Global Business Culture has been running corporate training programmes on Managing Global Virtual Teams for major global companies for more than fifteen years and when the pandemic hit in 2020, those same companies came back to us to ask us to develop in-house development programmes on Managing Remote and Hybrid Teams.
We were able to use our 15-year experience of working on the issues around virtual working to help us shape some great learning experiences and, as a result, we have run more than 100 programmes on the topic of Managing Remote and Hybrid Teams for a variety of clients across multiple sectors and across multiple geographies.
This means that we have worked with more than 2000 managers during the past year or so – ranging from the most senior of leaders through to team leaders.
In the training programmes we have run we start by asking participants two pretty simple questions:
What are the benefits of working remotely and hybrid working?
What are the challenges of remote and hybrid working?
As you can imagine, we have had some interesting responses and discussions along the way, and I thought other organisations might benefit from hearing about what we are being told by the people who are actually currently going through this ‘future working’ wave right now.
We have tried to be assiduous in capturing the feedback we have had during these discussions and have extracted the most common experiences which have been relayed to us – which we set out below in this blog post. We have not included everything and some of the points may seem a little contradictory which I think reflects how many managers are currently feeling.
Not surprisingly, the inter-personal issues are the one which most seem to resonate with today’s management population and therefore these pieces feature most heavily in this report.
The Benefits of Working Remotely and Hybrid Working
There is a feeling amongst the management populations we are working with that the enforced move to remote and then hybrid working models has forced the pace of technological advancement within corporations which otherwise might have taken years to come to fruition. This advancement in technology has had two main impacts:
Companies have been forced to invest heavily in technology – they simply had no alternative – and improvements have been approved quickly and deployed as speedily as creaking supply chains would allow.
Individuals have been forced to upskill rapidly across a range of technologies. A common comment has been, ‘We’ve had video meetings technology for years, but we never really used it – nobody liked it.’ Almost overnight, people were forced into a ‘work from home using technology’ situation and found themselves in a sink or swim situation. Technology was no longer a threat but a necessity of life.
The opportunity for a hybrid working environment, that is to work from home on a more regular basis, is almost universally seen as a good thing amongst the managers we have met. Not one manager has stated that they would prefer to be back in the office full-time (although this was not the case amongst the team members we have worked with where quite a few younger employees have expressed a desire to be far more office-based again.)
Working on a more consistent basis from home is seen as presenting a myriad of opportunities and benefits for both organisations and individuals. (We class these benefits as ‘environmental’ in its widest meaning.) The most common issues raised were:
No more commute. I can’t recall one person lamenting the loss of the commute although many people did recognise that the commute home was somewhat beneficial as a ‘break’ between work and home. Surprisingly, the issue of personal cost-saving was less frequently expressed than the pleasure found in the time-saving element of not having a daily commute.
Greater flexibility. Flexibility is definitely seen as a benefit with the ability to organise work schedules around other commitments (school runs, home deliveries, dentist appointments etc.) being cited as a real improvement in terms of quality of life.
Fewer interruptions. Although people miss the ‘water cooler’ moments (see below under the Challenges section), there was a general feeling that people can be more focused on tasks as they are not constantly interrupted by people stopping at their desk for a chat. This was generally seen to lead to higher levels of productivity.
Access to talent. It is recognised that, as companies become less and less geographically restricted in terms of recruitment, there could be a benefit in terms of talent acquisition in the long term.
Corporate costs savings. It is felt that a more flexible approach to the working environment should result in cost savings at the corporate level. The most often quoted example of this was through the reduction in real estate costs. However, when pressed, few managers were able to come up with many examples where cost-savings can be achieved, and more education needs to be done in this area.
Carbon footprint. Most people seem to be excited at the possible positive green benefits which could result from less commuting, less international business travel etc. Again, not many people were able to articulate how these green benefits of working remotely might be achieved other than through a reduction in the amount of travel being done by office-based workers.
The remote and hybrid working model is still quite a new development for many managers and therefore they are still trying to figure out the work-related benefits of this new system. This freshness might explain why they often struggle to articulate how their team members can benefit from this new way of working beyond the environmental issues highlighted above. Therefore, this section is relatively short but accurately reflects what has been discussed on our training programmes.
Greater empowerment.As people are working in more remote environments, they have been left to work on issues unsupervised to a much greater extent. The boss is no longer in the same room and so employees have needed to take on more responsibility.
Better levels of problem-solving. If you aren’t surrounded by more experienced, more knowledgeable people it becomes necessary to work through problems on your own. People who were previously reticent to take the initiative are now stepping up to the plate.
More empathy. The pandemic has been difficult for everybody, but it has been difficult in different ways. This seems to mean that employees are generally exhibiting greater levels of understanding and empathy to teammates.
Improved retention. Attrition rates seem to have been lower within many organisations which has been helpful in terms of keeping teams together throughout the pandemic period (although whether this will continue post-pandemic is a frequent point of discussion.)
The Challenges of Working Remotely and Hybrid Working
Technological challenges featured prominently in the feedback received from managers – which is hardly surprising as the foundation of being able to operate in a hybrid environment is actually a solid technological infrastructure. Although most people recognise that technology has improved beyond all recognition in the past ten years or so, there is also an acknowledgement that much more needs to be done before hybrid working becomes a completely seamless methodology. Some of the remote work challenges encountered are of a macro-economic nature (lack of decent bandwidth for example) whereas other problems were much more company-specific. A snapshot of the most common issues raised would be:
Internet access: Inconsistent access to reasonable internet connectivity amongst a team can severely impact on an individual contributor’s ability to play a full role within the team. These bandwidth discrepancies can result in certain individuals not being able to deliver on time but also mean that other team members face extra stress because they have to take up the work which should have been done elsewhere. This seems like an almost intractable challenge until fast broadband access is universal.
Real-time tracking: One of the major concerns expressed by managers was around the difficulty of knowing what team members were actually doing on a day-to-day basis. There was much discussion about the need for real-time tracking software which can monitor the output of individual contributors contrasted with a feeling that such software could be seen as intrusive and therefore become potentially counter-productive. Nonetheless, the concern expressed by managers about the lack of visibility in a hybrid environment was a real one.
Technology fatigue: There was a genuine concern expressed over people’s ability to work exclusively through technology. ‘Zoom fatigue’ has been much talked about but weariness with constant connection via one form of technology or another is an issue that would seem to need urgent address by companies. The move from a fully remote working environment to a hybrid approach should help this to a degree, although hybrid meetings are likely to remain in a video-based environment if not all team members are present in the office location.
It would seem that the changed working environment produced by the move to remote working and then latterly to a more hybrid model has created a whole raft of environmental challenges for the hybrid manager. These environmental issues seem to place additional burdens on managers and in some cases are in danger of leading to manager burn-out. In addition, many of these environmental challenges of remote working also need addressing at the strategic level by any organisation which is moving to a hybrid future, and we hope that the points outlined below will help companies frame those strategic discussions. (The danger going forward will be when a company just tries to ‘go with the flow’ and ‘see what happens’ without investing the appropriate amount of thought, time and investment in the early stages.)
Key environmental issues raised have been:
Lack of spontaneity: There is no doubt that remote and hybrid working reduces the number of spontaneous interactions available within a team environment. The famous ‘water-cooler’ moments have gone, people no longer bump into people in the lift, and you can’t grab a quick coffee with a colleague to talk through an issue in a convivial atmosphere. Although the loss of such activities could be said to have some productivity benefits, those benefits would seem to be far outweighed by the downside. How will teams fill the creativity gap left by the loss of in-person interactivity? This is a key question that needs to be addressed in a world where innovation and change will be the twin keys to future success. How can we ensure that managers are able to create environments where brainstorming and challenging the status quo can flourish in a hybrid world?
Onboarding: The challenge of onboarding is an issue that is exercising the attention of most managers and which, from the work we have done, seems to be demanding a disproportionate amount of management bandwidth. New joiners are critically important – they are the lifeblood of any organisation – but if the onboarding process soaks up management time, this will inevitably impact on other areas of team performance. The effective onboarding of new joiners in a way that helps both new employees and managers is a matter of critical importance and one which needs a great deal of thought.
Lack of networking: Companies have complained for decades that they operate in silos and that the impacts of that approach are detrimental to the business. In fact, this seems to have been a significant problem even when everybody worked together in the same office. There is genuine concern that this problem will be made worse in a hybrid environment where people have much less opportunity to network with others from outside their own close-knit team.
Retention issues: Managers cited the ability to attract talent from a wider geographic area as a potential benefit of the ‘new normal’ but also thought that this would potentially leave them, and their team members open to headhunting from far-flung competitors. This danger was cited as a reason why huge efforts would need to be made to keep key employees motivated and engaged with the business.
Physical working environment. Many people quoted the idea that when working in a hybrid environment, ‘we are all in the same boat, but some people’s boats are a lot bigger than others’. It is undoubtedly true that while some team members have extremely comfortable home working environments, others do not and that these differences can lead to inequalities within a team. There were a lot of discussions, for example, around whether these differences in working environment should be factored into appraisals.
Switching off: The counterpoint to the gains made from having no commute is the fact that working from home seems to make it difficult to switch off at the end of the day. People often quote the joke ‘Can you remind me, am I working from home or living at work?’ The reasons why managers end up working longer hours in a hybrid environment are complex and multi-faceted (I intend to write a separate article on this) but it seems that managers are spending so much time on team activities, 1-2-1s, meetings etc. that their own individual tasks get pushed to ‘the side’ – and ‘the side’ often translates as early mornings, evenings and weekends. This is an issue that needs urgent attention if we don’t want to see large-scale management burn-out and a rise in mental health problems in the coming months and years.
Managers seem to recognise that people within their teams are experiencing a variety of personal challenges and that addressing these types of remote work challenges adds extra pressures onto the shoulders of managers in hybrid environments. Managers are desperate to do the best thing by the people in their teams and to ensure that their teams continue to deliver against their goals and objectives but are struggling to know how to best adjust to managing in a hybrid environment – given the fact that most of them learnt their managerial skills in a co-located, office environment. This section could actually fill a book, but we have tried to condense the feedback to a few easily digestible areas:
Inter-team communication: It seems to be difficult to ensure that the whole team continues to communicate with each other and that there is a real danger of cliques forming within teams (more so than in an office-based environment.) The fact that all communication is through technology can be a disincentive to communicate and this can lead to falling levels of communication over time.
Need for context: It is recognised that team members need to be given context around the work they are being asked to do and that this need for context-giving is greater within a remote or hybrid team than in an office-based team (because of the lack of the ability to simply overhear what is going on.) However, the need to be constantly motivating people by giving them such background context is a real drain on a manager’s time. Over time, these demands (which compete with other demands) can mean that context-giving gets forgotten or overlooked. (This may seem a small issue, but it isn’t – it can lead very quickly to team members feeling disengaged and demotivated.)
What to prioritise: With so many competing demands on the manager’s time it can be difficult for them to know what or who to prioritise at any given point. This challenge is exacerbated by the reduced visibility that results from remote and hybrid working. What exactly is behind schedule at any one point and which team members might be struggling and need extra support?
Communication overload: Team members tend to communicate more with managers in a hybrid environment than in an office-based environment – this might seem counter-intuitive, but it is true. Again, the reasons for this are various but in essence, fall into two categories – firstly remote workers lose sight of who is responsible for what and the easy response is to route everything through the manager and the second is that people feel they are not getting enough attention from their manager and grab at any opportunity for contact. Either way, managers can become overwhelmed by seemingly trivial information.
Career management: Managers worry that they cannot help team members manage their career progression as well as effectively as they would like. They cannot as easily see when somebody is ready for the next step, and they feel less linked to internal job opportunities which arise within the organisation. This whole issue of career management within hybrid teams is an area that will need a great deal of thought in the coming year or so.
What became apparent over the course of the many training programmes we have run is that managers are crying out for support and advice on how to best adjust their management approach to the demands of the future hybrid team environment. Many managers expressed real relief in being able to share the challenges of remote working and frustrations they have felt over the last year or so with colleagues. We had lots of comments along the lines of, ‘It has been such a relief to discuss these issues – I thought it was only me that was finding this tough.’
The move to hybrid working is possibly the most significant corporate event of the past few decades and how each company plans for this new future will go a long way to determining the winners and losers in this process. Although the issues discussed above are, by no means, a definitive list of the benefits and challenges of hybrid working, we hope it will help organisations and inform some of their thinking when it comes to remote working solutions.
We would be delighted to discuss any of these ideas with you in more detail and to explain the value-add we feel we can bring to organisations as they navigate their way through the ‘future of work.’
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