Effective Virtual Collaboration for a Thriving Culture in Hybrid and Remote Teams
Organizations will need to pivot their corporate culture if they wish to survive and thrive in the world of virtual collaboration after the pandemic. The most important changes will stem from the wide-scale and permanent shift to hybrid and fully-remote modes of working.
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The leaders who want to succeed will need to benchmark their changes for the post-COVID world to the best practices on adapting corporate cultures to managing virtual collaboration in hybrid and fully-remote teams in returning to the office after the pandemic. This piece describes the best practices as informed both by extensive research and case studies of successful companies. They also stem from interviews with 47 mid-level and 14 senior leaders at 12 organizations I helped guide in developing and implementing their strategy for returning to the office and their post-pandemic mode of collaboration.
Our Future Is Hybrid
Hybrid and, to a lesser extent, fully-remote work will be the norm post-pandemic. Of course, that applies to the large majority of employees whose roles allow them to do at least tasks remotely. During the pandemic, surveys show (1, 2) two-thirds of all US workers worked remotely a significant portion of their time.
With the pandemic winding down, two-thirds to three-quarters of surveyed employers intend to have a mainly-hybrid schedule after the pandemic ends. Plenty of large companies announced a switch to a permanent hybrid model of two to four days of remote work after the pandemic. They include Citigroup, Ford, Microsoft, Siemens, Salesforce, Target, and many others.
A smaller, but still sizable, number of big companies – ranging from insurance giant Nationwide to tech firm Facebook to major drugmaker Novartis – decided to let many or all of their currently-remote employees work from home permanently.
That combination of hybrid and fully-remote work largely matches worker desires. A set of high-quality surveys (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8) show that two-thirds of all employees want a hybrid schedule permanently after the pandemic. A quarter of all employees want a fully-remote schedule.
The latter desire is likely to be accommodated. Many of the companies that announced a primarily-hybrid model indicated they are willing to let a substantial minority of their workforce work full-time remotely.
We can thus anticipate that the large majority of the two-thirds of all employees who can do their tasks remotely will, on the whole, work most of their hours at home. For organizations to make this new permanent mode of collaboration work, they need to adapt their culture for the new normal.
Why Did Corporate Culture Suffer During the Pandemic?
Culture refers to that social and emotional glue that bonds your employees together into a community of belonging, motivates employees, and protects against burnout. Culture includes the norms, habits, and practices that determine how you collaborate. It also involves the values that guide the community of your employees into the increasingly-disrupted future.
In the emergency of the March COVID lockdowns, companies transposed their office culture-style of collaboration to remote work. That’s like forcing a square peg into a round hole.
You can do it if you push hard enough, but you will break off the corners. In this case, the pegs mean much of the sense of connection that integrates your employees into your company culture. That peg will do in an emergency, but in the longer run, it will wobble and eventually break.
No wonder so many suffered from work-from-home burnout and Zoom fatigue and felt increasingly disconnected from their employers. Unfortunately, the large majority of companies tried to address culture-related problems through day-to-day tactics borrowed from in-office practices, such as Zoom happy hours.
Only a select few took the strategic approach of revising their company culture to fit the needs of remote work. Such companies had much better retention.
As you are returning to the office and planning for the post-pandemic normal, you need to make a strategic adaptation of your culture to a new hybrid or even fully-remote model. To do so, you need to recognize the problems inherent in the emergency switch to remote work that harm company culture, and cause burnout and disengagement. Namely, remote work, when approached un-strategically, leads to a deprivation of our basic human need for connection.
At heart, we human beings are tribal creatures. We long to feel connected and belong to a community. Our work community offers a key source of fulfillment for many of us. We work together, we support each other, we celebrate each other’s triumphs, and support each other through losses. We connect to something much bigger than ourselves. Work-from-home cuts us off from much of our ability to connect effectively to our colleagues as human beings, rather than little squares on a screen.
Many companies try to replace the office culture glue of social and emotional connection with numerous virtual team meetings. On top of that are the semi-forced socializations of Zoom happy hours and similar activities that transpose in-person bonding events onto virtual formats. Unfortunately, such activities do not work well.
Have you ever started your remote workday at 9 AM sitting in your home office chair, had a series of meetings, and finished it at 5 PM feeling much more exhausted than if you would have a similar series of meetings at work? This experience has grown to be called “Zoom fatigue.” It is a real experience, but it is not about Zoom itself, or any other videoconference software.
The big challenge stems from our intuitive expectations about such meetings bringing us energy through connecting to people. Yet we fail to get our basic need for connection met. In-person meetings, even if they’re strictly professional, still connect us on a human-to-human level. And of course, most meetings have some social components, even if they consist of brief person-to-person greetings.
By contrast, our emotions just do not process videoconference meetings as truly connecting us on a human-to-human gut level. Yet our gut, usually without our conscious awareness, still intuitively anticipates videoconference meetings to bring us energy and connection. It is inevitably disappointing, resulting in a feeling of drain, exhaustion, and stress.
Zoom happy hours are even worse than regular work meetings in this regard. They are supposed to make us feel connected, and our gut has even more elevated expectations. That results in more of a feeling of a let-down than regular work meetings. No wonder employees are demanding fewer virtual meetings.
Adapt Your Culture to Virtual Collaboration in the Post-Pandemic Normal
The hybrid model of coming in once or more per week will help address this issue for most employees. Still, you should offer effective connecting activities for virtual collaboration on non-office days. These activities are far more important for those employees who work remotely full-time, only coming in for quarterly team-building and strategic planning activities.
You need to replace bonding activities from office culture with bonding activities designed for a virtual format. These activities should be specifically distinct from office culture-based ones so that our gut reactions don’t have elevated expectations. They should also take advantage of digital technology.
As you make your plans for adapting your culture, prepare for cultural re-onboarding as part of your return to the office. That involves rebuilding a sense of connection and belonging among your employees, between each other, and to the company culture – practices, habits, norms, and values – as a whole. Make sure to educate your employees on how the culture will be different in a hybrid-first model with some staff fully remote. Give your employees sufficient time to prepare themselves mentally, emotionally, and practically for a return to the office. Seek their buy-in for reintegration into an office-based culture.
Morning Update: The Water Cooler Conversation of Virtual Collaboration
A valuable activity designed for a hybrid or fully-remote format that almost all of my clients implemented is a “Morning Update” for each 4-8 people team inside their company. The team establishes a separate space in their collaboration software dedicated to personal, non-work discussions by team members. Every morning – whether they come to the office or work at home – all team members send a message answering the following questions:
- 1) How are you doing overall?
- 2) How are you feeling right now?
- 3) What’s been interesting in your life recently outside of work?
- 4) What’s going on in your work: what’s going well, and what are some challenges?
- 5) What is one thing about you or the world that most other team members do not know about?
Employees are encouraged to post photos or videos as part of their answers. They are also asked to respond to at least three other employees who made an update that day.
Note that most of these questions are about life outside of work, and aim to help people get to know each other. They humanize team members to each other, helping them get to know each other as human beings.
There is also one work question, focusing on helping team members learn what others are working on right now. That question helps them collaborate together more effectively.
Then, during the day, team members use that same channel for personal sharing. Anyone who feels inspired can share about what’s going on in their life and respond to others who do so. The combination of mandated morning updates combined with the autonomy of personal sharing provides a good balance for building relationships and cultivating trust. It fits the different preferences and personalities of the company’s employees.
Of course, you will want to experiment and figure out what works well for your organization’s teams. There are many variations you can try.
Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Virtual Collaboration
Surveys find that there is a much greater desire among minorities for a hybrid or fully remote model. A case in point: a study by Slack found that 79% of White knowledge workers wanted either a hybrid or fully remote model, but a whopping 97% of Black knowledge workers preferred such work. The study suggests that hybrid and especially fully remote work facilitates DEI concerns because it reduces instances of overt and covert discrimination.
Still, while overall remote work helps minorities, discrimination continues in the digital world, according to a recent report from the nonprofit Project Include. Technology-based forms of discrimination range from public bullying of minorities on group video calls to one-on-one harassment via chat and email, along with other issues.
Another problem relates to who gets to speak and who gets interrupted. Surveys find that women are harmed by moving all meetings to video calls since men much more frequently interrupt or ignore women in virtual meetings than during in-person ones.
You should assume that some or all of these problems are happening in your company, unless you have a strong reason to believe otherwise. Survey your employees to find out what is happening in DEI and remote work. Institute appropriate policies, monitoring, and training to address these problems and facilitate effective virtual collaboration. You will want to make a refresher in DEI part of your cultural re-onboarding.
Work/Life Balance in Virtual Collaboration
For working at home, there is an unhealthy expectation that once you start your workday in your home office chair, and that you will work continuously while sitting there (except for your lunch break). That is not how things work in the office, which has physical and mental breaks built-in throughout the day. You took 5-10 minutes to walk from one meeting to another, or you went to get your copies from the printer and chatted with a coworker on the way. Those and similar physical and mental breaks, research shows, decrease burnout, improve productivity, and reduce mistakes.
That is why you should strongly encourage your employees to take at least a 10-minute break every hour during remote work for effective virtual collaboration. At least half of those breaks should involve physical activity, such as stretching or walking around, to counteract the dangerous effects of prolonged sitting.
Planning to accommodate the needs of both the company and its employees means redeveloping workplace processes and redefining culture during and after the pandemic for virtual collaboration. New practices must include a virtual water cooler, healthy physical and mental breaks, and reinforcing diversity, equity, and inclusion. The changes should spring from research-driven methods to build sustainable strategies for the organization and its employees.
Any organization can benefit from hybrid teams and cultural re-onboarding for virtual collaboration. Many old practices are no longer effective, requiring new ways to address the needs of employers and employees during and after the pandemic.
Questions to Consider (please share your answers below)
Which among the described pandemic work challenges to virtual collaboration resonates with you?
How will you rework your organizational culture to boost the collaboration of your hybrid and remote teams?
Which next step will you take after reading this article?
Image credit: Diva Plavalaguna
Bio: Dr. Gleb Tsipursky is an internationally-renowned thought leader in future-proofing and cognitive bias risk management. He serves as the CEO of the boutique future-proofing consultancy Disaster Avoidance Experts, which specializes in helping forward-looking leaders avoid dangerous threats and missed opportunities. A best-selling author, he wrote Never Go With Your Gut: How Pioneering Leaders Make the Best Decisions and Avoid Business Disasters (Career Press, 2019), The Blindspots Between Us: How to Overcome Unconscious Cognitive Bias and Build Better Relationships (New Harbinger, 2020), and Returning to the Office and Leading Hybrid and Remote Teams: A Manual on Benchmarking to Best Practices for Competitive Advantage (Intentional Insights, 2021). His writing was translated into Chinese, Korean, German, Russian, Polish, and other languages. He was featured in over 550 articles and 450 interviews in prominent venues. These include Fortune, USA Today, Inc. Magazine, CBS News, Business Insider, Government Executive, The Chronicle of Philanthropy, Time, Fast Company, and elsewhere. His expertise comes from over 20 years of consulting, coaching, and speaking and training for mid-size and large organizations ranging from Aflac to Xerox. It also comes from over 15 years in academia as a behavioral scientist, including 7 as a professor at Ohio State University. You can contact him at Gleb[at]DisasterAvoidanceExperts[dot]com, LinkedIn, Twitter @gleb_tsipursky, Instagram @dr_gleb_tsipursky, Medium @dr_gleb_tsipursky, and gain free access to his “Assessment on Dangerous Judgment Errors in the Workplace” and his “Wise Decision Maker Course” with 8 video-based modules.