While remote work initially skyrocketed out of necessity due to COVID-19–increasing from 43% of office workers doing so at least one day a week to 83%, according to PwC–it will continue long after it’s required out of practicality and preference. PwC also found that 83% of office workers want to work remote at least one day a week even after COVID-19 isn’t a concern, and Gartner research from July found that 82% of organizations plan to let employees continue to work remotely at least some of the time.
Having a mix of remote and in-office workers—a hybrid team—can be tremendous for employee productivity and engagement, but only if managed properly.
Managers need to keep their teams well connected, as there is an extremely strong correlation between collaboration
and productivity. Research by the Institute for Corporate Productivity and Babson College found that companies that
promote collaborative working are five times more likely to be high performing. And a Harvard Business Review analysis of a decade’s worth of data on collaboration and financial performance across dozens of organizations not only found that collaboration has a huge impact on whether employees and companies thrive, but the correlation is even greater during crises.
Facilitating strong collaboration is particularly critical for hybrid teams to avoid creating an “in-group” and an “out-group.” Unfortunately, the apparent solution here—encouraging continual collaboration through traditional video meetings, chat, email, etc.—doesn’t always work.
During the first few months of the remote work surge, workers became so exhausted by and resentful of video meetings that “video fatigue” became a buzzword and countless psychologists and other experts examined why it occurs.
The general consensus: Too many traditional video meetings becomes draining because our brains have to work much harder to process everything and make up for all the nonverbal cues we’re missing from in-person interactions (especially in the gallery view when you can see all participants). The psychologists also found that too many traditional video meetings can be draining because people tend to be excessively self-aware and self-conscious, which can cause stress and exacerbate performance anxiety. And of course, people can simply be overloaded with meetings.
Fortunately, it’s possible to keep hybrid teams well connected while minimizing all of these issues. Managers should
replace many traditional video meetings with “unstructured meetings” that are video-based but don’t have an agenda,
strict time limits, or expectations regarding joining or being responsive. You can host an ongoing video meeting on a TV in the office during a set time (e.g. several hours several times a week) and point a webcam toward the office so that remote workers can drop in and work virtually alongside their in-office colleagues at their own convenience.
This makes it feel more like they’re working together in the office and encourages those “watercooler moments” that not only bond teams together but also lead to a surprising amount of valuable ideas.
Ironically, the lack of expectations around responding often makes the conversations more engaging because people only contribute when they want to or have something helpful or entertaining to say. And the lack of an agenda makes the conversations more varied and interesting—meaning remote and in-office workers are less tempted to tune out.
Ending the expectation of response also enables deeper listening, deeper thinking, more creativity and reduces fatigue and performance anxiety (including shaking, self-doubt, humiliation, dread about making mistakes, etc.). As
described by Francesca Gino, a leading business psychology researcher and professor at Harvard Business School,
“We fail to listen because we’re anxious about our own performance, convinced that our ideas are better than others’, or both. As a result, we get into conflicts that could be avoided, miss opportunities to advance the conversation, alienate the people who haven’t been heard, and diminish our teams’ effectiveness.”
Gino observed from her research that one of the best ways to improve collaboration is training people to listen rather
than focusing on what they’re going to say next – and not requiring people to respond during meetings is a great way
to do just that.
In addition, ending the expectation of response is helpful because people tend to be uncomfortable with silence. When there are quick pauses during meetings, people often second guess themselves or make exaggerated assumptions about what others are thinking. In fact, a German academic study found that delays of even 1.2 seconds on calls can make people perceive the responder as less friendly or focused.
By ending the expectation of response during meetings, managers can train their teams to become more comfortable
with silence during meetings, and in turn more likely to think constructively during pauses rather than make assumptions. This also makes people less likely to get distracted wondering if a quick delay is due to a technology
Unstructured meetings also shouldn’t be mandatory, so teammates who are particularly busy or feeling video fatigue
don’t need to join. And this freedom to choose is also beneficial psychologically. Scientific studies have shown a strong correlation between autonomy and well-being, satisfaction, productivity, and lower stress.
Between the impact of collaboration on productivity and the fact that over 90% of communication is nonverbal, there’s
no questioning the importance of video meetings. But they don’t all need to feel the same way. Try making some of your internal meetings much more informal—dropping the agenda, time limits, and expectations regarding responsiveness and attendance—and see how it impacts team engagement and morale.