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7 Tips for Leading Hybrid and Remote Teams

Being a remote leader tests you as a leader in all the right ways: It forces you to be more human.

By Gustavo Razzetti

February 9, 2022

What successful remote leaders do differently

A lot of managers are hesitant about remote work. While many leaders worry that their culture has weakened, in reality, they are blaming remote work for preexisting issues. Remote work simply magnified what was already broken. Resistance has nothing to do with working remotely but with fear itself.

Most leaders are struggling with a hybrid workplace. They are afraid of failing. They are scared of losing control. They're afraid of being vulnerable and admitting that they don't know what it takes to effectively lead a remote team.

The typical traits valued in leaders – confidence, charisma, and extroversion – don't translate into virtual leadership. Research shows that people prefer those who take care of people and culture, foster interpersonal connections, provide help and resources, and, most importantly, get things done. Basically, leaders who are dependable,  productive, and helpful.

"It's kind of exciting if you think about it," says Barbara Larson, executive professor of management at Northeastern University and a leader on virtual team research. "Suddenly, it's not just about who talks the most, but rather, who is actually getting stuff done."

The following seven tips can help leaders adapt and succeed in a remote workplace.

1. Trust more than it feels comfortable

Trust takes time and energy to build. Working remotely, it takes longer to get to know each other compared to collocated colleagues. Even worse, a lack of trust can result in weaker social capital.

For most leaders, when a new colleague joins the team, the trust battery starts at around 50%. To increase that trust level, new members must prove that they are trustworthy through their behavior. The problem is that 50% is not enough.

Trust is a two-way street. Leaders must take the first step and supercharge their trust battery. They must trust their team more than feels comfortable

As Brenna Loury, CMO at Doist, writes, "The most important lesson you can imbue in a new team member is that trust is assumed, not earned." She suggests a list of gestures that managers can make to make to help the new person feel trusted from day one:

• Simply, be available

• Communicate honestly and frequently

• Assign meaningful work to new members

• Clearly define expectations from day one

• Encourage people to get to know each other

Working in a hybrid environment requires trusting employees more than ever.

2. Take care of the culture, not the work

The Great Resignation has become the Great Reshuffle: people are reconfiguring their relationship with work. Globally, nearly seven in 10 respondents said they demand a flexible work schedule. Another study shows that people are leaving horrible cultures and 83% of workers said they could do their job without their managers

The role of the manager needs to be revisited in a hybrid workplace. Continuation of the player-coach role is bound to fail. Managers can't be both a player and a coach.

Business leaders could borrow some inspiration from sports coaches. The latter build a strong team and a winning culture, but they don't play the match – the team does.

Great remote leaders focus on building the right environment. They take care of the culture, not the work. And trust that people will do what it takes.

As team coach Emily Bond said, "I would get back to basics and encourage the leader to revisit norms and agreements as a team. How might norms need to evolve to better suit hybrid? Has each team member shared what's working and what isn't? What is the team committed to changing?"

Great leaders take care of the culture so that their teams can focus on playing

3. Feel the pain to feel the gain

Managers are responsible for leading their teams during the workplace transformation, modeling new collaboration practices. If leaders want to transition to asynchronous-first collaboration, they must first demonstrate the right mindsets and behaviors themselves.

As Douglas Flory, change management lead at GoTo, wrote: "Are leaders being intentional in their decision to be hybrid or just defaulting to it? Successful adoption requires more than an official declaration to be hybrid."

This statement couldn't be more accurate. Leaders preach the benefits of remote work but are the first to want to return to the office. They also tend to favor team members who work (primarily) at the office, creating an unequal environment. There are two different experiences: one for collocated and another for remote employees.

Working remotely provides multiple benefits, allowing people to define their own schedule, choose who they work with, etc. However, a lack of fairness needs to be addressed.

Leaders must be more intentional about creating an even experience for every employee, including equal access to leaders, career opportunities, learning and development, and belonging. It's not that everyone should get the same but to provide equal opportunities.

Leaders should get out of the office – to remove themselves from their comfort zone. They need to empathize with their employees. Leaders must experience the whole remote experience – not just a part of it.  

As John Chappel, portfolio manager at Capita Software, shared with me: "Try working remotely yourself, not just for one day, but for at least three, ideally five. It will give you a feel for the challenges and the benefits."

We both agree that to really empathize with employees. Leaders should experience the actual pain. For example, working from their kitchen table with a low-speed internet, no extra childcare, and no delivered lunch.

4. Embrace the unknown

It's okay to feel lost and unsure about how to do remote right. When Torben Friehe and Yann Leretaille started Wingback – a pricing plan management platform – they were a bit lost.

Their previous venture was fully collocated. The co-founders actually swore they would never run a remote organization. However, the reality of the workplace was different in 2021. It was pretty clear that hiring a qualified team in a single location would be more challenging than before. The pandemic was definitely a barrier. But, most importantly, people didn't want to let go of the flexibility associated with remote work.

"We were very afraid about having to lead a team remotely," Yann was brave enough to admit. The duo realized that their approach had to be different, but they didn't know where to start. They hired a head of remote to help set up and define the norms and practices to work in a 'default to async' approach.

It took them time and experimentation to get it right – and they're still iterating.

Moshe Mikanovsky, senior product manager at Procom, recommends, "Try and adjust. Don't plan it all upfront to death! It will work differently for you than it will for other companies. Do it in baby steps. See what works and what not (retrospectives are useful for this)."

Leaders must embrace the unknown of a rapidly changing way of working – to get it wrong before they can get it right.

5. Give agency, not options

Organizations are still confused about what flexibility really means for employees. Choosing where to work from is just one part of the experience. The ability to decide when and whom to work with is even more important.

Unfortunately, companies keep putting emphasis on the location aspect, thus creating buckets that define roles that are fully-remote, hybrid, or fully in-office. This rigid approach only creates unequal experiences: why can some people work from home when others have to commute to the office?

Flexibility is not about offering buckets, as Citibank and others did. People want to be in charge. They want to have agency to build their work life around their personal life – not the other way around.

As Marissa Goldberg told me: "People appreciate the flexibility and perks of remote work. Not only can they choose where to work from but with whom. Rather than being surrounded by people you didn't choose to work with, you can be at home alone, with other people in a coworking space, at a friend's house, or a coffee shop with other remote workers."

Similarly, pre-defining which days people should be in the office emphasizes presentism over impact. The question is not how often people should be at the office, but why they need to meet in person or not.

6. Don't be a hero, be human

We have an unhealthy relationship with the idea of leadership that's harmful for leaders and team members alike. For decades, we were taught to see leaders as heroes who are here to save the day. From movies and management books to Internet quotes and TED talks, we've been spoon-fed a romanticized view of what being a leader really is.

We don't need heroic leaders but human beings who take care of people.

As Hortense le Gentil wrote in Harvard Business Review, "These leaders appeared to be born hero leaders, naturally endowed with supreme intelligence, coming up with brilliant ideas and directives from the mountaintop that lower echelons were then expected to execute. The pandemic has highlighted what was already becoming clear before the emergence of the virus: that hero leaders are no longer what companies need."

So, how does it take to shift from hero to human?

"The role of leaders is to take care of people, not to pass orders or be the hero," le Gentil told me. "Leaders need to stop trying to be the fixer." Instead of being the ones who solve all the problems, leaders need to become better at listening, paying attention, and being fully present. Sometimes, people need time and support, not a solution."

Have a non-meeting: a space to talk about people, not work. Make space for people to share how they are doing – their fears and challenges. Just be there and listen.

Executive coach Debra Sabatini recommends: "For starters, ask your people (1:1) how they're doing. Really. And then listen—without judging. Is anyone at the end of their "elastic limit" and needs immediate support? If you can't support their needs, help them get that support. Escalate and ask for help."

7. Don't copy-paste the office into a remote workplace

Casual collaboration includes incidental and impromptu interactions with colleagues. It strengthens social bonds and shared values that enable trust and teamwork. Shallow collaboration often begins with a social focus that sparks an idea or uncovers issues to be addressed.

Well-designed casual collaboration plays a more significant role than simply bringing people together. It's the foundation of substantial social capital, building the base for deep collaboration.

The idea is not to recreate the watercooler but to create a better version. The "meeting after the meeting" or watercooler conversations were exclusive – they promoted talking behind people's backs, not collaboration.

Intentionally design casual conversations with an end goal in mind.

As Dr. Tasha Eurich, author of Insight, told me: "Avoid copy-pasting past practices into the new reality. What are you missing? What did those cultural interactions do for the team? Spell it out. Recreate the "what did it give us?" rather than "what was the activity."

Leaders must design opportunities for serendipity. In the workplace, impromptu encounters didn't happen just by chance. As Marissa Goldberg, founder of Remote Work Prep, explains, there are two big parts to serendipity: Structure and Permission. "Structure in the office you have to be at the specific time, at the specific building, and that's how you run into each other. Second, there was permission. Your employer made you feel safe enough to get up from your desk and grab a coffee and not be seen as a slacker."

Virtual coffee chats create opportunities to socialize with our colleagues without talking about work. Hobby-specific Slack channels are great for building connections among people with similar interests. Social calls with no set agenda strengthen bonding and facilitate the discussion of simple issues that colleagues can resolve right away.

Impromptu interactions should be designed with an end goal in mind but also be optional, not mandatory.

My new book Remote, Not Distant is out in June – join the waitlist and be the first to know.

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