impacting innovation.

Read more: Managing a phased return. Who should come back, when?

If that’s true for your business, managers need to make the best of a difficult situation, to help the business move productively through this hybrid period.

Let’s dig into why hybrid working can be a challenge for managers, and then talk about some tips to manage a partially remote team.

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Why are partially remote teams hard to manage?

You could sum up the problem with partially remote teams in one word: inequality.

  • Inequality around the information people access
  • Inequality around socializing opportunities
  • Inequality around how employees access management time
  • Inequality around learning and development
  • Inequality around collaboration

When your entire team’s working remotely, that’s equal. When everyone’s working from the office, that’s equal. Your managers (hopefully!) adapt to the management style needed for their team at that time.

For instance, by increasing communication, introducing virtual social events and investing in remote collaboration tools.

Read more: How to manage fully-remote teams 

That’s probably why most businesses have handled the sudden shift to remote working OK. Because strangely, wholesale all-at-once change is somehow easier than dribs and drabs change.

“It’s not that big of a deal because Sally’s always worked from home on Tuesdays”, you’re thinking. “And we collaborate with remote freelancers often too”.

The big difference is, your Sally’s and your remote freelancers know they’re facing potential inequality. They’re the exception not the rule, so they work harder to compensate.

  • They quietly take calls at weird times because it suits the majority of the team.
  • They make a special effort to chase notes for meetings they missed.
  • They accept they’ll miss socializing and plan to fulfil that need elsewhere.

That changes as soon as there’s no clear power balance – no clear ‘majority of the team’. Dr. Ben Waber calls it the “locus of power”. He gives the example of a meeting:

If everyone’s remote, that’s fine. If everyone’s in-office, that’s fine too. If almost everyone’s in-office with someone dialing in, that’s also fine – that one person accepts they’ll get less input and isn’t frustrated. The locus of power is in the physical room and everyone knows it.

But as soon as your team’s holding a hybrid meeting – say, roughly a 50/50 split – nobody knows where the power balance lies. Everyone talks over each other, and gets extremely frustrated, and productivity stalls.

The same’s true of any workplace situation. If you’re managing a partially remote team, your Sallys have a right to expect not to have to make a special effort. To expect calls, meetings and socializing to be convenient and accessible for her too.

The real challenge for managers is navigating these power balances, so remote and office-based employees are treated equally.

Because if your team feel they’re not being treated fairly, it can quickly open resentments and drive disengagement. It’s a really fast way for previously strong, united, productive teams to become mired in unproductive in-fighting, power struggles and one-upmanship.

Here are a few ideas to manage a partially remote team through the challenges on inequality….


Champion immediate communication 

Imagine you’re in-office with half your team. When Jake has a problem, he has near-instant access to you. Without realizing, he tunes into social clues that you’re available (like, say, you’re not in the middle of a call). He grabs you, in that moment, before he wastes time going down the wrong route.

Then say Anita, who’s working remotely, has a problem. She doesn’t know if you’re busy, so doesn’t want to bother you. She knows you’ve got a Zoom tomorrow morning so she decides to wait. So she keeps doing her best but she’s doing work that’ll need redoing once you’ve course-corrected tomorrow.

💡💡 Instead, normalize your whole team reaching out mid-process, using channels like Slack or a team WhatsApp group. The key is immediacy. 💡💡

Encourage socializing-as-a-habit, not ad-hoc  

Katie walks up to Dani and asks if she fancies grabbing pizza for an early lunch. Or popping for coffee. Or getting a mid-afternoon ice cream. Whatever.

That’s fine, if your team’s mostly in the office. But when half your team is remote, that becomes exclusionary, because the remote workers can’t accommodate ad-hoc in the same way.

  • 57% of people feel happier if they’ve got a best friend at work and 24% feel more productive. Social connection isn’t just important for morale – it’s important for the bottom-line.

💡💡 Instead, encourage your team to form habits that include everyone. Like, 11am’s a coffee and chat break, via Zoom so everyone can dial-in. 💡💡

Be intentional, not coincidental

You bump into Ravi on the stairs, so think to invite him onto a new client call for that afternoon – great. But then Tara finds out Ravi was invited and she wasn’t. From your perspective, inviting Ravi was a coincidence.

But for Tara, it’s a sure sign of preferential treatment. Maybe you don’t like her! Maybe you don’t rate her professionally! Don’t you know, she’s been carrying Ravi for weeks?! And Ravi’s nowhere near as good with clients as her!

💡💡 Instead, be intentional – because coincidence is typically an in-office privilege. And communicate your decision-making so there’s no perceived unfairness. 💡💡

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Normalize conflict (to enable resolution)

So, imagine you’ve invited Ravi to your new client call (not because you bumped into him but because the client account aligns best to his background) but Tara’s still feeling all the things above.

She doesn’t want to be difficult so she keeps her feelings to herself. She thinks she’s done a good job of burying them. Except, those feelings surface in her snarky tone next time Ravi needs something. And her overworking to the point of burnout to turn around your opinion of her.

  • The average US company loses a full day of productivity each month to unresolved conflict. 60% of employees have never received basic conflict management training – but of those who did, 95% said the training helped them navigate conflict positively and secure mutually beneficial outcomes.

And soon, perhaps you have a team engagement problem that’s really hard to unravel – but it could’ve been stopped its tracks.

💡💡 Instead, normalize conflict. Create a psychologically safe space for your team to raise issues – because then you can resolve, before problems spiral. 💡💡

Make the most of once-in-a-lifetime change 

This hybrid model might be our reality for a while yet. Research like Dr. Ben Waber’s suggests it’s far from ideal – but hey, there’s never been anything like coronavirus before to spur change.

💡💡 If managers handle the situation well, this could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to completely change how the business works, to work better for everyone. 💡💡

Companies invest millions in creating great experiences around their biggest transitions (like onboarding and parental leave) but those impact less than 10% of the workforce each year. Reboarding is a one-off opportunity to impact 100% of the workforce at once. 

Download our Return to Work Playbook now to maximize that impact, for your people and for the business.  

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