Leading Hybrid Teams Forever

 

As we start to return to the office, we want to embed what we’ve liked about homeworking but also re-establish the office as a collaboration hub.

However, we’ll need to manage remote teams forever as we all realize that the five-day office week is no longer sustainable for us, our employer, or the environment.

As leaders, we need to ensure our teams remain productive, settled, and well, and we need to learn how to start, steer, deliver and end work with permanently remote teams.

Here are some tactics I’ve implemented that sustain my teams on four continents, which you can take and bend to your leadership style.

Whatever else you do, introduce structure into your day and insist your teams do too. I do this by bookending my days. I start at my desk, fully clothed and ready to go with my 07:30 UK time call with my Indian team.

Starting at my desk at the same time every day is critical for me. I sit at my desk, fully dressed and having had breakfast at the same time as I would have had I traveled to the office. I then have a series of calls across continents to talk to my direct reports before wrapping up at 17:30 to get ready for my evening gym class. So overall, that’s 50hrs per week plus my Sunday reporting. Yes, you work more hours at home, but structuring it well can make it sustainable.

Other team members work afternoons and evenings, swap child care with their partners, including cello lessons or exercise into their day, and otherwise make it work for them. The key to sustainability is a robust and consistent structure and ensuring that you work around each other.

Whilst it’s more challenging when you’re not together, getting to know each other is still part of being a team. It fosters trust, makes you feel part of something, and as a leader, it makes it much easier to lead people you know and who know you. My team (current c.60) regularly do Petchkuchas, people bingo (find someone else who has been to the same place on holiday, etc.), open floor feedback sessions, and start meetings with five minutes of chat. Small things add up quickly into a team spirit.

Sadly, I learned way too late in life that the less exercise you do, the more tired you get. However, as a convert to the cult, I can verify that you need to build regular exercise into your regime. My Apple Watch is an expert at nudging me and tracking what I’m doing, so I feel I get a good balance over the week and weekend. However, if you’re constantly in meetings, how do you build this into your day?

Because I spend a lot of my day on calls (between 13 and 17 of them on an average day), I have invested in a Bluetooth headset, which means I’m not at my desk for hours on end. I have also created a standing desk area where I can work without being on my bottom and invested in Pilates bands to stretch my core whilst talking. Yes, that’s the odd noise you can hear if you’re on a call with me.

Find something that works for you, and encourage your teams to do the same.

Never before have I found my ‘dad humor’ to be more in demand, but laughter is a critical part of the day. Whether on Zoom, with your colleagues, family, or housemates, make sure you have fun and make the most of what you have. We have found that allocating the first 5 minutes of every meeting to sharing stories — particularly cross-cultural stories is an excellent way to bring regular smiles.

If you have the kind of role that doesn’t typically require many meetings, make them up. They don’t need to belong but make them regular. Everybody in my team is part of at least one team call per day (the check-in).

As a manager, make sure nobody in your team is accidentally ‘left out’ or goes days without contact.

There are two fundamental lessons we’re finding on learning:

  • Learning is a habit, and habit requires routine, and routine needs structure — and if you have followed the structure advice, you can create it. So whenever you choose to learn, incorporate it into your day and preferable at a point in the day that will still exist as learning time in the office. I write quite a bit about learning, so I won’t repeat myself but set an objective that makes sense for you and regularly reviews it. As a manager, provide the space and expectation that your team will learn and set a good example yourself.
  • Learning makes you incompetent. Of course, it does; otherwise, you wouldn’t be learning. But there’s an important consideration here, and that is that with a prolonged recession possible over the next few years, you might not want to suddenly feel ‘incompetent’, particularly if you’re expanding your skills in an area in which you work. But don’t let that worry you. It’s difficult to find a downside in learning new skills, so build in the time, choose an objective and go for it.

I spent a long time in 2020 learning about learning, which I have summarised here, but the summary is that routine and structure are at the center of any learning strategy.

Sleep is a constant topic of conversation, so worth mentioning again. There is so much advice on sleep and why it’s critical. In a work context, the direction (and practice) is simple. Set 2 alarms. One to go to bed and one to get up. By all means, sleep in at the weekends, but still set the alarm and only sleep in by a little. As we move to a new reality of some days in the office and some at home, keep your sleep routine constant.

Of course, a consistent sleep routine is just another way of saying ‘create a structure and stick to it’, so if you see your team messaging at weird hours, raise it. I saw one of my project managers emailing at very late hours a few weeks ago, and when we discussed it, it turned out that she wasn’t sleeping and hadn’t considered it before. She’s now focusing on getting a routine herself.

A few months ago, we had an issue that could have scuppered a key milestone, but by 08:45 the morning after, we had assembled a team to work on it, which had a pathway to a resolution within a day. What impressed me (apart from how good a team I have) was how much satisfaction we all got from using our whole brains to solve a problem.

Even though this problem needed people in the UK, Netherlands, and India, we were all on it and fixed it.

What whole-brain activities can you do remotely with your team?

Much more than in the office, when you’re remote, it can be difficult to be explicit in asking your team to do work. When you’re together, you can draw, share context and explanations in real-time, and whilst it’s still possible to do that remotely, it is more challenging.

So, don’t leave anything to chance. Ensure you take time to set your team to work and be clear on expectations for when something needs to be delivered and check in with them.

They will also find it more challenging, so they may need you to unblock issues that don’t exist when you’re together in the office.

A simple format shared with me for setting teams to work is as follows:

  1. Set the context of your ask — why this and why now?
  2. Describe the purpose of what you want your team to achieve — how will it be used?
  3. Describe any critical details — timing, cost, stakeholder sign-off, etc.
  4. Set constraints — what’s the limit of the team’s decision-making power, and when do they need to return to you?

If you use this format, then you’ll be more successful in not just ensuring your teams do the right work but that they do work right.

I know that when I go to the office, I lose up to three hours in the day to travel. Whilst I may be able to check emails on the train, it’s not a good work environment.

The office is also a distraction, which is good and bad, depending on the day. Whilst at home I can go from one cell to the next in under ten seconds, in the office it would be impossible because I need to spend more time ‘commuting’ between meeting rooms.

On the other hand, when I’m at home, I lose the instant productivity of being able to work on an issue on the whiteboard, and given my job as a leader is often to troubleshoot, I find that frustrating.

I know that this applies to my team too, so we’re working out how to make the balance work because there isn’t a binary choice between ‘home’ and ‘office’ or ‘good’ and ‘bad’. It’s just going to be different and unless you’re expecting the office to be full one day and empty the next, you will need to balance ‘collaboration days’ and ‘co-ordination’ days with your teams and expect different kinds of productivity on different days.

The world of work is unlikely to return to how it was, and we have to learn to work in a hybrid way successfully. As a leader, you need to blend strong operations with strong problem solving and strong creativity. That won’t happen with your team functioning poorly. Focus as much on your team as your product, and you’ll be on the right path.

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