Straight talk on building connection and communication in remote and hybrid teams

The leaders who will be most successful in the 21st century will adapt their approach to the new world of work.

Remote and hybrid work have become standard for many organizations in the post-pandemic world. Many employees love this new way of working. A recent study by OWL Laboratories and Global Workplace Analytics found 42 percent of employees prefer to be fully remote and 36 percent prefer a hybrid working style. Only 22 percent of employees prefer to be in the office full time.

However, many managers are struggling to learn how to effectively lead in this new world of work. The challenge of leading remote/hybrid teams has caused some organizations to abandon the effort and mandate that employees return to the office, often citing concerns about communication and connection.

Considering that organizations will have to embrace this new method of working if they want to attract and retain top talent, and the fact that data supports the personal and organizational benefits of remote/hybrid work, it’s clear that leaders must learn new strategies and skills to thrive in this environment.

I’ve been leading remote/hybrid teams for more than 15 years, and I’ve learned a lot about building connections and improving communication with team members. Here’s some straight-up, real talk about what works and what doesn’t. 

Don’t be judgmental

Too many leaders have a false belief that remote/hybrid teams are “less than” — less productive, less efficient, less cohesive, etc. — co-located teams. This bias is rooted in past experiences when remote/hybrid work was an anomaly and wasn’t fully supported technologically/operationally as it is today. High-speed internet, collaboration platforms and web-conferencing solutions make it as easy to work remotely as in the office. Work is no longer a place you go, but something you do.

In the early days of leading a hybrid team, I thought something was wrong because it didn’t feel the same as when everyone was in the office. Over time, I learned that nothing was wrong, it was just different. Hybrid teams “feel” different than co-located teams, both from the leader and team member perspective.

Co-located and remote/hybrid teams have their pros and cons, but the most successful team is one that performs best, regardless of where it’s located.

Think remote first

Leaders who try to “bolt on” remote workers to their existing style of leadership will only frustrate themselves and their teammates. To maximize interpersonal connection and improve communication, examine your management efforts and decision-making through the lens of how it will play out in the remote/hybrid environment.

A remote-first approach to meetings would dictate that all team members, regardless of their physical location, attend meetings virtually. Doing so would create a more equitable and productive experience for all involved, compared to having the co-located folks huddle around a phone or computer and not fully involving the remote members in attendance. It’s also crucial to be disciplined and use effective meeting practices to successfully lead remote/hybrid teams.

Make the implicit, explicit

Document expectations so there isn’t any room for confusion. Everything from working hours, response times, technologies to be leveraged, backup plans and communication norms should be clear, regularly communicated, and most of all, followed.

A particularly important area to make explicit is building trust and psychological safety within the team. Most people think trust “just happens,” like some sort of relational osmosis. The reality is that building trust is a skill that can be learned and developed. When leaders intentionally use behaviors that build trust, they foster an environment of psychological safety where people feel free to speak up, offer ideas and take risks without fear of reprisal.

The remote/hybrid workplace requires people to be proactive self-leaders. Leaders who foster an environment of psychological safety create the conditions for people to bring their whole selves to work and contribute to their highest potential.

Create a connected community

Author Michael Stallard emphasizes that a culture of connection meets the seven universal human needs required for people to thrive at work: respect, recognition, belonging, autonomy, personal growth, meaning and progress. My managers and I discovered we had to work differently, and more intentionally, to foster relationships with hybrid team members. 

It’s easy to fall into the trap of proximity bias, which is giving preferential treatment to those in our immediate vicinity. Leaders need to be conscious of that bias and work to eliminate it.

Have regular one-on-one meetings with team members every one to two weeks where you prioritize connecting on a personal level. And consider holding virtual meetings to celebrate birthdays or holidays, just as you would if everyone was co-located.

Perhaps most importantly, hold regular in-person meetings. Be thoughtful and intentional about designing the agenda to maximize time to build interpersonal relationships. Second, offer downtime during the meeting for people to connect organically. Team members are more likely to bond and deepen their relationships if they’re enjoying themselves.

Embrace the new world of work

Remote/hybrid work isn’t going anywhere. Building connections with team members and communicating effectively has always been a necessary leadership skill, but in the world of remote/hybrid work, it’s even more critically important for everyone’s success.