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How to Manage the New Reality of Work: 5 Ways to Build a Strong Hybrid Culture

The future of remote work is hybrid. Adapting to this new scenario will be even messier than adopting remote work.

By Gustavo Razzetti

April 21, 2021

Regardless of if your team is remote, hybrid, or resident, it all boils down to culture  

Organizations are about to face another storm. A year ago, most companies were forced to adopt remote work. Now, adapting to a hybrid workplace will be even messier and more disruptive.

The future of work will be hybrid, as I wrote in a post back in June. I don’t take any credit for that, apart from having a bit of common sense. As happens with most disruptions, once things settle, we can observe both the good and bad in each model.

That’s precisely what employees want: the best of both worlds. A study by Microsoft found that 70 percent of workers expect flexible remote work options to continue, while a similar percentage crave more in-person time with their teams.

Another study shows that nearly one-third of employees would quit their jobs if they were told they were no longer allowed to work remotely. Companies are experimenting with creative incentives to attract new talent and keep existing ones.

However, building a strong hybrid team requires more than perks – success will demand a hybrid-ready culture. Here are five ways to build a strong hybrid culture.

1. Invest in Social Capital

A vital element of employee performance and engagement is the strength of inner relationships and networks.

Social capital shapes collaboration, innovation, and productivity. Strong interpersonal relationships are crucial for effective teamwork. Team members who are more than just colleagues have strong social capital ties. They are seven times more likely to be engaged in their jobs and more collaborative.

Author Margaret Heffernan believes that social capital is the secret ingredient that separates high-performing teams from regular ones. She defines it as, “The trust, knowledge, reciprocity, and shared norms that create quality of life and make a group resilient.”

Social capital includes small talk in the office, team members networking with clients or colleagues, or working together to tackle a pressing challenge.

Unfortunately, most teams have become more siloed than they were pre-pandemic. Social capital depreciated due to WFH, according to Microsoft’s annual Work Trend Index. People now feel disconnected from culture – especially younger workers and those new to a company. Connections with those close to them increased while interactions with other networks diminished.

When people are co-located, there are many accidental, incidental, and implicit communications that helps form strong bonds.

However, it’s harder to get to know your colleagues or spend time socializing when working remotely. Social capital must be grown more purposefully in a hybrid workplace – it should be a priority. If employees are in back-to-back Zoom calls or feeling overloaded, how can they build stronger relationships?

Start by assessing the strength of your relationships – both within the team and with other colleagues – that are critical for success. Rather than rushing meetings, make time for a check-in round to understand how people are feeling. Facilitate activities that allow employees to build human connections while having fun together. Design rituals to bring team culture to life in a hybrid workplace.

2. Rethink Psychological Safety in a Hybrid Workplace

It’s well known that psychological safety is crucial to building high-performing teams. The belief that one can speak up without the risk of humiliation or punishment is the foundation to healthy relationships, debate, decision-making, and innovation.

Working from home put team culture to the test – especially psychological safety for remote teams. We had to rethink how to promote collective trust from a distance. The challenges are more critical now. Hybrid work is adding another layer of complexity – the boundary between work and personal life becomes even more blurred.

As Amy Edmondson wrote here, managers have promoted psychological safety to facilitate candor and dissent with respect to work. Now, scheduling, staffing, and coordination decisions must take into account personal issues.

Some people don’t feel comfortable coming to the office. Many are still struggling with homeschooling and other personal dynamics. A large percentage have become used to working from home and don’t want to go back. Plenty are feeling excluded or penalized because of their personal situation.

To deal with this challenge, managers and team members must engage in conversations that touch on people’s identities, values, and personal choices.

Edmondson said, “The problem is, as the boundary between work and life becomes increasingly blurry, managers must make staffing, scheduling, and coordination decisions that take into account employees’ personal circumstances – a categorically different domain.”

A hybrid workplace will require a different level of psychological safety. Feeling included, encouraged to learn, or safe to participate is not enough. In order to experiment with new ways of collaborating and working, your team needs a new level of psychological safety – what Timothy Clark calls “Challenger Safety.” Stage 4 gives people permission to challenge the status quo.

Level the playing field for everyone, regardless of from where they are working. For example, those joining a meeting remotely should be the first to ask questions or share their ideas. Avoid the instinct to give preferential treatment to those who are in the office.

Zoom has announced a “smart gallery” feature that will make the multiple participants in the office appear as separate, equal-sized windows. Those working from home will see the individual faces of each colleague rather than just a view of the whole conference room.

Start by creating the right scene. Get your team together to address the tensions – both personal and collective – related to hybrid work. We are applying both the Cultural Tensions Canvas and the Uncover the Stinky Fish tool with our clients to unearth anxieties, fears, uncertainties, and – most importantly – what everyone is thinking, but no one is saying.

Have a candid team conversation. Map all the different tensions affecting the team and discuss them together. Never underestimate the power of people to find new solutions.

3. Focus on Learning, Not Performance

The challenges ahead will be much bigger and messier than moving to remote work. It will take many months for everyone to figure out the right hybrid model.

Organizations must adopt a trial-and-error approach. There’s no room for egos or for fights about who’s the smartest person in the room. Be ready to experiment and fail.

Take a cue from Microsoft. Satya Nadella realized that the intense focus on high-performance created a culture of inner fights rather than collaboration. The software company CEO is determined to build a culture of growth – he wants to replace “know-it-all” with a “learn-it-all” mindset.

Building a deliberately developmental culture requires a cultural shift. Rather than preserving the reputation as a high-performer, people must acknowledge that hybrid is foreign terrain.

As this HBR article explains, the pressure to be perceived as a high-performer takes a toll on people and culture. Performance-driven cultures promote fear and operate from a binary view where people are either “winners” or “losers.”

Building a learning organization requires:

  • The intellectual humility to lead with questions, not answers
  • A culture of ongoing, peer-to-peer feedback to help one another learn and grow
  • Mistake tolerance: experimenting with new behaviors and practices – evolving what works, discarding what fails

At Bridgewater, examining a failed investment decision goes beyond the root-cause analysis of data, decision criteria, and steps taken. It also involves self-reflection: “What is it about how you were thinking that might have led to an inadequate decision?” Bridgewater calls this approach “getting to the other side.”

Designing a culture of learning requires ongoing work. You must not only find the right balance between challenging and nurturing, but, most importantly, shift the mindset from scarcity to abundance.

Tony Schwartz said it best: “A performance culture asks, ‘How much energy can we mobilize?’ and the answer is only finite. A growth culture asks, ‘How much energy can we liberate?’ and the answer is infinite.”

Reflect with your team. What aspects of your culture got your team stuck when moving to remote work? What aspects of your culture helped your team adapt and collaborate remotely? What are the lessons that can be applied to a hybrid work experience?

4. Have a Shared Future

This doesn’t mean that team members must be aligned on everything. That’s a silly mistake: to expect people to agree on everything. However, sharing a future is critical in order to bring everyone together.

Remote work has added lots of complexity and bureaucracy. While many teams have experienced a level of agility they didn’t know they had, many others have suffered from control, silos, and too many meetings.

Having a shared future drives alignment and motivation. People want to be part of something bigger than themselves. A team purpose clarifies “why we want to work together”; it defines the impact everyone wants to create together. It also keeps people focused on the long-term vision without letting minutia become a distraction.

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos advocates for a relentless focus on long-term success. His approach: be stubborn on vision and flexible on details. Your team purpose should be firm and clear. How you get there, on the other hand, should be more flexible.

Disagree and commit is a crucial norm that Atlassian shares with Amazon. Cognitive diversity and cognitive friction - along with intellectual humility – are characteristics of dream teams, according to Shane Snow. Debate is both critical and necessary. However, once a decision is made, team members must commit to make the future happen. Everyone should align and push in the same direction.

5. Balance Freedom and Accountability

A hybrid workplace will demand massive coordination. Organizations need to finally start trusting their employees. Team members should have more than just a say in how things will work in this new scenario. The success of your hybrid team will require distributing authority – start by balancing freedom and accountability.

“Work appropriately” is GM’s new norm to deal with hybrid work. This play off of the automaker dress code (“Dress appropriately”) promotes both trust and flexibility. Its approach sends a message saying that the needs of each employee, project, and team are different.

Although I’m an advocate of fewer, simpler rules, I think the new reality requires more specific criteria.

Google has announced a flexible workweek – people will spend three “collaboration days” a week in the office, while working from home the other two.

Citigroup expects that about 50 percent of its employees will return to the office part-time by September. To prepare for the new reality, the financial services group categorized all jobs into three groups: “resident,” “remote,” or “hybrid” (the vast majority).

Citi has banned videoconferencing services on Fridays. It’s not the first and won’t be the last. Expect to see many more to jump on the no-meeting days' bandwagon.

The examples above acknowledge something critical: the notion of flexibility is context-dependent. When it comes to choosing how and where they will work, team members must consider a range of variables.

Individual preferences:

Each person works differently. Never before had people the opportunity to feel in control of how they want to work. Besides personal preferences related to health or trust issues, there are many variables to consider.

Is the commute a burden or a blessing? What are the living situations and how do they affect choices? What are the personal challenges, like homeschooling or lack of a proper space to work from home?

The challenge lies in fairly integrating all personal choices.  

The nature of collaboration:

Not all tasks are equal. Some may require working together and others individual, deep work. When it comes to collaboration, what activities require people to be in the same space and which do not?

The same applies to asynchronous and synchronous work. Some activities must be performed together simultaneously (such as a brainstorm or decision-making), but many others can be performed by individuals at their own pace.

Map all the key activities and have the team agree on the nature of collaboration. Check out the Hybrid Team Canvas, our framework to map and design collaboration in a hybrid team.

The characteristics of the project:

The complexity, nature, and timeline of any team project also affect how work gets done. Define the ideal patterns and rhythm.

How often should the team touch base? How many revisions will occur after each presentation? How will decisions be made? What happens when someone is not ‘present’? What are the documentation practices? Which aspects of the project must be addressed in person?

Team priorities:

What matters most to one team member might conflict with what matters to the team. Setting priorities not only aligns collective and individual expectations, but also provides clarity – a critical element for hybrid teams.

Clear priorities simplify decision-making, drive alignment, and minimize conflict. Team members, not managers, should define where they will put their focus, energy, and time. Managers can ensure that team priorities are aligned with those of the organization – they shouldn’t dictate how the team operates.

Ongoing feedback:

If constant experimentation – trying new things, adapting, and adjusting ways of working was vital before, it’s even more critical in a hybrid environment. Teams need to agree on how they will give feedback to each other and, most importantly, how they’ll assess what is or isn't working.

Team retrospectives should help your group improve their game and design how they play together. Regular, collective feedback practices should be clear and implemented.

Bonus: Have a No-Dickhead Rule

The transition to a hybrid workplace is a perfect moment to prune any team. A bad apple can spoil the barrel – and team members are more vulnerable when they aren't in the same room.

Adopt a no-bad-apple rule.

The All Blacks, New Zealand’s national rugby team, has a “No-Dickheads” policy. Gilbert Enoka, the mental skills coach, introduced this policy to neutralize inflated egos and to make everything about the team.

Removing bad apples from the team has helped the All Black achieve a fantastic winning streak — they won 87% of their international matches. The “no-dickheads” policy operates under a simple belief: you can’t be a great player on the field and a prick off it. You can have the best players in the world, but in the end, it all boils down to culture.

The US Navy SEALs also have zero tolerance for bad apples – they prioritize a healthy culture even over excellent individual performance. Teammates evaluate each other on performance  – how people perform on the battlefield – and on trust – what kind of person you are.

You don’t want a low-performance/ low trust team member. And that’s even more crucial when you don’t interact with your colleagues face-to-face all the time.

The Navy Seals are not alone. Organizations such as Slack, Atlassian, and Netflix don’t tolerate brilliant jerks either. They'd rather let go of a high performer than work with someone they can’t trust.

Keep Your Hybrid Culture Together (Even if Team Members Are Not Always Together)

If 2020 taught us anything, it’s that trying to predict how the future would look like is pointless. Rather than playing the guessing game, focus on building your own future. We all value belonging to a team – personal relationships matter (a lot).

However, people also feel powerful now that they can make choices. They don’t just have to adapt their lives to work – their job should consider their personal life, too.  

Designing the future of hybrid teams will require a lot of trial-and-error. Be ready to experiment and learn from all the mistakes your team will make along the journey. People need to learn how to integrate personal preferences with collective priorities.

Freedom and accountability are critical for success – let your team find its way.

Reach out if you need help designing a hybrid team culture.

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