Has Hybrid Work Killed Team Cohesion?
By Valentina Kibedi, Director of Learning Services, Laridae
This is Part I of a two-part series on hybrid team cohesion. Part II will appear in the October 2022 CSAE publication.
Think about your team right now. Would you say it has a high degree of cohesion? What about over the past two years? What about before that?
When we talk about cohesive teams, we’re referring to the ideal state when team members share bonds, feel connected, and remain united and productive in the pursuit of a common goal.
Cohesive teams are not easily driven apart by differences of opinion or misunderstanding and confusion of role or purpose. Why not? They’ve got processes to prevent these things. They’ve got confidence that their working relationships can withstand differences of opinion. Team members feel safe expressing unpopular viewpoints. They are clear on their responsibilities, committed to individual and shared priorities, and understand how to work together to get things done.
Where I work at Laridae, a consulting and training firm for non-profit organizations and associations, leaders are telling us that their teams have lost their working bond. That hybrid work has dissolved the glue that kept them working together as a unit. Teams that worked well side-by-side seem to be struggling now that they’re not consistently in the office 9-5 anymore. They are less efficient. They seem less motivated and slower to complete their work. They are making mistakes. They are pointing fingers, frustrated at the quality of their output.
While it may seem that hybrid work is to blame for disrupted team cohesion in your organization, consider the possibility that it isn’t.
Perhaps the underlying problems were always there. Perhaps they pre-existed in another form: lack of trust; inadequate psychological safety; fuzzy goals and unclear priorities; ineffective or incomplete communication.
- Hybrid work is not new. Granted, it is a work style new to many of us, but the model has existed in different forms across all sectors for some time.
- The struggle to improve team cohesion is not new. Leaders were working on team cohesion issues long before hybrid work models became commonplace.
Change of any sort has a way of throwing a spotlight on the weak parts of our teams and organizations. Perhaps hybrid is not a cause, but a catalyst.
This is good news!
It means we already have many of the tools and resources to address the issues. With a few simple adjustments, we can tailor existing wisdom to solve this newest iteration of common management challenges.
The fundamentals of what transforms a group of people into an exceptional team have not changed — even if they’re working in a new context of a hybrid or remote environment.
Is building culture harder in a hybrid environment?
One commonly raised concern is that the very concept of culture has died. We hear, “What does culture even mean if we’re no longer in the same place?” or “How are we supposed to do culture now?”
Many associations are dealing with staff turnover, growth, or a shift in focus that has moved people into new roles. It may not feel like the same place and bringing back what we thought of as “our culture” feels hard in a hybrid environment.
What’s making it feel so hard to build and maintain culture in a hybrid environment? Research suggests three main contributing factors.
People are either in, or out of the office. We are either included or excluded from onsite events, conversations, and resources. We are subject to proximity bias (our own or others’) wherein employees with close physical proximity to their team and leaders will often be perceived as better workers. Proximity bias brews a perception that in-person workers receive preferential treatment or may find more success in the workplace than their remote counterparts.
Isolation also leads to FOMO or, fear of missing out. Remote workers begin to fear what they’re missing – whether opportunities to advance their careers, further internal relationships, or gain access to resources that would improve their work.
All of this leads to issues of inequity which are difficult to overcome.
People are feeling disconnected from their organizations. We may sense a lack of shared purpose or fail to find common ground with colleagues.
People are confused about their roles or tasks. This is usually a sign of ineffective communication. Whether too much, too little, or whether the communication is simply imprecise, it just may not be landing as intended – especially for remote workers. We may not be privy to contextual cues leading to why a decision was made, or insight into judgement calls made in the moment. Without “back story” details, we may be dealing with conflicting, old, or incorrect information.
By identifying challenges compounded by hybrid, we can ensure greater focus in those areas as we map out a go-forward leadership strategy and improved management practices.
Let’s not lose sight of the good
Yes, hybrid work has made certain aspects of management more difficult, but it has also brought multiple improvements to our people and our workplaces.
Hybrid has provided many with the freedom to choose work arrangements that help them thrive. The flexibility has enhanced work-life balance, offered improved ability to focus, or even enabled more appropriate child or elder care scenarios.
It has also removed geographic, mobile, and physical barriers to work, making jobs more inclusive than ever.
Some clients who serve broad regions and have remote offices felt the pandemic levelled the playing field in terms of their ability to engage in meetings. Once everybody had to join virtually it enabled everyone to participate equally, without preference given to on-site attendees.
We’re also starting to see research that suggests that hybrid and flexible work arrangements have been especially beneficial to historically underrepresented groups, including Black, Indigenous, and people of colour, women and non-binary folks, and people with disabilities; as well as those with circumstances that made traditional work arrangements inaccessible, such as people with caregiving responsibilities, and returners to the workforce.
At a time when many association leaders are working to improve their policies and practices and embed equity, diversity, and inclusion throughout their organizations, it turns out hybrid can help.
Association leaders have an opportunity for increased breadth
In the in-person environments of the past, leaders tended to have a narrow band of people with whom they held deep relationships. In the new environment of hybrid, they may sacrifice some depth, but they are adding breadth.
Many leaders have been surprised about the benefits of this shift. They are now able to have connections across a broader span of the organization – beyond their direct leadership team, gaining greater insights into the organization than before.
It can be tempting to long for “the way things used to be” at work. But we know hybrid is here to stay, and we’re learning that eliminating hybrid won’t offer the fix that leaders might hope for. Hybrid work may be exacerbating certain issues – but chances are these challenges were already there, just presenting in another form.
Done right, hybrid and flexible work can make our teams stronger, more accessible and equitable, more effective and more cohesive than before.
To develop true cohesion in the context of hybrid teams we need to evolve our leadership and management practices.
We will continue to explore this concept in next month’s publication, where we will offer practical insights and tips for how association leaders can help their teams become more cohesive in a hybrid environment.
Previously published on the Laridae blog: https://laridaemc.com/has-hybrid-work-killed-team-cohesion/
Valentina Kibedi is the Director of Learning Services, a management consulting and training firm that works exclusively with non-profit organizations and associations across Canada.
Valentina’s passion lies in supporting purpose-driven organizations to develop customized, actionable strategies, and transform their cultures. At Laridae, Valentina leads a range of strategy, facilitation, and planning projects, and provides training and coaching to non-profit leaders and managers across Canada.