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Is it possible to create a sense of belonging, foster trust, and encourage learning in a hybrid work format?

Post-lockdowns, most professional services firms have adopted hybrid working. However, while firms were intentional about the way they worked when teams went fully remote, there is now a lack of thinking around what is emerging and a tension that is being created between those who enjoy being at home and those who want to go back to how things were. In this article, we start to explore how professional services firms can create a sense of belonging, foster trust, and encourage learning in a hybrid work format. We’ll delve into the importance of connection. If you’re interested in learning more about how to create a thriving hybrid work environment, keep reading!


A different dynamic online


During the pandemic, teams had to adapt to a new way of working to be productive. What they learned during the pandemic has benefited the hybrid way of working and bridged a lot of the gaps that were there before COVID. We have all had to learn new ways of communicating.

However, when it comes to working in a virtual space, team dynamics can be different than in a physical space. Team members are less inclined to talk over each other, and many individuals will sit back in a way that they might not in a room. There is a comfort that takes a little bit longer to build when you’re in a virtual space.


Pre-pandemic, many professional services firms spent years breaking down silos and going cross-functional. There is a feeling in some quarters that going online has moved teams firmly back into silos - unless you’ve got a very skilled operator connecting between them.


With lockdowns, there was a lot of thinking about how to make it work beyond the technology. We heard of firms creating virtual coffee mornings, there were online quizzes and regular check-ins. We wonder whether leaders need to once again be more intentional in the way they manage teams, especially in the context of remote work. Now that people can work both in the office and remotely, there seems to be less intention around the way teams are managed. Don't agree? When was the last time you engineered some social connection time in your working week? How do you give permission for colleagues to build social capital?


By being more intentional in the way we manage teams, we can create a more productive and collaborative work environment, whether we’re working in a physical space or a virtual one.

 

The theory of connectedness


During our recent webinar, we asked participants what they understood by connection. Here are some of the views that were shared:


  • Feeling comfortable picking up the phone with somebody, or going over to speak to somebody, to just be able to ask a question or chat.

  • Being able to easily pick up a conversation, and there’s no awkwardness.

  • Being able to have the same conversation in a virtual situation as you would in a one-to-one situation.

  • Being able to challenge an idea - when you’ve got connectedness you feel okay going against the grain.

These views show the importance of connection. When team members feel comfortable communicating with each other, they are more likely to collaborate effectively and challenge each other’s ideas. By fostering a sense of connection, firms can create a more productive and engaged workforce.

 

Scholars agree and several theories underline the importance of being connected. Self-determination theory is a framework for understanding motivation that was developed by the psychologists Ryan and Deci. It suggests that there are three psychological needs that we all have. When these needs are met, we are more likely to be intrinsically motivated. These needs are autonomy, competence and relatedness.


Autonomy is the need to feel ownership over one's behaviour. Competence speaks to the need to produce outcomes and experience mastery. Relatedness is often described and defined as a need to connect to others or a need to feel connected to others. In other words, we have a psychological need to be connected. This will vary in degree from individual to individual, but it is universal.


The second body of thinking we want to share comes from Margaret Heffernan. She speaks about the need for teams to build social capital. She describes social capital as an underlying sense of connectedness that builds trust. An absence of social capital makes it impossible for people to speak and think openly. In other words, without social capital, there is no psychological safety. This leads to group think and inhibits innovation.


We are increasingly seeing teams wanting to connect. We regularly hear that planned away days are the first opportunity for months for teams to be all together in the same place.


Being intentional about hybrid


Working remotely has opened up a world of opportunities for virtual communication. We can now connect with people across space and time, and work with colleagues from all over the globe. This has made us more connected than ever before. However, the impact of virtual work can also be that we can feel both socially and professionally isolated. There are many studies available about the negative impact of working virtually on cognitive load. It’s more difficult to read body language and seeing numerous people online at the same time is cognitively tiring.


A recent study by Microsoft shows that whilst 73% of employees need a better reason to go to the office than company expectations, 84% would be motivated by the promise of socializing with coworkers. Leaders recognise that ensuring cohesion and social connections within the team has been a challenge due to the shift to hybrid working. More than 60% of hybrid employees say that their direct connection to company culture is their direct manager.


Where does all of this leave us? We need to be more intentional about what we are trying to achieve as leaders and we need to be creative about how we solve some of the challenges that have arisen because of the new way in which we now all work.


Leaders have found themselves in a territory of things being emergent. Leaders have to notice and they have to become curious.  The longer we hold on to the concept that the fix to all of this is going back to the office, a reality that is unlikely to happen, we stop ourselves from doing better.


We need as leaders to focus our energy and talent on shaping a new way of doing things.  As this article shows, there is a need for individuals to connect at a basic human level. Connection is something that would motivate us to go back into the office some of the time. However, are we exploring what connection means to our team members? Are we being intentional about how we foster that connection (whether online or in person)?

 

If you are interested in how you as a leader can better lead your teams into the new emergent future, join us at Henley Business School to create a blueprint for cohesion in hybrid.




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