7 Steps Leaders need to take to build Hybrid Communities not 'Cult-ures' for that one team feeling again...
I recently heard this story from a senior leader about their experience of working remotely:
They were involved in a meeting with the objective of making a significant decision about future products & services. Some attendees were physically sat together in an office, while others joined by video conference from a variety of locations. During the meeting, three of the office-based people were seen engaging in a side conversation just before a coffee break. When the meeting reconvened, it became clear that the decision had been made in the room without the full involvement of the remote leaders.
When the meeting reconvened, it became clear that the decision had been made in the room without the full involvement of the remote leaders...
This highlights a couple of factors that organisations need to consider as they make plans for if, when, and how to bring people back to shared locations:
The formation of ‘in-groups’ and ‘out-groups’
THE REMOTE ARGUMENT
While some people were working ‘remotely’ before lockdown, we have heard anecdotally that there have been some unexpected benefits from the dramatic increase in remote working. Technology agendas were fast-tracked and communications strategies became more ‘considered and inclusive’, so experienced remote workers actually reported feeling more connected than before when they were the "outliers".
Another positive effect of lockdown has been to challenge the traditional prejudices that some leaders and managers have had about the effectiveness of employees who are usually based in the office when they ‘work from home’. The fact that many organisations have been able to function successfully through COVID runs counter to the old arguments around productivity used to restrict remote working.
Lockdown offered organisations an opportunity to review how many property assets they needed. For example, large furnished offices sitting empty in Pharmaceuticals due to the business units & field teams operating efficiently at home.
But as organisations make the practical plans for hybrid working they also need to consider the psychological / emotional factors. Will people want to return to the office? How often? What about people who want to work in a shared location every day? And when people are working in a hybrid working pattern, how will the organisation mitigate the formation of ‘in-groups’ and ’out-groups’?
"A different group of employees had present privilege, and this changed the power dynamic of the organisation. While this may not be a bad thing, it should be a conscious decision rather than an unexpected consequence of hybrid working... "
'IN-GROUPS', 'OUT-GROUPS'AND THE CONSEQUENCES
There are clear benefits to the formation of ‘in-groups’. Individuals are able to quickly become a team based around a common characteristic (in this scenario sharing a location) which enables them to work effectively together to achieve their objectives.
Present privilege - an advantage that is limited to those who are working in a shared location where they have more direct access to leaders and managers which is difficult to recreate for remote workers.
However, there are also drawbacks that can impact the performance of individuals and teams. As we have eased out of restrictions, one of our clients has begun to bring people back into different locations. The CEO operated in only one of these locations. As a result, a different group of employees had present privilege, they usually wouldn't have had such direct access to her, and this changed the power dynamic of the organisation. While this may not be a bad thing, it should be a conscious decision rather than an unexpected consequence of hybrid working.
Unconscious bias – While location-based ‘in-groups’ and ‘out-groups’ are affected by unconscious biases to others, research shows that ‘in-groups’ based on familiarity have specific biases.
They are nice to other group members and more forgiving around under performance than to people in the out-group. This can cause issues for a business when deciding who to involve in a project or when allocating work. It can also affect whether difficult performance conversations are biased towards people working at home. Leaders need to ensure that these types of decisions and conversations are based on skills and capabilities and not present privilege.
Isolation and loneliness – We are in contact with Leaders and their teams each week when we deliver our training solutions and we hear time and time again that people want to return to the office environment now. The reason most often given was feelings of isolation and loneliness. Lockdown has dramatically increased the likelihood and impact of these feelings.
Not only cut off from many friendship groups, remote working means working alone without the normal social support that comes from being with colleagues. Essentially individuals have become an ‘out-group of one’ and as organisations potentially look to reduce their physical space, the opportunity to interact with colleagues may reduce further.
Negative self-belief – In recent coaching sessions we’ve seen an increasing number of leaders questioning their own performance and doubting personal capability. When we are in a shared working environment, as well as formal feedback on our performance, we receive ad-hoc positive reinforcement such as a passing comment of support, an informal thank you, someone passes your desk and takes the opportunity to ask your opinion.
These signals of capability are not the kind of things that people naturally think of doing online as it takes more effort to arrange a mutually convenient time and set up the call.
As a result, people working remotely are more likely to develop negative narratives about themselves.
Essentially individuals have become an ‘out-group’ of one and as organisations potentially look to reduce their time in the office, the opportunity to interact with colleagues will reduce further.
INDICATORS OF ‘IN-GROUPS’ AND ‘OUT-GROUPS’ IN YOUR ORGANISATION
While there are advantages to ‘in-groups’ there are likely to be more disadvantages. This is because for each ‘in group’ there will be at least one ‘out-group’. To know whether the organisation’s hybrid working approach is giving rise to the two groups there are 2 indicators to be aware of:
Change in Language - Look for the changes in language people are using. Are they using negative language about their performance or ability to deliver required outcomes? Are people talking about ‘them and us’ or questioning the ability to deliver to time / quality / deadline of colleagues who are working remotely?
Increase in low level conflict between colleagues - Look for an increase in conflict during meetings and the slowing down of decision making. Are there more challenges being made in meetings and does the body language / tone of voice of individuals have a conflict undertone? Are decisions taking longer to make with people needing more debate/evidence to support options?
These indicators come from a loss of social capital within the group. Culture is developed through shared experiences, personal stories and how we behave towards one another. There is anecdotal evidence that this ‘common understanding’ of how we work together is declining as a result of remote working. The values are no longer on the walls, and we are seeing a rise in 'Cult-ures'. If the behavioural norms that we follow when we are physically present in a corporate building are reduced, conflict and misunderstanding will increase.
Collaboration and creativity will decrease, which will negatively impact long-term productivity and ultimately an organisation’s responsiveness to market changes and customer’s expectations.
Working remotely provides fewer opportunities to share those real ‘bonding’ experiences which are critical to developing a strong culture. As humans, the physical, non-verbal cues and signals are so important in building trust and chemistry. Experiences shared online tend to follow a broadly mechanical pattern which does not provide breadth of experience or those ad-hoc, informal interactions which go on to become cultural artefacts within the group – the stories, language and in-jokes. In addition, there is less positive reinforcement of ways of doing things, as peoples’ behaviour is less visible when working remotely.
WHAT LEADERS CAN DO
When developing their organisation’s hybrid approach, leaders are often seeking to get the best of both worlds – the flexibility and autonomy of remote working and the structure and sociability of being in a shared location. Whatever the design of hybrid working, the potential for ‘in-groups’ and ‘out-groups’ will be there. However, it must be every leaders business to create Communities not 'Cult-ures' - here is how.
There are benefits to hybrid working for both employee and organisation. It allows employees to enjoy both the flexibility of working remotely and the sociability of working face-to-face with colleagues. For organisations, it offers the chance to review, and potentially reduce, expensive workplace assets. However, as organisations begin to bring people back to some degree of working in shared spaces, they also need to consider the emotional and psychological impact. Being aware of, and consciously designing, an approach which mitigates formation of ‘in group’ / ‘out groups’ will help rebuild social capital and keep the ‘one team’ feeling. Creating Communities not 'Cult-tures' is the powerful leadership principle we cover in our Inclusion module on the PIVOT Programme (brochure available for download below).
Re-engaging with the organisation on our PIVOT programme will allow us to work with your leaders to identify cultural attributes of your new hybrid working culture & achieve that 'one team feeling.'