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Welcome to FNEI Insights, the FiscalNote Executive Institute’s monthly thought leadership blog where we interview executives about top issues affecting companies, including sustainability; diversity, equity, and inclusion; digital transformation; and ESG. This month we spoke with Liane Davey, author, keynote speaker, Harvard Business Review contributor and co-founder and principal with Name3COze Inc., about the challenges and opportunities of managing hybrid teams. 

Whether you prefer it or not, data continues to show that hybrid work environments are here to stay. According to an October 2021 study from Google, more than 75 percent of survey respondents expect hybrid work to become a standard practice in their organization within the next three years.

Perhaps what is most telling, however, is that the vast majority of employees are fully on board with this trend. Recent research from Accenture, for example, found that 83 percent of workers prefer a hybrid office setup.

Given this new reality, senior leaders are faced with the task of developing and applying new, long-term management skills that will keep their teams motivated, productive, and most of all, connected. FNEI sat down with author, speaker, and executive team advisor Liane Davey to discuss best practices for effectively managing hybrid teams. Davey shares some of the common mistakes organizations make, strategies for improving communication, and ways to balance structure and flexibility, or what she calls, “freedom within a framework.”

What would you say are some of the biggest missteps you see companies doing with working in this sometimes remote, sometimes hybrid work culture?

I would say companies are too liberal in their policies and basically allow people too much freedom. Therefore, For example, organizations that don’t have at least some specified times when people are physically together. I think that is deleterious to effective collaboration and effective teams. At the same time, so is being too strict and or imposing. What I’m seeing that is most successful is there’s sort of freedom within a framework, where companies specify, for example, “we’re hoping that people are in the office at least one day a week, or we’re hoping that teams are physically together once or twice a month. Or, we’d love to see everybody working in these core hours of 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., but then make your workday work for you outside of that.” So, I think that freedom within a framework is what’s working. Being too lax on the one hand, or too confining on the other, is a bit of a mistake.

What would you recommend for leaders who are onboarding new team members, especially when they are 100 percent remote?

Buddy people up. So, have somebody who is specifically the one to whom you say, “This is your buddy, you can go to this person.” It is their role to be there to support you and encourage you.

One of the things I did a couple of times over the past couple of years that I really loved was to just say, “Hey, let’s work (not together) at the same time,” and we just left the Zoom call up in the corner of our screens. This works with other people who are both trying to write and produce something at the same time. And then do it once a week for the next month. But that’s just one example. Be creative, and you’ll come up with great stuff.

How can people approach Zoom fatigue — too many meetings in this hybrid and/or remote work environment — and how can senior leaders be sensitive and empathetic to that in the ways they engage their teams?

Microsoft has done some great research on video conference fatigue, and how fast it sets in and how fast you can remedy it. As it turns out, you only need about 10 minutes on the hour. So, the very first thing I would do as a senior leader is set the default meeting to 45 minutes. Don’t have one-hour meetings. You can have a 45-minute meeting, have a 15-minute break, and then have another 45 minutes if you need to. It’s just getting into that discipline. We know that the eyes and the brain recover quite well after only 10 minutes.

Another thing you can do is revisit what are the standing meetings, and how do we pair them back? Can we take a one-hour meeting and make it 30 minutes? Can we take a 30 minute meeting and make it 15 minutes? I know one of our clients has moved to meeting-free Wednesdays — zero meetings allowed. Wednesdays are for getting your work done or calling up somebody to make progress on something. You can certainly have ad hoc — jump in with one other person and collaborate on Wednesdays — but you can’t have formal meetings. 

I know for me personally, I realized that if I was starting my week with a bunch of meetings, I was just finding that by Monday afternoon, I was already feeling swamped and overwhelmed. So, I went into my calendar, and I blocked Monday mornings for planning.

There are opportunities to really get back to time so that you can think about where things are headed, as opposed to just what’s right in front of your face.

With hybrid and remote work, there’s this challenge of mentoring people and having those happenstance conversations we would normally have in elevators or at water coolers. How do you find time to make sure you’re supporting and engaging rising stars in your teams and helping them feel heard?

That’s the hardest thing in this environment, I think. It’s particularly problematic with the hybrid work format because some of the people in the office are going to be getting that, and some of the ones who are remote are not going to be getting that. That’s where we’re going to get some of the real friction on teams — that casual interaction with the boss. When the boss has just walked out of a meeting, the people who are right there are going to probably hear and get some organizational context, and the boss is not going to remember to give that same context to others. So, those serendipitous things have to start to be scheduled.

With mentoring as an example, if you have some kind of a Slack channel, Microsoft Teams, or a place where you can actually put it out there and say, “Hey, I’ve got a 30-minute coffee slot every Monday between now and the end of June.” You could say to your peers, “Is there one person on your team doing really cool work that you’d love me to learn about?” It is hard to take things that used to be spontaneous and to schedule them, but it’s so worth it.

As a team leader, how do you suggest delivering bad news remotely?

Well, thankfully, we have a good example of what not to do, which is you don’t get 900 people on a Zoom call and announce to them that they’re all fired. So, it’s always good when somebody does it so colossally wrong that we all go, “Oh, okay, don’t do that.”

I find people are a bit more reticent to deliver bad news virtually than I wish they were because this is just our way of working now. So, if you have bad news about a project and it doesn’t necessarily impact a single individual, it’s probably okay to get on some kind of team video call, talk about what’s happened, and talk about why the decision has been made. Talk about what you know, and what you don’t know. But as soon as it’s something that’s kind of personal, where maybe that was your project, or it’s changing your objectives for the year, or it’s going to affect your remuneration or something like that, I would say, that’s when you go straight to an individual. You get out of the group situation.

The other new data that’s really interesting is that it turns out that we have much better empathy and accuracy in our interpersonal relationships when we switch to the telephone … versus video calls. So, if you’re a manager or a leader, and you need to have a difficult conversation with someone, it actually turns out that just phoning — not having the visual — is better. You will be able to be more empathetic, and glean more out of the conversation.

This is another tip: We know that some of the ways that we interpret communication when we’re face to face do seem to translate onto video. One of the problems is that because of our physical setups and offices, we’re very close. And so, it’s a more threatening zone in interpersonal communications. If you’re going to have one of those hard conversations virtually, just see if you can back your chair up so that they can get a little bit more of your torso. It’s more like you were talking to them in person, and it’s not quite so threatening as it is when it’s right up close.

These tips have been really helpful. Do you have anything else to add?

I know hybrid is hard. But we’re going to learn the new processes and the new skills. We’re going to figure it out. And then it’s going to give us access to talent all over the world and the flexibility to live our family lives in conjunction with our work lives. There’s so much to be gained in the end!


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