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5 ways to ensure team cohesion in a hybrid world

Many small business owners that have physical office space keep asking, “when can I expect all my employees to be back at work in person five days a week?”

The answer is: Probably not in the immediate future. Hybrid work (a combination of remote and in the office) is here to stay until there is a dramatic change in the unemployment rate, the available workforce increases or there is a downturn in the economy. Companies now need to learn to grow and retain their team in a hybrid environment where people are working remotely and occasionally getting together face-to-face in the office or another location.

Picking productivity off the factory floor: The Results-Only Work Environment

The first step to making this adjustment is for small business owners to change from an “in-person production mindset” for their team. This way of thinking is left over from an industrial automation age where people worked on an assembly line and their physical presence was critical to achieving the workplace quota together. This migrated from the factory floor to an office setting where owners became comfortable that their team was working when they could see them at their desks (even if they were not really accomplishing anything).

In a hybrid work world, small business owners need to evolve their mindset to one that has been called ROWE (Results-Only Work Environment).

This is one of the reasons that many smaller business owners tend to be so “quick to hire, slow to fire.” They want “butts in seats” to have the comfort of seeing someone in the office who simply appears to be doing the job. For many owners, if they can’t physically see their employee working, they assume they are not really accomplishing anything.

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In a hybrid work world, business owners need to evolve their mindset to one that has been called ROWE (Results-Only Work Environment). In 2003, the creators of this concept, Jody Thompson and Cali Ressler, sought to permanently change the way work gets done. It focuses on exactly the things that can ensure team retention in a hybrid world: the autonomy yet accountability of the employee, which are not based on time or physical location but on contributed value. For this new mindset, it is critical for business owners to provide the policies and tools that can help team members achieve in a hybrid world.

Forbes reports that working from home increases employee happiness by 20 percent. There are many advantages for small business owners, too: lower office expenses and a larger pool of talent resources for the company to draw from. The latter point was particularly problematic in rural areas where there were a limited number of candidates with the skill to do a targeted job. This then forced many companies to move their geographic location as they grew. Now, companies are no longer tied down to the surrounding towns for their labor.

5 ways to support your hybrid team’s cohesion

To support this new hybrid work format, business owners need to establish clear guidelines and make the right tools available.

1. Establish what your work from home policy is, and keep in mind the ‘why’

First, establish a clear work from home policy. For some hybrid employees, this includes which days they are committed to being in the office and what hours they will be available when they work from home. This should be set by the employee and mutually agreed to by the manager, and generally should not change week to week. Ensure there are days where team members who need to collaborate are in the office at the same time so employees understand the reason why they need to be present in person part of the week.

Despite a “back to the office” policy, some of your employees will still be concerned about being in the office at all as a result of the pandemic, or just won’t want to come back since they are so comfortable working from home. In fact, one study indicated that 96 percent of employees would take a pay cut if they could permanently work from home. Explore if there is a medical reason for an employee not coming to the office or if it’s just their personal preference. Obviously, some positions can’t be performed from home, such as retail store employees and shipping or receiving clerks. Check with your HR department or other local resources to get specific guidance since regulations vary by state.

2. Get your team on the same page with company collaboration platforms

Technology is the critical way to ensure that all staff can closely collaborate while working remotely. Team members should be extensively trained — not just provided a login — on the company’s technology tools to be successful at their job. A trained employee is more likely to be productive at their job and to remain at the company.

Tools must include reliable internet access to all relevant business applications. Onboarding should include testing the speed of the employees’ home connection using tools. The speed that is required will be based on the applications the company uses.

Team members should be extensively trained — not just provided a login — on the company’s technology tools to be successful at their job.

Successful companies utilize chat applications like Slack. This provides instantaneous conversations between team members as if they were in the same office doing their work. These types of tools were created because email took too long to reply, and multiple phone calls were too intrusive during the work day. Multiple “chat channels” can be set up for private rooms by department or subject being discussed.

While an application like Slack can provide the crucial instant messaging-function that teams will need to collaborate effectively while working remotely, there are other functions like file sharing that need to be addressed as well. Google Docs and Sheets is a tried-and-true method for providing shared access to communal documents, while also helping with version control.

Secure, bug-free video conferencing and screen-sharing is also crucial to the success of remote and hybrid teams. To be able to collaborate in real-time on a round of edits to a presentation, or updates to a financial tracker, is a foundational component of effective remote work today. And don’t forget to make time for a little bit of small talk. The social aspects of meetings that naturally occur while in-person are less likely to occur organically while online, which can make meetings more transactional than they would otherwise be in-person.

While it’s difficult to replicate all of the efficiencies that are created when your whole team is under the same roof — with the right combination of quick chat tools, video conference platforms, and shared drives that provide easy access and effective version control – you can put a solid foundation underneath your team to collaborate effectively from wherever they may be. But again, actually training new team members on all of the platforms your organization uses to collaborate, is as important as having the right tools in place in the first place.

3. Ensure that all employees understand the security risks of working remotely and how to detect threats

Often with less sophisticated defenses, smaller businesses are frequent targets of hackers. Accenture reports that 43 percent of cyberattacks are on small business, and only 14 percent of those companies are prepared. A single well-placed attack can ruin a small company, so cybersecurity needs to be made a priority — no matter where employees are working from.

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The issue becomes even more complicated when team members are working remotely. Each home office now represents a new endpoint that someone can attempt to exploit. But, there are highly effective ways that company leaders can ensure they’re protecting the business as holistically as possible, even while the team is dispersed.

One foundational strategy is to provision your team with a Virtual Private Network (VPN), a technology which uses digital tunnels to protect company data as it travels across unknown networks. VPNs provide a number of important benefits. Firstly,  data that passes through a VPN tunnel is encrypted, so no one can change or view the data that’s being transmitted. VPNs also provide companies with the capability to both authenticate users upon log-in, and in-depth access control, so companies can restrict VPN users to only specific applications, or just certain parts of your company network.

Virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) is another approach companies with hybrid workforces may want to explore. VDI essentially hosts desktop environments on a centralized server, and deploys them to end-users on request. This helps keep your company’s data centrally located, while still providing access to remote employees. The approach comes with a number of other important benefits as well, including a licensing model which helps ensure your company is only spending on active users.

Another issue is poor password hygiene, since employees prioritize convenience (saving the passwords in the internet browsers) over safety. Many companies use password managers like Dashlane to secure all their password requirements with one “hard to guess” master password. Hackers’ tactics are constantly changing so employees need to be retrained on best security practices twice a year.

Group of male and female co-workers sharing pizza together in comfortable chairs in office

4. When you do want employees in the office, make it exciting

Give team members a reason to come into the office to boost their collaboration. This could be in the form of special culinary or holiday celebrations, onsite exercise classes or other special events. One of my clients is offering a special commuting bonus ($100-$200 a month) for those employees that come to the office more than three days a week.

Next, keeping a hybrid culture growing is very different from when everyone shared an office and worked there every day. You need to create real and perceived proximity so people can still feel part of a team. In a hybrid work environment, many people may feel they are working alone.

You need to create real and perceived proximity so people can still feel part of a team.

This is why overcommunication using technology-based tools is not a nuisance, but a critical element of success. When people communicate more, they feel part of a team which builds empathy and connectiveness about their mission together. Transparency by small business owners as to what is really going on in the business and its success or challenges becomes even more important to keep team members from feeling isolated from their team, management and the company as a whole.

5. Do whatever you can to keep the team engaged — wherever they may be

Finally, it is also important to plan after-hours nonwork time together. This would happen naturally when people work in one place and then go out afterwards. But it now needs to be proactively planned, since team members are working predominantly remotely at a variety of geographic locations. Set up company sponsored online and in person social events with different themes like trivia game night or celebrating Cinco De Mayo. This will especially help team members build connections across departments and feel less siloed in their own work.

For small business owners, building team cohesion in a hybrid work environment must be an effort of intention and daily effort. Nothing will automatically be the way it might have been. Plus, it’s nearly impossible to have a positive team culture by default. That has always been a challenge — but with hybrid work models, the level of difficulty is increased. It may not be easy, but for the owner and the team, it will be worth it.

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Barry Moltz

Barry Moltz has founded and run small businesses with a lot of success and failure. He now helps business owners get unstuck by unlocking the potential in their companies. As a small business expert, speaker and author, he helps businesses in sales, marketing, social media, customer service, finance and people management.

View more posts by Barry Moltz