Team Management

How to Lead a Hybrid Team: A Small Business Owner’s Guide

Jeff Haden Inc. columnist and small business management expert 

In the early days of Microsoft, Bill Gates devoted a portion of his formidable intellect to memorizing employee license plates. As Gates recalls, “I knew everyone’s license plates so I could look out in the parking lot and see when did people come in (and) when they were leaving.”

In time, Gates recognized that he needed to be “a little careful not to try and apply my standards to how hard (others) worked.” (Or better yet, to stop using presence as a proxy for productivity.) 

But still: for a while, he knew who was working late, and who was not. So, had Gates been leading a hybrid team, one with some employees on-site and others doing their jobs remotely, those working in the office could have enjoyed a perception leg up on their work-from-home counterparts. If my car is in the parking lot every night until 10 p.m., by all appearances I’m extremely dedicated and hard-working—regardless of whether I accomplish more than any of my remote peers.

Recognize biases

Proximity bias—the assumption that people you can see working are working harder than those you can’t see—is just one of the challenges faced by small business owners who manage a hybrid workforce. Another is a bias towards what’s “easy” for you. 

Say you’re in danger of missing a deliverable and need to alert the client as soon as possible. You could jump on Slack, write an email, or send a text—and hope that Marcy, the rep for that customer, isn’t occupied with another task. 

Or you could just walk the ten steps to an office down the hall and say to Allison, another customer service rep, “Call ACME Inc., let them know we might be late, and tell them we will send an updated schedule within an hour.”  That’s efficient and effective. 

But in Marcy’s case, she’s at risk of being marginalized simply because she’s not “there”—even though it’s her customer.

The same is true for meetings. It’s easy to grab three on-location people and hold an unscheduled meeting about a problem or opportunity. It’s harder to wrangle the remote members of your team onto an impromptu Zoom call. But if you go the “easy” route, over time your onsite employees will naturally possess more information and enjoy more opportunities than your remote employees.

As most experienced leaders know, what’s easy for you is not always what’s best for your team.

So how can you better lead a hybrid team? Start with the basics.

Recognize and maintain responsibilities

If you’ve made Marcy the point person for ACME Inc., act that way. If Marcy works remotely, figure out how she will overcome any communication challenges. Set expectations for when and how often she will check email, voice mail, and Slack. Create a system for emergencies; for example, establish that you will only text her when a customer (or other) issue is truly urgent. Then stick to it; that way Marcy will come to trust that the responsibility she has been given is actual, not symbolic. And that proximity, where authority and ownership are concerned, is irrelevant.

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Holding a zoom meeting? Have everyone attend on zoom 

If three people are on-site and three will attend a meeting by Zoom, make sure everyone attends on Zoom. Separately. Otherwise, team members in the same physical space can communicate offline, pass notes, and come to a nonverbal consensus. Even if they don’t, it can feel that way to the people attending by Zoom. 

Make sure that everyone who attends can participate on the same level. Even if it feels a little odd for the person in the office beside yours to be on a Zoom call instead of pulling a chair up to your desk.

Focus on fair—not equal

Try as you might, it’s impossible to treat in-person and remote employees equally. Don’t feel bad; equal is not always fair.

As a leader, your goal is to create an environment where every individual can perform at their highest level. To do that, you need to understand how each person works best. This means understanding how each person wants to receive praise and recognition as well as constructive feedback. As well, you should know what makes each person feel engaged, motivated, and part of the team.

Sounds complicated. It is. And yet it’s not. Especially when you’re a results-driven manager.

How to manage by results

In their book Working Backwards: Insights, Stories, and Secrets from Inside Amazon, Colin Bryar and Bill Carr describe how Amazon realized the biggest predictor of a team’s success was whether it had a leader with “the appropriate skills, authority, and experience to staff and manage a team whose sole focus was to get the job done.”

If your business is new (or if you are new to running a business), you may not feel that you have all the skill and experience you need. But what you can do is focus on getting the job done—which means managing by results. This is what Google does. Google spent years determining the key behaviors of its best managers. What they found is that knowledge, skill, and experience certainly mattered, but communication, feedback, coaching, teamwork, and respect were equally or more important. In their employee survey, the answer to this question is key: “My manager keeps the team focused on our priority results and deliverables.”

When you manage by results, proximity and convenience biases become less problematic. Communication also becomes less of a problem, because communication tends to focus on what really matters: getting the right things done.

And one more thing: evaluating employee performance becomes less of a problem because the proof will be in the output pudding.

When you manage by results, you find that where people work is largely irrelevant when you can determine—objectively—how well they work. 

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Updated: October 21, 2021

Jeff Haden
Jeff Haden Jeff Haden is a writer, speaker, small business management expert, and Inc.’s most popular columnist. He's the author of The Motivation Myth: How High Achievers Really Set Themselves Up to Win.
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