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Episode 6: Hybrid. Team. Work. (transcript)

SONIA KANG: Several months into the pandemic, Adam D’Angelo, the CEO of a question-and-answer website called Quora, announced that his company was going remote-first…meaning employees could work from home even after the pandemic. Lots of other companies followed. But, in Quora’s case, their headquarters in Mountain View California stayed open for anyone who prefers working in the office.

SONIA KANG: Giving employees this choice, to work at-home, in-office, or some combination of both, puts the company somewhere on the hybrid workplace spectrum. Hybrid meaning that some people are working from home and others are working in the office, all at the same time. But here’s the interesting part: Adam said that he and the rest of the senior leadership team would only be coming into the office for one day per month. We’re gonna get into the benefits of that in a bit, but here’s a question to you managers out there: how would you feel if, on any given day, two, three or more of your team members were working together in-person, without you? And, to the team members, same question, how would you feel if a bunch of your colleagues were working together at the office while you were working from home.

SONIA KANG: This is For The Love Of Work, an original podcast about the employee experience made possible by Rogers. I’m Dr. Sonia Kang. In this episode: how to manage a hybrid team.

UNKNOWN CALLER: Hi Sonia, uh here’s one for you. I took this role during the pandemic where I’m leading a team of five people. So we’ve never actually met each other in person and it was tough at first but we were able to get on the same page and it’s actually been really great. But now, ya, hybrid. (chuckle). We’re still figuring out stuff like who goes into the office and when. And I’m worried about maintaining that comfort zone we reached when we were all remote. What do I need to know as a manager about keeping my team on the right path?

SONIA KANG: Do you remember back at the beginning of the pandemic, when many of us went remote? It was a big adjustment for many companies and their employees. People were concerned about productivity, and isolation. Not saying those issues all got resolved — remote definitely didn’t work for some employees — but overall we didn’t just get through it, some companies found themselves equally or more effective at home. So at first, the idea of hybrid didn’t seem like much of a change. We nailed remote, we know how to do in-office, we’ll have the best of both worlds, right? But when HR teams started planning hybrid set-ups, they came up against a challenge: hybrid companies were now responsible for managing two separate employee experiences. Complex experiences that fall largely to new, junior, and middle managers to oversee. In this episode, we are going to learn how to level the playing field between home and office. How to build strong hybrid teams. Plus, and this is the big one, how to keep trust and connection levels high, so it’s not just out of sight, out of mind….We’ll also hear from the equipment manager of a professional hockey team who keeps one eye on his home rink while traveling to the 31 other arenas in the league.

BETSY BULA: So with a hybrid team, you run the risk of having what we call proximity bias where people who do show up to the office every day end up having more visibility and therefore more opportunities in their career and more connection points with senior leaders.

SONIA KANG: Betsy Bula Is an all-remote evangelist at GitLab, an open source software company. This proximity bias that she’s talking about is exactly why Quora CEO Adam D’Angelo told his senior managers to stay home. So that all employees would have equal access to them. But it’s not just about senior leaders. Let’s say you work in a three-person team and you’re at home. Proximity bias could mean that you get excluded from spontaneous and casual — but crucial — conversations, or impromptu brainstorms and opportunities for collective aha moments. Betsy says the solution to this proximity bias is to get rid of  the proximity.

BETSY BULA: We will recommend that companies..really try to remove the office from the equation. 

SONIA KANG: But how do you remove the office if you’re in the actual office?

BETSY BULA: So it’s almost like considering the office as a venue to work, just like from home, it’s just another location to work remotely.

SONIA KANG: One way to do that is to rethink how your team communicates. Let’s start with a meeting. Four colleagues are at work in a conference room. You and one other person are calling into the meeting from home.

BETSY BULA: you often can’t hear people, the microphone picks up side conversations and like snack wrappers wrestling and it’s just a really unfortunate experience for the remote team member. And so we do suggest that at the very least, everyone has their own laptop and their headphones or some way to be able to single out the noise, but it’s obviously easier to do that from different rooms so that it’s really an equitable experience for everyone involved, no matter where they’re working.

SONIA KANG: Basically all of those times you were at home on Microsoft Teams or Zoom? Keep doing that even if you’re at the office. Same goes for the more social stuff like coffees where you aren’t really working but chatting about non-work stuff.

BETSY BULA: So you’re not trying to always set people up for team bonding and networking who are both in the office or two people who are both remote, you want to try to mix up how the groups are interacting so that you’re not developing that benefit to being in the office for some people and not the others.

SONIA KANG: Once you start removing the office from the office, Betsy says you have to liberate information and get everyone on the same page.

BETSY BULA: I would say the biggest thing that you can do as a leader, no matter where you are in the organization, a manager of one person or a manager of 20 is to focus on documentation.

SONIA KANG: The idea is to create handbooks that cover everything…Your company’s or team’s or even single project’s processes, goals, communication models, and even culture or values.

BETSY BULA: it really helps as a manager to be able to have all of that knowledge documented in a single place so that if you’re out of the office or you are asleep or you’re on vacation, your team still has access to the information that they need and they’re able to move forward and work asynchronously instead of having to just wait to virtually tap someone on the shoulder or physically in the office.

SONIA KANG: This can alleviate stress, confusion, and miscommunication, for new team members especially, but it also makes delegation and onboarding easier for managers. For daily info sharing, collaborative apps like Slack or the Google Suite can be updated constantly and by anyone. And you can take this even further to level the hybrid playing field.

BETSY BULA: Certainly, if you’re having a meeting where you’re, like, making decisions about something, you want to be sure that’s recorded and documented both in text and even if you can document it with a recorded video or audio, that’s one step further.

SONIA KANG: Now here’s a proximity bias challenge. You’re at the office walking down a hallway and a colleague catches up to you with a project-related issue. But the rest of your team is at home.

BETSY BULA: Obviously we don’t mean not talking to someone in the hallway and having social interactions and having lunch and that kind of thing but you want to try to set a culture where you do not have little ad hoc meetings about a bigger project with just two people on the project team and then the other people, even if they are in the office, don’t have the full context of that conversation because they weren’t part of it.

SONIA KANG: Most companies relied heavily on new software and technology during lockdown to keep colleagues connected. The irony now is that employees who are going back to the physical office are discovering that a lot of the tech hasn’t been updated for 18-24 months. So ensuring equal access to technology is key. And after almost two years of remote work, it’s funny that it’s now the office that needs an update. For some hybrid companies, the role of the office has become more about social connection. Managers can figure out which parts of a project would benefit from in-person collaboration, and maybe choose in-person hours where those meetings can spill over into lunch time where people can bond. Another interesting side effect of hybrid is that some employees, the ones who go into the office, are finding them sort of empty, so some managers are forming groups with other managers, to create spaces with more people in them. The key is maintaining some level of flexibility within your company’s overall hybrid plan. In-person work is important for innovation, but sometimes people are more productive at home. It’s different for every team so track your team’s successes and failures and adjust as needed.

BETSY BULA: We also suggest, and this is an interesting one, that leaders stay out of the office so working remotely yourself as a leader actually shows your team that you’re serious about and committed to flexible work, it allows you to better identify gaps in places where your culture might be falling down, or it might not be the best experience, and overall..helps you avoid this two-tiered way of working.

SONIA KANG: And this is where trust comes into the picture. If managers are staying at home while parts of their team are working together, or if half the team is remote and the other half is in-office, there can be a lot of people sitting around wondering what the other people are doing, thinking, saying. Even if you take all of Betsy’s advice about confronting proximity bias, as a manager how do you trust, for example, new employees working on something in person while you’re at home? That’s what we’re gonna learn about next.

HEIDI GARDNER:the whole work-from-home environment and now the hybrid working environment is really straining trust.

SONIA KANG: Dr. Heidi Gardner is a distinguished fellow at Harvard Law School and the author of Smart Collaboration: How Professionals And Their Firms Succeed by Breaking Down Silos.

HEIDI GARDNER: And I think it’s critical in this scenario you’ve presented for the supervisor, that manager of a small team to recognize that there’s probably some starting points for getting the team back on the same page, understanding why it is that they’re a team and what their shared goals are. Really starting from some of those fundamental questions that are going to be essential in leading this new hybrid working team.

SONIA KANG: So, as a manager you might be working on your own ability to trust, but you might also have to build trust within your team. And many of the blocks for establishing trust are unique to hybrid teams. Heidi says much of it comes down to assumptions that started during remote work.

HEIDI GARDNER: Well, we could observe what somebody else was doing. Maybe they were on a Zoom meeting and kept their camera off the whole time. We will ascribe their behavior to them personally, and their character. “They were disinterested. Oh, they’re lazy.” Oh, they’re,” fill in the blank.

SONIA KANG: And those assumptions could follow some of us back into the office.

HEIDI GARDNER: For some people, they’re going to be desperate to get back to the office. So if they have a choice, maybe they’re there the maximum number of days. Maybe it’s because they don’t have great work-from-home space. Maybe it’s because they really are genuinely excited to spend time with their colleagues. But if we look at them in a sort of snarky way, there’s all sorts of things that we could say, “Well, they’re just trying to get ahead of me. And what’s their motive for being there so long?” And we can begin to, as we see these differences playing out, as people have more choices about how they’re operating, I think there’s just more room for us to make assumptions or judgements about other people.

SONIA KANG: In order to deal with trust levels on our teams, we need to know what trust is. According to Heidi, there are two kinds. One is competence trust.

HEIDI GARDNER: Do I believe you deliver high quality, on time, on budget? Are you really good at what you do?

SONIA KANG: Are you good at your job? Should I trust you with my project?

HEIDI GARDNER: So competence trust has come under pressure in the remote work environment because people were more likely to miss deadlines or there was a lot of unexpected changes in the workflow, or all sorts of things made it seem like people were making mistakes, or creating delays, or backlogs and those sorts of things.

SONIA KANG: The other kind of trust is interpersonal trust.

HEIDI GARDNER: Do I think that you’re going to undermine this relationship? Do I think you’re going to steal my ideas? Do I think you’re going to take undue credit for the work that we’ve jointly completed?

HEIDI GARDNER: So I might know that John is the world’s greatest expert. I mean, he’s truly a guru at something. And my project could really use that expertise. So I have absolute competence trust in him. But if I think he’s a jerk, I’m going to do everything I can to access his knowledge in a way that keeps him out of the project team, or away from my client.

SONIA KANG: Teams can build competence trust fairly quickly when they’re working together in-person because you’re regularly exposed to the work everyone is doing, and you can judge that for yourself. On the other hand, after working for months remotely, interpersonal trust can be slower to emerge.

HEIDI GARDNER: A lot of people in organizations today have never met their coworkers face-to-face. So it’s not that they distrust one another. It’s just they have no basis for trusting.

SONIA KANG: To establish competence trust within your team or even between you and a specific team member. Heidi suggests using something called a trust staircase.

HEIDI GARDNER: Can you engineer or help to set up situations where people will be working on something together that’s fairly low risk, low visibility. So that first step on the staircase is getting people to work together if they need to build or rebuild trust, in a way that they’re not very stressed out about the outcome.

SONIA KANG: Working directly with a coworker, on a series of small tasks or projects — ones that are not client facing — gives you the chance to avoid relying on gossip or rumors, and figure out for yourself if they are trustworthy. And once they’ve shown that they can be trusted with low stakes stuff, give them something tougher to do, something more visible in the company, maybe working with more people.

HEIDI GARDNER: Because by the time they reach the top stair, then they are truly genuinely believing in one another’s competencies.

SONIA KANG: But when it comes to building interpersonal trust, you also have to consider your general orientation to how you trust other people.

HEIDI GARDNER:If I’m a highly wary person, I won’t want to collaborate with you, I won’t want to interact with you until I know that you are trustworthy. But what is it that will allow me to make that decision, and are there biases built into the way I pick up on cues or interpret those cues?

SONIA KANG: If you are naturally cautious, you might be more likely to trust people that are already in your in-group. People who share some kind of identity with you, maybe your race or gender or even someone who grew up in the same state or province.

HEIDI GARDNER: Now in the diverse world we live in, those sort of tribal instincts don’t serve us very well. So for a wary person, it is really crucial that they’re honest with themselves about what triggers them to say, “Yes, I can trust this person,” or not.

SONIA KANG: If you catch yourself falling into the homophily trap, meaning that it’s easier for you to trust people who are similar to you, the solution again is to build interpersonal trust by going up a trust staircase. Building trust is a process and it takes a lot of work. Heidi told us to pay attention to red flags that suggest someone doesn’t deserve our trust, whether that’s competence trust or interpersonal trust. But if we haven’t come across any on our way up the trust staircase and we still feel wary, it might be us with the problem. Our own hang ups or biases might be getting in the way of developing that trust. And if that’s the case we need to name it and deal with it.

SONIA KANG: So far, we’ve learned about overcoming proximity bias..bringing the best of remote to the physical office..democratizing information, and rebuilding damaged trust. For many of us, hybrid work is a new reality. But for others, it’s kind of what they’ve always done.

JASON MCMASTER: Well, I never really thought my job would be considered hybrid work. It’s just what we do

SONIA KANG: Jason McMaster is head equipment manager for the Winnipeg Jets.

JASON MCMASTER: I work out of multiple locations most of the time, I’m at my office at the game rink, sometimes at the office at the practice rink, or I’m on 31 different hallways around the NHL, making my little makeshift office with a chair and a jersey trunk. I mean, you’re not as effective sitting in a cold hallway in Carolina, but you just take advantage of the time you have.

SONIA KANG: We might not have to set up temporary offices in cold hallways, but there’s a lot of similarities, in how a pro sports team manages its home and away games, and how you might manage a hybrid team. And you will find much of this relates back to what Betsy and Heidi were talking about. Jason and his team of five people manage the main rink and the practice rink, oversee rentals and repairs, and keep track of and order all of the equipment. This happens when they are working at the arena in Winnipeg, and when they are on the road, sometimes for up to two weeks lugging somewhere between 70 and 80 pieces of luggage.

JASON MCMASTER: You’re constantly working your email or your texts on your phone with the suppliers and different staff, dealing with requests and needs, so half the time, I’m looking out at my phone, and the other half of the time, I’m unpacking equipment.

SONIA KANG: Jason and his crew have this down to a science.

JASON MCMASTER: We all know, when we land, I go to the room and set the nameplates up in the stalls. Mark coordinates all the trunks to the room and places them out where they belong and opens up everything. Mike sets the coach’s room up, all this while Jake’s setting the change room up, and myself and Al are setting the main bags up, the player bags.

SONIA KANG: Jason’s hybrid workplace setup happens when he and his four full time staff go on the road — doing all the stuff he just told you about. But one guy has to hold down the fort. Someone has to take care of the injured players who stay back but still need to skate and rehab. And sometimes there are more urgent jobs.

JASON MCMASTER: There’s quite often on the road where you get a bad batch of sticks or a player surprises you with a new equipment need, so he’s shipping stuff out quite commonly to us in that city..

SONIA KANG: That one guy is Sam Jarrin. He is really busy when the rest of the crew is on the road, but somehow it gets even crazier when the crew comes home.

JASON MCMASTER: It is an absolute battleground for about two days. Sam sends me checklists of what all’s come in while we’re on the road. I mean, getting that stuff out of the way, so when I get home, I’m available for everybody for any questions because the players, when we get home from the road, They need new gloves, new skates, a lot of guys are going to need shot blockers put onto the skates. All this stuff takes time. It’s just a war zone of us getting everything ready.

SONIA KANG: So of everyone on Jason’s equipment team, Sam has been with the Jets the least amount of time. And yet, he is the guy who gets to man the fort.

JASON MCMASTER: I mean, like all jobs, you can’t just show up on day one and know what you’re doing. He’s come up with us from day one here with the Jets, but he’s been given more and more responsibilities as our trust grows in him, and he’s proven himself to be able to handle all these different responsibilities…understanding what the different specs are on equipment to know that it is okay to put it away or what needs to be put aside for me to double-check to make sure the company didn’t send the wrong specs.

SONIA KANG: It sounds like Jason put Sam on Heidi Gardner’s trust staircase — and over time, a lot of competence trust was created. And it happened despite a bit of perfectionism on Jason’s part.

JASON MCMASTER: So with attention to detail comes always checking off lists and making sure everything’s perfect. But with that, you’ve got to learn how to manage your staff so you can trust your staff if you can’t delegate or educate someone to the point where you can trust them, you’re just not going to make it in what you’re doing. You have to accept you can’t do it all yourself because, especially with this job, if you try to do it all yourself, you’re not going to last very long.

SONIA KANG: Delegation and communication.

JASON MCMASTER: On my end, towards my staff, don’t assume. Make sure they know what their responsibilities are. On my staff’s end, if you have a better way of doing it, you think you have a better way of doing it, you have a complaint about how we’re doing it, it’s wide open. We’ve had issues in the past where I thought the other staff member had it on his list to do, and I didn’t check with him. And then we end up forgetting something on the road. So you learn to make sure the lines of communication are open, or else a delegation doesn’t work.

SONIA KANG: And documentation.

JASON MCMASTER: I get requests a lot through texts, and it’s after hours at home and you’re trying to be present at home. So all I do is, I don’t know how to track texts, So I just quickly send an email to myself..just to follow up with that text, who it’s from. And then it’s in my inbox in the morning, and then I don’t think about it anymore.

SONIA KANG: And the interpersonal trust grows at the end of a busy game day.

JASON MCMASTER: Yeah, I mean, there’s the three or four of us in our equipment room and sometimes the medical staff comes down, and just kind of sit around. We’ll call it a hot stove, where we’ve just got our work done for the day or we’re taking a bit of a break, and we kind of just talk about the day, talk about what’s come up, what was good, what was bad, what somebody might like to see different, or have some laughs over something dumb somebody did, or whatever, just kind of a little hangout for a few minutes.

SONIA KANG: It makes sense that trust has eroded during the pandemic. We were literally told that we have to stay away from each other and, I don’t know about you, but for a while there I just saw every single person as a vector for the virus. We’ve all had to deal with a higher than normal amount of fear. Fears for our physical safety, for our friends and families, for our living arrangements, for all of the changes we’ve had to make, and for our jobs. Also fear for all of the things we don’t know how to do, but are having to learn. This is a very vulnerable and emotional time. All season, we’ve come back to the need for empathy, listening, growth mindsets, and sponsorship. Thinking of others. We need each other even more in a hybrid work environment. Especially because the differences in our personal working styles are highlighted like never before. In this case, true leadership means flexibility, and the ability to support employees where, when, and how they need it. And the most successful hybrid programs, are going to be the ones that are designed around the company values that best support the employee experience, like psychological safety, communication, trust, inclusion, and belonging.

SONIA KANG: Thanks for listening. I’m Sonia Kang. And this is For The Love of Work, an original podcast made possible by Rogers. Find us at…for the love of work dot c-a. Talk soon.