As a very strange Summer begins to turn to Autumn many people’s thoughts are of a return. Return of children to school or University, return to the daily commute, return to leading office-based teams. But these are rarely if ever going to be returns to things as they were pre-Covid. And in our post-summer holiday conversations with clients one of the frequent subjects of concern is the new challenge of running hybrid teams, where some people are in the office with others still home-based.

Whatever your expectations for second waves of infection, or the timetable for an effective vaccine being rolled out, the likelihood is that many teams are going to have to find ways of working in a hybrid fashion – with some members being able to meet while others cannot – for many months to come. In our experience, whilst members of Boards and Exec teams have an appetite to get back into the same room as their colleagues there are number of practical and psychological challenges to overcome.

On-line meetings have proven remarkably good for dealing with transactional business, and people report how much more efficient they can be, as well as reducing travelling time for many. But teams who only meet remotely usually struggle with three things: building relationships (and bringing new people into the team); surfacing and managing conflicts; and sharing control across silos or with other organisations. These challenges can be put to one side for a while, and in many teams the focus on ‘emergency room procedures’ to keep the business operating has been a bonding experience, but over time the pressures begin to show and the need to find sustainable solutions to these three issues drives at least some of the team into a room together – even whilst others still have to ‘dial in’.

Lessons for leaders of ‘hybrid teams’

Reflecting on recent conversations we’ve distilled four lessons for leaders to consider when planning how to run a team that will have some members in the office and others working remotely.

  1. Planning hybrid team meetings needs more effort that either on-line or face to face. All the details require careful and innovative thought: the environment; the seating plans; the use of large screens for those members not physically present; the time for 1-to-1 conversations; the flow of the agenda; ways of balancing airtime for those in the room and those on screen, so that those at home are not treated as second class … So put plenty of time aside for planning
  2. Don’t over fill the agenda – especially in the first few meetings people will want time to re-connect, to voice views that may have been on their mind for months, to just be with old friends and to meet new members. Teams need time to re-confirm their relationships and express their views honestly.
  3. Explore the ground rules for how your hybrid meetings can flex and will evolve in response to changes in the progress of the pandemic and in changes to the needs of the business.
    • So can people choose to participate remotely, or is this fixed by role?
    • will some subjects be much better handled with a high proportion of people in the room and are people prepared for this?
    • what will trigger a return to either 100% remote working or 100% attendance? etc.
  4. Set expectations of finding a new starting point for the team, this isn’t going back to ‘as you were’. So, you’ll need to:
    • make space for and welcome new members of the team – and adapt ways of team working for those with new roles
    • listen to what individuals have learned from the last 5 months and what lockdown has meant to them – and be prepared for some surprises
    • identify the conflicts/more intractable issues that you’ve not been able to resolve whilst working remotely – name them and prioritise them, but don’t try to tackle them all in your first hybrid meeting
    • re-confirm the purpose of the team and its objectives – as the mid-term future is likely to be uncertain, this may mean pulling the horizon closer and setting quite short-term team objectives to monitor progress against.

Moving to lockdown was very hard work for many teams but moving to a hybrid model is in some ways more complex. Rather than bringing the team together as the emergency did for some, hybrid working has the potential to split a team. And it’s the leader’s job to hold the team together through thoughtful team meetings and sensitive communication that avoids excluding those who are still working from home as we all move through the next phase of this pandemic.