5 Challenges of Hybrid Work — and How to Overcome Them
Hybrid working arrangements can be daunting for those about to adopt them and challenging for those who already have. But the good news is that we’re learning quickly where the biggest obstacles lie and how to minimize them in advance and manage them as they come up. The most common challenges related to hybrid work fall under what the author calls the “5C challenges”: communication, coordination, connection, creativity, and culture. If you’re struggling to manage a hybrid team or workforce, start by understanding the five challenges, then use the author’s 5Cs checklist to assess where you’re at and where to go from there. It’s designed to help leaders tackle — and prioritize — the most common challenges of hybrid working.
One thing is clear about the future of work: At least in the near term — and possibly for much longer — hybrid work arrangements are going to be the norm for many organizations, in industries ranging from tech to pharmaceuticals to academia. There are good reasons why many companies and employees are excited about this mix of in-person and remote work — and equally good reasons why many feel trepidation about the shift.
I’ve studied global teams and virtual teamwork for close to 25 years. In my recent executive education teaching and conversations with senior leaders and middle managers, I’ve heard the same concerns about hybrid work come up frequently, and my MBA and undergraduate students who are thinking about their post-graduation employment options echo them. The most important concerns they’re raising fall under what I call the “5C challenges”: communication, coordination, connection, creativity, and culture.
Some companies, managers, and employees have been familiar with the five Cs for a long time because they’ve worked with geographically distributed, virtual teams for many years — even decades. There’s a lot we can learn from their experience, as well as from research done by management scholars well before the pandemic.
If you’re struggling to manage a hybrid team or workforce, start by understanding the five challenges, then use the 5Cs checklist to assess where you’re at and where to go from there.
It’s obvious that reliance on technology creates basic communication challenges. Many of us had to overcome technological difficulties when we first transitioned to fully remote work back in March 2020, but the transition to hybrid working can be rocky, too. One executive recently told me that when their employees started returning to the office, they realized that their video conferencing systems weren’t fully up to the needs of hybrid working — if they could even remember how to operate them. Then there are the other practical difficulties hybrid work presents. For example, should everyone in the office log in from separate computers if some people are remote in order to level the playing field? Or does that create more problems than it solves?
In addition to the technological challenges, communication in remote and hybrid teams can be complicated by the fact that some people are more comfortable speaking up over screens than others — and that’s in addition to the power, status, and language differences that already create barriers to communication in work settings.
All collaborative work involves coordination, but working in hybrid teams presents significantly more coordination challenges than working face to face. The risk is that what researchers have called “faultlines” can easily emerge between those who work together in person and those who work remotely. Because of the extra effort required to coordinate with remote teammates, they get left out of small exchanges and minor decisions made by those who are working together in the office. Over time, as people get accustomed to who’s looped in and who’s not, they can get left out of bigger conversations and more important decisions.
The challenges of connection are not limited to problems with technological communication and logistical coordination. There’s also the even bigger problem of social connections, and how they can be endangered or lost entirely when working remotely. We know that professional networks and mentoring relationships are important for advancing in the workplace, and that building and sustaining these is particularly challenging already for women and minorities. We also know from research that personal connections are socially sustaining and important for our psychological well-being. Hybrid working risks creating a “dominant class” of those who feel like they’re central to the organization and strongly committed to it and an “underclass” of those who feel peripheral and disconnected not only from the work, but also from the social life that creates meaning and bonds employees more closely to the organization. The consequences can be less happy and less committed employees who are more likely to search for opportunities elsewhere.
Two types of creativity are endangered by hybrid work. Perhaps the most obvious one is collective creativity: people can brainstorm via zoom, but programmed times and formats for generating ideas may well not prove as fruitful as the more fluid conversations, sidebars, and unexpected things that can happen when we kick ideas around with others or work intensively on solving a problem together.
But individual creativity can be endangered, too. We know that quiet time alone can help people generate novel ideas and insights. Yet it isn’t clear that working alone over many days or weeks will prove generative for employees who must be constantly creative or innovative. On the contrary, there is reason to think that at least some social interactions and spontaneous conversations with colleagues, seeing random artifacts in each other’s cubicles, and even the changes of scenery involved in going from home to work may be important for creativity.
Like creativity, this is a challenge that senior leaders are becoming more and more concerned about as the pandemic drags on and the prospects of bringing everyone back to the office look increasingly dim. In the initial days and months of working remotely, companies were relieved at how productive and engaged their workers seemed to still be. But this probably owed a lot to the fact that these employees had all worked together closely before the pandemic and knew plenty about how to do so effectively, in addition to their understanding of the company’s norms, values, and expectations. Now, as existing employees leave and new ones join, an increasingly pressing challenge is how to socialize these newcomers and integrate them into the company’s culture, whether they’re interns, entry-level hires, or seasoned executives.
In addition, corporate culture can be critical for signaling the organization’s distinctiveness to potential new recruits, especially in industries where firms compete heavily for talent, such as tech, consulting, or banking. If employees never or rarely come to the office or spend time together, how can a company’s distinctive “feel” be maintained — and then, how can companies differentiate themselves from each other in the war for talent?
Managing the Return
The future of work is here.
While recognizing the importance of culture for newcomers, we shouldn’t overlook the reality that sustaining a positive culture and strong organizational commitment is at least as important for the many employees who are not new to the company. Too often over the past two years, employees have found themselves ground down by a combination of all the demands and stresses they’re under and a corporate culture that doesn’t sufficiently recognize their struggles or support their needs. But even those who are doing OK managing their daily tasks may well find themselves feeling increasingly distant and disconnected from their companies, amplifying the risks of reduced motivation, lower organizational commitment, and higher turnover.
The 5Cs Checklist
There’s no reason to think the 5C challenges will go away anytime soon. In fact, if they’re not proactively recognized and managed, they’re likely to get worse rather than better. So, what is a leader to do?
Recently in my executive education teaching with companies and managers in the U.S., Europe, Latin America, Africa, and Asia, I’ve been having energetic and generative conversations by asking executives to work their way through a checklist of the 5Cs. There are four simple steps in this process:
For each of the five Cs, give yourself a grade on how you think your remote or hybrid workplace, unit, or team is doing. You can use a simple letter-grading scheme or a rating between 1 and 10. The goal here is to use these grades to summarize whether you think you’re in good shape or have room for improvement on each C.
Identify the C you gave the lowest grade. This is where you can benefit most from focusing your attention — it’s your maximum leverage point for making high-impact changes. Then, analyze the underlying issues. Why is your grade weak here? For example, if you scored lowest on communication, are you observing some people speaking up too much while others aren’t speaking up enough? If you scored lowest on creativity, is it collective creativity or individual creativity that seems to be suffering most? Then, move on to the C you gave the next-lowest grade and repeat until you’ve considered each C that didn’t get a perfect score.
Starting with the C you gave the lowest grade, consider what can you do to make improvements in this area. Aim to develop three action steps you can take to begin addressing the problems you’ve identified. For example, if your weakest C is coordination, you might come up with more efficient ways to ensure everyone is looped into all important decisions, or a new schedule for ensuring more regular, structured information-sharing sessions with remote team members. Identify potential barriers to the implementation of your action steps and ways to overcome them. Repeat for the other Cs.
Set a clear schedule for implementing the changes you plan to make and a communication plan for them. Will they be rolled out over several weeks or months? And in what sequence? Who will need to be consulted and informed at each stage, and how should this be done? Establish key metrics for measuring the effectiveness of the changes — for example, by using surveys to track progress on culture or holding regular check-ins with junior employees to ask about their mentors and networks as part of improving connection. Finally, ensure that you set a timeframe for reviewing how well the changes you’ve been making are working, perhaps six months down the line and again another six months after that.
How to Work Through the Checklist
You can work through the four steps by yourself or with your team.
Just clearing some time in your busy schedule to focus on each of the five Cs can lead to some unexpected insights and a renewed sense of energy for making changes. For example, one senior manager who analyzed his team using the 5Cs checklist told me he had a real “lightbulb moment” when he thought hard about connection and realized that the higher turnover he’d been seeing on his team wasn’t just due to pandemic burnout or the prospect of higher pay elsewhere, but to the reality that team members’ social connections to each other had frayed over the last two years, diminishing their sense of commitment to the team and belonging to the company.
You can also do this same exercise with the members of your team, and it can be even more impactful. Rather than going through the 5Cs checklist by yourself, schedule a lunch session or a solid time block (maybe even as part of a full-fledged workshop) with your team. Ideally, this would be in person, but remotely can work, too. Your aim is to work through each of the steps of the exercise together.
Start by having each person independently give your team a grade on how they think the team is doing on each C. Next, have everyone share their grades for each C with each other and discuss their reasons. You may be surprised to find that others have quite a different diagnosis than you. For example, one leadership team I worked with discovered that there was considerable variation among them when it came to evaluating company culture. Team members who had been around long before the pandemic sent the company remote gave their company an “A” or “A-“ and said they thought the company’s culture was in decent shape — they could articulate its central values fairly easily and assumed everyone else could do the same. Members who hadn’t been at the company as long, however, gave it much lower grades on culture and expressed confusion and uncertainty about the company’s core values and norms, which they’d hesitated to bring up before. Understanding the reasons for such discrepancies can be very illuminating, and the act of simply discussing them can help to build trust and firmer foundations for making improvements going forward.
Finally, make sure you reserve enough time to brainstorm together about possible ways to address the problems you’ve identified, and develop a joint plan for implementing them. Doing this together will result in better ideas and greater buy-in that will stand you in good stead as you move forward together.
Hybrid working arrangements can be daunting for those about to adopt them and challenging for those who already have. But the good news is that we’re learning quickly where the biggest obstacles lie and how to minimize them in advance and manage them as they come up. Using the 5Cs checklist can help leaders tackle — and prioritize — the most common challenges of hybrid working.