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Leading teams of hybrid workers can be a double-edged sword because managers must satisfy employees’ desire for flexibility without compromising overall group effectiveness. On the one hand, combining onsite and remote work provides employees with flexibility while allowing them to spend some of their time in the office with coworkers. On the other hand, though, these arrangements may result in significant variability between team members’ work schedules, given that employee work arrangements are often driven by personal demands and preferences and may change over time. The shifting work environment this creates may harm group dynamics and hinder organizational alignment and agility.
The CAARE framework combines four interconnected elements — configuration, autonomy-alignment, relationships, and equity — to help leaders balance individual flexibility with group effectiveness. Drawn from my own and others’ research on virtual and remote leadership, this framework provides integrated, interdependent strategies for leading hybrid work. Two of its components — configuration and autonomy-alignment — aim to create a hybrid work structure that takes into account both the flexibility employees desire and the team’s strategic needs. The relationships and equity components focus on building a solid relational foundation to support collective confidence that the hybrid work structure can work well for everyone.
An Integrative Framework for Leading Hybrid Work
Managers within businesses and government organizations report that they find the following CAARE framework strategies helpful for leading groups of employees who alternate between in-office and remote work.
The leader must keep the bigger picture in mind when working with each employee to agree on a hybrid work configuration that balances individuals’ personal and job demands with those of their team. While an overemphasis on satisfying individual needs may result in inefficiencies that harm overall group effectiveness, a more rigid structure may undermine the benefits of hybrid work that give organizations a competitive advantage in recruiting and retaining employees. An effective configuration, therefore, requires careful consideration of which tasks the employee can perform remotely, such as independent work and routine information sharing, versus those that call for in-person interaction, such as collaborative tasks or the navigation of complicated interpersonal or task-related differences.
For example, team members in one organization I worked with were reluctant to come into the office because they mainly worked on independent tasks, but their manager recognized the need to come together periodically to maintain group cohesion. Fortunately, the organization’s thoughtful hybrid work policy allowed managers to require employees to come into the office, with sufficient notice, for activities deemed critical to the organization’s overall mission. The leader mandated periodic all-hands meetings for team-building activities, group training, and strategic planning — valuable tasks better done in person than remotely.
Proactive expectation setting allows managers to negotiate work arrangements that balance individual and team concerns in developing a configuration customized to the group’s needs. For example, recognizing that each group’s situation is different, Red Hat empowered its leaders to engage with their associates to determine a “team best” configuration and provided conversation guides to help navigate those conversations.
This approach to structuring hybrid work may result in configurations that vary across groups within the same organization. Leaders should avoid the common knee-jerk reaction of implementing blanket policies requiring all employees to be in the office regardless of whether their work requires it. Nor should they rush to conclude that specific jobs are impossible to do remotely. Instead, they should consider whether some aspects of these jobs — possibly with some adjustments — do not require onsite presence.
Another organization I worked with, for example, was reluctant to allow IT support staffers to work remotely because they were responsible for onsite repairs and troubleshooting internal clients’ technology issues. To provide these IT workers with the opportunity to work from home for some part of the week, the organization implemented remote troubleshooting software and established onsite “clinic hours” where clients could schedule time or stop by for needed support. Another organization allowed members of its IT support staff to rotate who came into the office. Such strategies potentially enable all employees, no matter their roles, to work remotely to some degree if desired. But this is possible only if leaders are willing to give employees more autonomy, or control, over how they approach their work while ensuring alignment with group goals.
Autonomy and Alignment
Managers might feel a lack of control when employees alternate working in and out of the office, particularly when a group member’s onsite time doesn’t overlap with the manager’s own schedule. A typical response is to tighten the reins by closely monitoring and controlling employees’ work, but this can undermine a primary benefit of hybrid work for employees: flexibility. A better approach is to empower employees by granting them more autonomy over when, where, and how they do their jobs.
The leader’s role is to provide coaching to help employees solve problems independently, identify areas for improvement, and provide necessary supports. These supports might include access to technologies that facilitate remote work, training in using these tools and in other skills for working autonomously (such as time management), and financial support to defray the costs of setting up a safe and productive workspace at home. It is also critical to listen to employee concerns and support their well-being, as this might be particularly at risk when the boundary between work and home is less well defined.
However, autonomy must also come with guardrails to ensure that employees use their freedom in ways that align with the interests of their team. A useful starting point is clarifying how each employee’s goals connect to group and organizational priorities and objectives, such as a shared customer-driven mission that keeps everyone focused on the same goals. This enables leaders to focus on results rather than micromanaging how employees get their work done.
Autonomy must come with guardrails to ensure that employees use their freedom in ways that align with the interests of their team.
Another alignment strategy is to share information about group members’ work activities and accomplishments. Many organizations use shared calendars and work status tracking tools for much-needed transparency. These technology tools are most effective when coupled with a team-level agreement that specifies collaboratively set norms for productive team functioning — for example, core hours of availability, expected time to respond to communications from coworkers, and status reporting requirements. Alignment activities cultivate a sense of solidarity, which is essential for building a solid relational foundation to support hybrid work.
Relationships characterized by high levels of trust are the bedrock of successful hybrid work. Leaders are more likely to grant autonomy when they trust employees who are out of their sight to act in the group’s best interest, but developing and maintaining trust can be more challenging with limited in-person interaction. Building a culture of trust should start in the configuration component of the framework by creating a hybrid work structure that includes opportunities for relationship-building, such as periodic onsite activities that include all team members.
A recent Microsoft survey of over 20,000 people in 11 countries confirms the importance of building social capital in a hybrid workforce. The surveyed employees reported that a critical motivation for going into the office is the opportunity for social connection.
Social connection can also come from experiences that don’t happen in person. For example, Red Hat changed to a virtual format for its annual weeklong celebration of the company, its culture, and its people. It hosted social events, like a virtual open talent show, and engaged the community in hybrid service activities, including the opportunity to participate in the Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service in person or virtually.
It is also essential to set and reinforce norms for virtual communication that promote trust, such as guidelines for keeping coworkers informed about work status and providing timely responses to requests. Hybrid employees signal their trustworthiness by demonstrating that they are getting work done and contributing to collective goals. Thus, to build a strong climate of trust, autonomy must come with accountability.
Depending on the hybrid structure, individual employees’ in-person interactions with their leaders may vary significantly. One potential issue is proximity bias, whereby leaders value and give more attention to physically present employees than remote ones. All group members must receive fair treatment, no matter their work arrangement, to avoid feelings of isolation and fear of missing out.
Adopting a results-oriented approach to evaluating employees that promotes autonomy should help ensure that leaders focus on clear objectives and standards for success rather than mere presence in the office. Fostering strong relationships between group members based on trust also helps mitigate proximity bias. Additional equity-enhancing strategies include scheduling regular check-ins with employees whose in-office schedules do not align with their leader’s. Although check-ins are essential for all group members, they need to be more intentional when employees are not as visible and have fewer opportunities for informal, spontaneous interactions with their manager. These planned check-ins provide an excellent opportunity for managers to assess employee well-being, give employees a voice in decision-making, identify needed supports, and provide coaching to boost autonomy.