For hybrid working to… work, we need ‘real teams’ of collaborators: engaged, purposeful, self-aware and autonomous.
Covid-19 ushered in a new way of working. Prior to the pandemic, remote working was the exception rather than the rule.
The virtual teams who used Belbin before this point were generally virtual out of necessity: they were primarily international teams working across different timezones and grappling with cultural differences.
Now, hybrid working has become the norm. Harvard Business School reports that 81% of workers either don’t want to go back to the office or would prefer a hybrid working schedule.
According to Gallup, it’s 90%. What’s more, they’ve discovered that 56% of U.S. full-time workers say they can do their job effectively from home and 50% want their work and life blended.
Even organisations who might otherwise have resisted the transition are discovering that they need to adapt to hybrid working in order to attract and retain talent in a competitive recruitment environment.
The question of how to manage and support hybrid teams takes us back to the fundamentals of what teams are, what they need for success, and how managers and leaders can reconcile the needs of the individual, the team and the organisation.
Until very recently, office space has been a place to monitor people working, and a culture of presenteeism has prevailed.
However, it isn’t all bad. Office working offers fewer barriers to the kind of informal communication which helps knowledge sharing and innovation. It is easier to build connections with fellow team members – something which has to be done more consciously in remote and hybrid teams.
Our own research here at Belbin, conducted in 2020, demonstrated that while productivity increased in the first six months of UK lockdown, before ‘rules of engagement’ regarding hybrid working had been established in most organisations, employee engagement and innovation both suffered from the imposition of siloed working.
In Belbin Team Role terms, those with Implementer strengths (who follow processes and enjoy maintaining the status quo) and those who were self-starting and preferred to work alone (Specialists) were more engaged than those who liked to build networks, relied on interaction and preferred to work with others (Resource Investigators).
There is no putting the genie back in the bottle.
Employees who want the flexibility that hybrid working has to offer are ready to vote with their feet. The recruitment market is sufficiently competitive that organisations who fail to embrace a hybrid working model face losing valuable talent.
We might understand the challenges of managing hybrid teams in the abstract, but how do we tackle them in practice?
The answer is simple.
Hybrid working will only work effectively in ‘real teams’, where other elements are already in place, namely trust, accountability and psychological safety – where team members are engaged, autonomous and have a sense of purpose in their work.
Many objections to remote and hybrid work stem from the ‘X manager’ attitude (from McGregor’s Theory X and Y Theory).
X managers posit that workers are lazy, unambitious, tend to avoid responsibility and are self-interested. They believe that the workforce needs close supervision and intimidation, and use rewards and punishment as motivation.
By contrast, Y managers believe that employees are valuable assets – that they are internally motivated and engaged in their role, and therefore don’t need direct supervision to produce high quality work. These employees tend to enjoy better working relationships with their managers, and a healthier working environment.
So, when it comes to hybrid working, X managers do not want to surrender control. If they can’t supervise, how will the work get done? What’s to stop people from cheating the system?
Of course, regardless of location, people won’t be giving their best if they’re disengaged or feel that they aren’t trusted or respected.
Y managers understand the concept of managing by objectives rather than managing by presence. Individuals and teams need agency over how to manage their work and over their interactions with others. If the lines of communication are open and the work is being done, objectives can be met without micro-management, engendering trust.
So, let’s break that down a bit more. Here are some fundamentals that teams need for hybrid working to be effective.
Identifying our behavioural styles is the first step towards increasing self-understanding and building more effective working practices.
The Belbin Individual report analyses someone's contributions in terms of the nine Belbin Team Roles and offers advice and guidance on how they might work best, announce their preferences to others and cultivate latent talents.
Harnessing team strengths
The Belbin Team report assesses how a group of individuals will work together as a team. It details who might take on which work within the team, and where there may be gaps or overlaps in behavioural contributions.
The move to remote work during the pandemic was a haphazard one, born out of necessity, rather than planned.
Hybrid work patterns have emerged similarly organically, as a response to the needs (and demands) of the workforce.
But in order to be effective, we need to replace this ad hoc approach with a systemic one.
Real teams set out, and agree on, expectations and ground rules. These come from within the team, rather than being imposed from above, so that the rationale is understood and so that the social contract can be renewed when that rationale no longer applies.
These ground rules might include sharing expectations about working habits, key hours, whether cameras are switched on for video calls – anything which affects the day-to-day function of the team. Whilst these may seem like practical considerations, detailing, for example, how meetings will be handled when some of the team are co-located and others working remotely, can ensure that everyone feels involved and can avoid an ‘us and them’ culture evolving.
On a broader level, the team's social contract might also encompass how conflict is handled and how team members hold one another accountable.
In brief, if employees are engaged, they will be motivated to work, wherever they are.
Gallup research indicates that employees who play to their strengths every day are six times more likely to be engaged in their work.
Belbin helps individuals and teams to identify, articulate and promote their strengths. Our in-depth reports offer personalised insights, advice and guidance to help teams understand their contributions and those of others in the team, so that they can work and collaborate more effectively.
Engagement might look different, depending on the Team Roles in question. Those with strengths in social roles (Co-ordinator, Resource Investigator, Teamworker) are likely to be more engaged when working with others, whilst Plants (creative, free-thinking) and Specialists (self-starting, lovers of learning) are more likely to be engaged working alone on a project that captures their interest.
Belbin offers the opportunity not just to understand our strengths but to develop a strategy for ensuring that our job role helps us play to those strengths and maximise engagement in our work.
For example, the 'Placement Suggestions' page of the Belbin Individual report gives some pointers as to the individual's optimum working environment.
In a hybrid work model, this can be used to initiate dialogue with a manager, provoking discussions about where and how that individual works most effectively, and which kinds of work might be most suited to co-located or remote working.
When we know what we contribute to our team and organisation, our role has purpose. It’s easier to see the bigger picture – how the work will benefit both the organisation and our own career.
When you ask teams what is needed for success, ‘good communication skills’ is one of the most popular responses.
There are practical steps you can take to build psychological safety into your team’s everyday interactions.
They offer clarity and improve communication within teams. They set out the ways that team members will behave and interact.
The Team report allows the team to see what everyone has to offer.
With Belbin, it's easier for a hybrid team to see how it fits together, making them more focused on the team's purpose and goals.
Insights into who does what are crucial for ensuring that people are involved at the right time.
They can help the team take a more considered approach to designing meetings and projects, ensuring that team members working remotely aren't overlooked.
In a hybrid team, communication cannot be taken for granted. Frequent, candid communication is needed to overcome the difficulties of having teams dispersed.
What’s more, a one-size-fits-all strategy won’t work. Managers of effective hybrid teams know that team members have different needs when it comes to communicating. Again, it’s a case of aligning individual and team needs and expectations.
Team members with Plant and Specialist strengths might gravitate towards solitary working, but need regular check-ins to make sure that their work is aligned with the team’s objectives. Those with Teamworker and Resource Investigator amongst their top roles won’t fare as well in isolation and will need frequent contact with others to perform their roles effectively.
You can find out more about different Team Role communication styles here.
Belbin doesn’t just give us an insight into how teams communicate, it offers a language that connects work to people – a shorthand that can be used to delegate, plan, solve problems, address conflict and more.
When your team is fluent in this language, it becomes easier to address the balance – and challenges – that hybrid working offers. It is possible to identify which Team Roles are required for a given piece of work, where the relevant strengths lie in the team, and how and where is most appropriate to do that work.
For example, it might be that the Specialist’s research can be done remotely, but that feedback to the team needs to happen on site. This will vary from one hybrid team to the next, but the language of Team Roles makes it possible.
Belbin’s 2020 research also identified that teams need some opportunities for informal communication, ideally in person. Even if this is not possible, breakout areas online can help to build a sense of community, promote connection between employees and enable team members to grow their networks.
This helps to avoid an 'us and them' situation, where people in the office have a strong sense of belonging and those working remotely are treated as outsiders.
Psychological safety is distinct from trust. It is the idea that, in order to succeed, people in teams need to feel safe to take risks and make mistakes without fear of recrimination.
In spite of best intentions, hybrid working can lead to misunderstandings and miscommunications.
Hybrid team members are far more likely to be working asynchronously, and tone in written communications can be more easily misconstrued than when meeting and speaking in person. Small issues are more likely to be ignored or brushed under the carpet until they are large enough to cause significant disruption to the team.
In a team with psychological safety, these challenges can be addressed through frank, depersonalised interactions, using the language of Belbin Team Roles to ensure that discussions and resolutions are constructive and respectful.
Psychological safety ensures that all team members (including leaders) are accountable and that people feel comfortable speaking up when things go wrong.
One way Belbin helps teams to build greater psychological safety is by talking about weakness. Whilst focusing on our strengths makes us more engaged, admitting that we have types of work we find difficult or shy away from, can be liberating. It can help us to become accustomed to discussing – and learning from – failure in the team, and thereby avoid a blame culture.
According to Belbin theory, our Team Role weaknesses are just a flipside to our strengths.
For example, Monitor Evaluators might seem pessimistic or discouraging because their role is to prevent the team from making damaging mistakes.
When people are allocated work that does not match their strengths, difficulties are more likely to occur. The Belbin framework allows teams to talk about what goes wrong and why, and helps develop strategies to counteract these difficulties.
You can read more about how to build psychological safety with Belbin here.
Trust in teams is crucial, and it arises from having the other factors in place:
It isn't sufficient for managers blindly to trust that work is being done, if their team members are disengaged.
Goodwill alone is not enough.
To build a strong team which can embrace different modes of working and succeed, trust must exist between manager and employees, and between team members.
For managers, understanding each team member’s behavioural styles – including both strengths and allowable weaknesses – can help build trust.
The key to managing a hybrid team successfully is to recognise the importance of aligning the individual’s needs and expectations with those of the team and the organisation.
For many, hybrid working helps to restore equilibrium between private and professional worlds. And the needs of the team must be part of this balance too.
Whilst it may be tempting for managers to force everyone under one roof, collaboration is about more than the opportunity to communicate effectively. If people are forced into the office, autonomy is lost and so too is the impetus to collaborate and pull together as a team.
The difficulty is that there is no one-size-fits-all. Each team member’s circumstances will be different, as will their Team Role strengths and position in the team.
Belbin helps managers to recognise, understand and celebrate individual difference whilst respecting how these individuals fit together to build a high-performing team that is engaged, purposeful and driven to meet its objectives.
A manager with Belbin in their toolkit understands that a strong Resource Investigator is at their best when out networking, but might struggle working alone, and could lose interest once initial enthusiasm has passed.
That manager is also better equipped to handle the meticulous Completer Finisher who values the opportunities for greater concentration and focus that remote work affords, but whose workload may be hidden, and who may therefore be at risk of burnout owing to a reluctance to delegate.
Belbin allows leaders to manage the talents, opportunities and challenges of hybrid working, enabling teams to give of their best, wherever they work.
Please complete this form and we will get in touch.