Top Challenges of Hybrid-Remote Teams
Remote work is growing—rapidly. Work-from-home roles have grown by 173% since 2005. But that remote work trend means different things for different people, and for different organizational structures. Some teams are 100% remote, but more often we see teams that are a mix, or hybrid of different working models.
So when we refer to different working models, what do we mean?
- Co-located: A company or team whose employees all work in the same location.
- Distributed: An company or team whose employees all work remotely (also referred to as “fully distributed” or “remote-first”).
- Hybrid: A company or team with some employees who are co-located and some who work remotely (also referred to as “remote-friendly” or specifically as “hybrid-remote”).
You can reference all of this terminology in our remote work dictionary.
Within a hybrid team model, there can be variances of experience: if there’s only one remote team member, or more; whether or not the team manager sits in a co-located office or works from home; and if there are defined expectations and remote work policies, or not. With that in mind, we aimed to brainstorm and highlight some of the challenges faced by hybrid-remote teams during our Networkplaceless virtual networking event in January.
During our discussion, we found that some of the challenges that hybrid teams experience overlap with those experienced by fully distributed teams, while other challenges are unique to hybrid working environments. Here is a breakdown of the challenges that were considered to be most pressing from both categories.
Challenges that overlap with fully distributed teams
- Relationship Building. When employees are not physically located next to one another, there are fewer informal opportunities to connect with colleagues on a personal level. This is a challenge across fully distributed teams, but it’s slightly different for hybrid teams in that remote-first teams often have taken the time to invest in learning best practices for relationship building across distance. With hybrid teams, without thoughtful recognition of remote relationship challenges, there’s a significant lack of ways to foster these informal relationship best practices that result in more cohesive and higher-functioning teams.
- Lack of defined flexible vs. remote work policies. It’s often the case that the terms “flexible work” and “remote work” are used synonymously, but there are nuances to these terms that need to be clarified. An employee may have a flexible schedule in terms of when they work, but they must report to a physical office. On the other hand, an employee may have the flexibility to work remotely or wherever they are optimally productive, but they are expected to work during specific times of the day. Or of course, it can be a combination of the two—flexible hours and remote location. The importance is clearly defining both aspects for the team and setting expectations accordingly.
Challenges that are unique to hybrid team structure
- Developing and maintaining a remote compatible culture. While fully distributed companies often wear their structure as a badge of honor, hybrid-remote companies, many times, don’t describe themselves as such. We hear the frequent story of companies or teams organically evolving into a hybrid model—meaning the team was co-located until one member needed to move due to family obligations or other personal reasons. In order to keep that team member on board, the company allows that person to begin working from home. While it is excellent to keep that team member as part of the organization, it often means that the only thing that’s changed is one person’s work location. The team likely has not invested in learning and training on remote-friendly best practices or touched base to address how this change affects the broader team. With the trend shifting towards more remote work, we hope to see a parallel shift in recognizing the importance of remote work policies and training for members of hybrid teams.
- Lack of leadership or team buy-in. Let’s face it. Not everyone has the same opinion of remote work—think about the commonly shared images of remote workers in pajamas or sitting on the beach. This means that within the same company, there can be significant variances in understanding about how to go about remote work, and what it actually looks like for remote professionals. (An IWG study reveals that the top barrier to further remote work adoption is the difficulty in changing long-standing, non-flexible culture). A lack of leadership understanding at all levels and among all team members about who is doing work where and how, can lead to feelings of isolation on the part of the remote workers and feelings of resentment from team members still in the office.
- Where do you put your management / leadership team? Remote or co-located? This is a question and a challenge that, frankly, can only be answered for each individual team. There are pros and cons to each, and the decision may change over time. Questions to ask when faced with this decision: How would each option impact culture? What inherent biases arise dependent upon where the leadership team is physically located?
- Communication gaps. Picture this: you utilize the remote best practice of conducting a meeting via video conference so that both your in-office and work from home employees can participate. The meeting is productive and collaborative and concludes with everyone on the same page. But now, Reggie has an idea that just popped into his head that he shares with those still in the room. Or better yet, your VP pops in to say the project prioritization has changed. The meeting you just had where everyone was aligned, is now out of alignment. This happens ALL THE TIME in hybrid-remote teams. Informal conversations that happen in-office without cohesive or timely documentation to share and communicate with remote colleagues can completely undermine even the best-laid communication plans.
- Remote workers need to advocate for themselves more than their onsite counterparts. Unfortunately, due to human nature and historical models of work, managers are more likely, or at least they BELIEVE they are more likely, to understand the performance of the team members they physically see every day. This leads to biases in having more knowledge to share about a worker when it comes to performance reviews or career pathing. Even if direct line managers have a clear view of every individual’s work, (which they should, if they’ve taken the time to become effective virtual managers), extended leadership team members may not be as familiar with those members not in the office. This happens during official performance reviews, but also throughout the working year as remote workers need to be more vocal and advocate for their work in a stronger way. (Protip for remote employees--consider finding a co-located sponsor who could serve as your advocate.) We know from first-hand experience that presentations developed by remote workers are sometimes presented by their co-located counterparts purely due to physical location. This practice denies remote workers the visibility they need to advance in their careers.
If you have even just one employee who works from home, you have a hybrid-remote team. Check out some solutions to these challenges from leaders of hybrid teams and workers experienced in hybrid teams.
Expert Advice for Solving Hybrid Team Challenges
Things I learned after five years on a hybrid-remote team