Connecting in a hybrid environment

Creating connections that last in hybrid working environments is one of HR’s main challenges, argues Guy Lubitsh.

There is no doubt hybrid working is here to stay. Companies including Ericsson and Citigroup have announced their intention to make it business as usual, and even those who are keen to get people back in the office, such as Netflix and Goldman Sachs, are retaining some level of virtual working.

Managing this shift successfully presents managers with a number of challenges – not least how they can facilitate effective communication and connection within teams when face-to-face opportunities are less and people are dispersed in their dining rooms.

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Resentment can arise, for example, if there is perceived unfairness in the way work is being shared, or the feeling there is a lack of a level playing field between remote workers and those who are mostly office-based, when it comes to promotion or plum projects.

The loss of opportunities for corridor or water-cooler conversations is also causing concern. It is much harder, for example, for new starters to get a sense of how we do things around here, or for more junior staff to seek informal advice or find mentors.

We are hard-wired genetically to prefer face-to-face communication, and research has shown that new-style working arrangements are leading to a decline in our general feelings of connectedness.

A recent article in Harvard Business Review cites a survey by Boston researchers showing that 70% of workers are feeling lonely and suffering side effects like depression and anxiety.

So what can HR do to support and upskill managers, so they can build more connected teams in hybrid environments?


Build psychological safety

Employees need to know that they can be themselves and express their views without consequences. Power is more pronounced in a digital working environment. HR has a role to play in helping managers become more aware of the power dynamics in the virtual space and how this affects the way people speak up – or stay silent.


Reset expectations

HR can help managers think through the ground rules for new ways of working. How might roles within their teams change? What are the overt, as well as hidden expectations about workload and the amount of time spent physically present in the office?

What channels will people use to communicate, and how often? Will there be any changes to performance management processes? At a time of uncertainty and as new working practices bed in, employees need to be clear about boundaries and expectations.


Hold open forums

Meetings naturally tend to focus on the business aspect of organisational life. We discuss goals, action plans and financial results. But employees also need informal spaces where they can talk openly about their personal experience of hybrid and any anxieties about what the new normal means for them.

HR could consider facilitating open forums in which employees can share what may be difficult emotions around the changes and talk about what’s working – and what’s not – when it comes to hybrid.


Reinforce relationships

Microsoft research found that companies that provide bonuses for internal relationship building activities had employees with higher levels of job satisfaction and happiness. Reinforcing the legitimacy of time spent on connecting and collaborating is important – whether that is through formal reward and recognition or through initiatives such as internal buddy systems.


Don’t avoid conflict

Avoiding difficult conversations is easier in the virtual space. But if issues are allowed to fester, people become anxious and stressed, productivity declines and morale and motivation can take a downturn. HR can help by offering managers training in how to manage conflict and handle difficult or challenging conversations.


Avoid creating internal stories

When we are physically distant, we miss out on the subtle nuances of body language and conversational cues. As a result, we often compensate by creating our own internal version of the situation.

Managers need to find ways to deepen their connection with their people, so that they can see the difference between what is real (facts and information) and what is not (suppositions and fears).


Train managers in virtual working styles

Managing people in the virtual space is not the same as leading a team in a conventional face-to-face environment. HR cannot assume that managers automatically know how to do this well.

Our recent research highlighted that managers are hungry to learn new skills around how to maintain effective connections with dispersed teams.


Guy Lubitsh is professor in leadership and psychology at Hult International Business School (Ashridge).