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Thought Leadership

Overcoming the Challenges of a Hybrid Workplace

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Companies face a number of challenges as they shift from virtual environments to a new hybrid workplace post-pandemic. How will teams work effectively when some members are in the office and others virtual? How will social relationships develop? How will work be transparent and equal opportunities be presented to all employees? UNC Executive Development sat down with Dr. Arvind Malhotra, Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship, to discuss how organizations can ensure employee connection, inclusivity, and productivity in a hybrid workplace.

As organizations resume a sense of normalcy post-pandemic, what challenges do they face with bringing employees back to an in-person office or adopting a hybrid environment?

If one group of employees chooses to come into the office and another set chooses to work from home, the organization runs the risks of “in-group” versus “out-group” schism. Those in the office can exchange information that the “out-group” may not be privy to. There is also the potential for the “in-group” to build social camaraderie that the “out-group” is not able to. The “in-group” may start to play favorites and prefer those who are part of their group which could cause those in the “out-group” to find information being withheld from them, whether purposely or inadvertently. Or, during an all-team meeting, the “in-group” may exchange cues with each other or share inside jokes that make those working remotely feel excluded or even discriminated against in the process of the team moving forward.

What are some steps organizations can take to avoid this “in-group” versus “out-group” scenario?

One way around this may be to rotate who comes to the office and who works from home so that such “in-groups” do not calcify. If a rotation cannot be established or someone prefers to come to the office constantly or work from home constantly, then care must be taken to avoid the formation of these groups. Another simple and effective way to avoid groups and cliques is to make sure even those who come to the office attend team meetings using their individual workspaces rather than congregating as a group in a meeting room.

Employees often assume they need to be in-office to be visible to their boss and be considered for a promotion or reward. How can an organization make sure this doesn’t become a cultural norm?

That feeling of “I need to be there” is the last thing you want employees to think and feel. The best way to avoid this is to relate performance objective measures to output performance rather than process.

Another concern related to this is that by not coming in, a virtual employee may miss out on a crucial mentorship opportunity. If one was in the office, she could knock on the boss’s door to ask for advice or feedback. Leaders should explicitly provide these opportunities to virtual employees. They should walk the “virtual hallways” by picking up a phone or using a chat function to proactively have conversations with remote employees. They can also hold open-door office hours for those physically present as well as virtual office hours for those remote.

On a similar note, how does an organization make sure work is visible and transparent for both virtual and in-office employees?

The FOMO (fear of missing out) when an employee is not in an office is genuine. If a virtual employee is part of a team or group, then ensure that the work being done by those in the physical offices – as long as it is interrelated to the work of the virtual employees – is explicitly explicated for them to see and synchronize with. Or, have a short meeting to synchronize work. In the same vein, ensure that the work of those who are virtual is made visible to those in the office.

In a team meeting where both remote and in-office employees are present, the meeting facilitator should ensure that the achievements and accomplishments of both virtual employees and those in offices are highlighted. Identifying the point-of-work conflicts like a delay in one’s output and its impact on others’ work should be another key aspect of those meetings.

Being in-office helps build social relationships that can benefit team dynamics as well. How does an organization facilitate this if some of their employees are virtual?

Employers need to dedicate explicit and separate time for socialization and bonding. Remember, employees are also concerned that they may be missing out on socialization and bonding activities that those in the office may be engaging in. Arrange for socialization at the team level. Schedule a virtual meeting dedicated specifically to a teambuilding event. It could be a virtual scavenger hunt or a trivia game.

Also, every “work” meeting should devote five or ten minutes to socialization and resocialization. Everyone should be encouraged to speak about what is on their minds and what is going on in their lives. Starting with those who are virtual first will ensure that their voice is heard and signal that they are as important as those who are present.

To see more from Arv’s Return to Work: Embracing the New Workplace series, read 3 Aspects of Virtual Work to Unlearn Post-Pandemic and Four Roles of Physical Workspaces.

Arvind Malhotra is H. Allen Andrew Professor of Entrepreneurial Education and Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.