Onboarding on hybrid teams

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May 03 2022 by Wayne Turmel Print This Article

Bringing people onto a hybrid team, otherwise known as on-boarding, presents all the challenges associated with an office-based team as well as many of the challenges that come with a fully remote team. There are also nuances because the new team structure will be neither of those things, but something new and often unprecedented.

Specifically, our clients tell us that among their most perplexing challenges are:

The very human challenge of proximity bias

We form relationships with people we know, like and trust. Working apart from each other can slow this process. It's human nature for managers to coach and help those they see most often. New hires may struggle to forge relationships and blend in with the existing team culture if they are not in frequent contact with their teammates. Certainly, it's harder to create bonds with those in other departments or other parts of the company, simply because there is less serendipitous contact.

One of the dirty little secrets of hybrid work is that it's easy to form cliques. Proximity bias can create a couple of problems that are worse on hybrid teams than either co-located or fully remote groups. To overcome this tendency, incorporate team members from all locations as much and as early as possible to create a "one team" attitude.

It is natural for people to turn to those physically close and accessible when they have questions or need to talk something out. During onboarding, it's not unusual that people talk to and develop stronger connections with those physically close to them. For new hires this can mean being largely unfamiliar with the teammates they interact with less often. Cliques can form inadvertently.

Especially in the first days and weeks of employment, access to the manager is critical. Employees need to feel supported, receive regular feedback, and receive quick answers to their questions. Leaders can do a few things to help overcome this barrier. An easy one is ensuring that new hires have access to mentors and experienced team members. Ideally, these are not just located in the office, but throughout the team so the people get used to reaching out and not relying on those physically close to them.

Many managers are also being very clear about when they are available for unstructured conversations. This might be an hour or two, a couple of days a week, when the new hire can just pick up the phone, get on a webcam, or just send a chat while knowing they aren't interrupting or being a nuisance. The manager expects to hear from them.

Much of what people learn in the early days of onboarding happens unconsciously

How does the team interact? Are they serious or fun-loving? Is there a formal reporting structure or can they go to anyone on the team? Without these non-verbal, often tacit, cues, how do people adapt to the culture?

Onboarding new teammates should begin with having real conversations with the existing team. These can be face-to-face if possible. Even a half-hour webcam conversation with every member of the team in the first days of employment can help jumpstart relationship building efforts.

Bootcamp-style events are helpful but often impractical and expensive when part of the team is dispersed. Many companies are finding that shorter times spent together early in the onboarding process, augmented by frequent communication through tools like Teams, Zoom and others can be very useful.

Infrequent communication slows learning and often creates a more stressful environment

This is true for both the new hire and the manager. Too much blank space creates room for employees second-guessing themselves, questions that go unanswered, and a slower than expected ramp-up to full integration into the team. The latest additions to the team should have frequent short access to leadership to facilitate this direct communication that cuts out the "middle man" and starts building a relationship.

Make sure the new hire understands the big picture

How does the rest of the organization work? Will they meet and form informal relationships with people in other parts of the company that will enhance their understanding of how things get done? There are several ways to combat this, including making more synchronous training (whether classroom or online) more inclusive of people across the organization, with a mix of both office-based and distant employees.

Joining a new team is an exciting time. With a little thought and planning we can bring people on in a way that is efficient, effective, and enjoyable for everyone.

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About The Author

Wayne Turmel
Wayne Turmel

For almost 30 years, Wayne Turmel has been obsessed with how people communicate - or don't - at work. He has spent the last 20 years focused on remote and virtual work, recognized as one of the top 40 Remote Work Experts in the world. Besides writing for Management Issues, he has authored or co-authored 15 books, including The Long-Distance Leader and The Long-Distance Teammate. He is the lead Remote and Hybrid Work subject matter expert for the The Kevin Eikenberry Group. Originally from Canada, he now makes his home in Las Vegas, US.