The Complexity of Hybrid Engagement
The concept of a hybrid work model gained momentum about 18 months ago.
And as companies began to explore it, the buzz from HR teams was this is going to get complicated. And they were right. At this point, very few managers have “mastered” it, and many employees are saying it’s clunky and not resetting the culture the way leaders hoped it would. And it’s still one of the top Google searches this year.
There’s a clear delineation between why one model was easy and the other is more difficult. The virtual model solved for individuals. There wasn’t a choice about the virtual setting as a way of working. Everyone was in it, and everyone adjusted to it. Interestingly, most companies said it worked. They gained efficiencies and felt that they were able to leverage individuals effectively. What most managers now say is that the team aspect suffered in a virtual setting. It was just harder, and in some cases not feasible, to keep employees connected to each other and leveraging the skills of each other. So, high productivity from individuals but much less collaboration across teams.
And that’s the shift with the hybrid model. Companies want to bring back the collaboration that helps processes evolve and improve as they moved forward. The complexity is that when companies opened their doors, few acknowledged the objective and the shift from individual focus to team focus. And companies didn’t give managers a lot of guidance on how to build team contracts. And managers need it. They learned so much in the last two years about managing to individual needs, and now they aren’t sure how to balance individual needs against team priorities. In order for hybrid models to work, the priorities of the team have to come first.
In our workshops, we talk about the difference in engagement of the work and engagement of individuals. Both are a part of setting the hybrid model, but the approach may differ between the work and the people.
To reset the engagement of teamwork, we coach managers to define the work of the team first. Build a visual representation of what the team does and the connection points that the team needs to integrate the work and deliver outcomes. The manager defines the connection points and the vehicle used to collaborate on work. Over the last two years, managers have jumped back into details to keep processes going. While managers had good connection to most employees, the employees didn’t have consistent and essential connection to each other. It’s time to pull out and let team members own the processes.
The manager sets the date, the time, the cadence and the process of teamwork. The employees drive the connection that comes from it. It’s the engagement of teamwork that allows us to learn from each other, build trust with each other and ultimately, leverage each other toward better outcomes.
Managers have to be unapologetic about putting the team first in the hybrid model and having new norms that are requirements for being on a team. If the team needs to meet in person on Mondays, then the team has to meet in person on Mondays. Interestingly, as we’ve worked with managers on defining the “team contract,” they aren’t getting the resistance that they thought they would. That’s because we don’t need to reset to how we worked two years ago, and most people welcome the connection back to the team. Employees are adjusting to new expectations, and many admit that the shift to hybrid wasn’t as dramatic as they feared.
But will the culture reset if different teams have different contracts? How can managers continue to drive personal connection with employees that they don’t see regularly? The connection part is proving to be the toughest part of the hybrid model. It was the toughest part of the virtual model, and it remains amongst groups that don’t get together regularly.
Managers sure tried. From virtual games, to wine tastings, competitions and hobby huddles, they did it all. It’s just hard to accept that looking at a screen can deliver the same energy and engagement as sitting across from someone. It worked for a while when life was virtual, and the screen connection was the only connection we had. But life has reset. People are out in restaurants, seeing friends and family in person. Ironically, for many employees, the work group is the only one they don’t see regularly. Managers who try to set virtual connection points are competing with the in-person connections that have returned to all other parts of life.
To reset engagement with people, we need to acknowledge that virtual connection isn’t as good. We get energy from being with people, and while different people like different doses of that energy, a virtual connection doesn’t deliver the same thing. Managers have to find ways to build connection into a team contract.
In-person connection fits easily in a local teamwork model because people are in the same location and getting meals together or planning events together comes easily. Many companies are returning to in-person meetings which creates an opportunity for those who aren’t in the same location to plan for touchpoints throughout the year. It’s an essential part of strengthening a culture, and if your team doesn’t have the opportunity to get together, you need to create it. Even global teams that are very far apart are finding ways to bring employees who live in the same country together so that everyone has the opportunity to reset, re-energize or begin relationships.
As managers and leaders ask for guidance on retaining employees, I often say that people leave companies as individuals. If their work environment and setting is always individual, the culture doesn’t have much of an impact on them. But they tend to stay with companies when they belong to a team or have friendships where they work. The company culture comes through in the people they know and the leaders they like to work with. We talked about this on a recent podcast, Resetting & Reducing Social Distance.
The hybrid model has more complexity, and to work well, it has to focus on the work of the team and the connection of individuals to each other.
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