The Soft Side of Software

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The Soft Side of Software

Managing Hybrid Teams

The combination of on-site and remote workers takes extra effort from team leaders.

Kate Matsudaira

Hello, readers!

I am back. Covid was a whirlwind for me, as it was for most of the world. As a mama with young kids, I had a difficult time transitioning from pre-Covid life to the new normal. I went from having a full travel schedule and spending every day in an office to staying in one room all day, talking to my coworkers on video, and juggling a much more integrated family and home life.

I have learned a lot along the way about how to be productive and effective while working remotely. But now, of course, things are changing again for many people.

After three years of working remotely, many companies are asking their people to return to the office. Not everyone is coming back, however. With some people in the office and some still working from home, leaders must get this transition to hybrid work right.

Hybrid is the worst of both worlds in some ways. You can easily end up creating two experiences—one for the people in the office and one for the remote workers—which can lead to problems that will compound over time and have long-term damaging effects on your team.

Here are some issues to consider:

Proximity bias can create inequity for people who work together in person vs. those who cannot be in the office. The in-person team might have closer relationships with each other, share information more easily, or access informal opportunities that aren't shared across official channels.

Videoconferencing as a large group can isolate remote individuals. A large group in a conference room can be difficult to hear for the person on video. It is often difficult to tell who is speaking and see facial expressions, which can be especially challenging for people with disabilities and for non-native speakers.

Disorganization and differing expectations can easily become the norm. When everyone is in the same place, it is easier to enforce the same rules. If you're in a hybrid setup, you have to be more thoughtful and intentional about keeping everyone on the same page.

For leaders who are navigating a newly hybridized work environment, this column presents the following recommendations to help make sure your team is as functional as possible.


1. Set up Your Teams Effectively

One of the first tasks a leader has to take on is organizing the team. If you get this part wrong, none of the rest of your efforts will make much of a difference, so it is worth investing serious time and effort into doing this right.

Some of the most important factors to get right are practical: collaboration, scheduling, and information-sharing. How will tasks get done every day?



When some team members are working in person and others are remote, it becomes much more important to set up formal online channels for collaboration, because you can't rely on information flowing through teams based on people being in the same place and talking to each other.

You must be intentional about how people will work together and bring all of those systems together online:

• How will meetings happen?

• What topics are most important to meet about?

• Who should be there?

• How will results be shared?

• What does success look like and how will progress be measured?

These are questions that you may already be asking yourself. Now, however, you must be more deliberate about answering them consistently, in a new way, in a hybrid organization.



There is a new question to answer: When will the meetings happen? If your team is distributed across time zones, you need to be mindful not to select any one time zone that might require staff in other time zones to meet in off-work hours. This can quickly and seriously damage work-life balance, leading to diminished productivity and burnout.

As you build the structure for your hybrid team, look into technology that will support your collaborative goals. Do not rely on thrown-together solutions, such as brainstorming on a whiteboard in person and then sending a photo to team members via email. You cannot problem-solve on the fly; you need an established system.

To start, transition your brainstorming space to a collaborative document option such as Google Docs, where everyone has equal access. It might be uncomfortable to get used to brainstorming online rather than in person, but this is the only way to create an even playing field where all team members can contribute equally.

Think through solutions for everything else, too, such as task management. Which tool (Jira, Trello, Asana, etc.) makes the most sense for the team you have and the goals you want to achieve? How will everyone's tasks stay updated? How often? Again, you'll need to invest in the right tools and implement expectations of your team consistently—it won't work if only remote employees are using the online tools.

You can use built-in bots within many of today's software tools to send automatic reminders to your team to update project management software. That way, you don't have to nag people for updates; instead, updating status will become habitual.


Information sharing: Flow and documentation

Think about how information gets shared across your organization. How will people find out about new project developments if they miss a pertinent meeting? How will you check in about project status with your team?

Setting up structured document repositories and/or shared drives is critically important for people to know where to go for information without uncovering tribal knowledge from others. This also helps new people on the team know where to get information, and what the document standards are. In the event of attrition in the team, there is less risk of losing important information.

Attaching meeting notes and agendas to calendar invites is a great way to start sharing information. This allows anyone in the organization to access the information they need, when they need it, rather than having to hunt people down later.

Maintaining one-on-one and team meeting times is essential, particularly for remote employees. You must consider this time sacred. If your team never sees you, it is hard for them to trust you or to feel like you have made any investment in their efforts.


2. Take Social Connection Seriously

Work is never just about the work. The most effective teams are those that have strong relationships, where people feel connected not only to the mission and the task at hand, but also to their leadership and their peers.

Bringing people together can be game-changing in building rapport and improving relationships. Make it a priority to secure a travel budget for your team, so that members can congregate in one place on a regular cadence.

Encourage people to connect in other ways, even when they can't meet in person. For example, start your meetings with icebreakers that encourage everyone to participate. Even spending five minutes talking about topics other than work can help participants see each other as real people, which is essential for building trust.

Likewise, consider how much time in-office employees spend not working—stopping by someone's desk to chat, getting into a conversation while prepping food in the kitchen—and do not have different expectations for remote workers. While you want to make sure people are focused, remember that laughing over a funny video together is an important way to bond and get to know each other, which is a positive for you in the long run.


3. Practice Good Video Etiquette

First things first: Turn on your video. Whenever possible, you should be visible to your team or anyone you are meeting with.

Not only does this help you stay focused and accountable (no wandering off to fold laundry during a boring meeting or playing games on your phone), it also improves your visibility within the organization. When your coworkers can see you, you give them a stronger sense of who you are and what you are contributing to the organization.

Many people assume that when your video is turned off, it means you're not engaged, whether true or not. Everyone needs an occasional break from being on video, but save your camera-off time for when the stakes are fairly low, such as talking over an idea with a coworker you already know well, or during a large meeting or training session where you are just listening rather than participating.

Some people have a hard time not looking at themselves in the self-view during a video call, which can make it seem that they are distracted. If you have a tendency to fixate on how you look during a video call, change the settings to hide the self-view so you can focus on your coworkers and the content.

During team video meetings, everyone in the office should dial in from their own computers. Remember, it can be difficult for remote participants to keep track of everything going on in a conference room full of people, so having everyone on a separatelaptop puts them all on an equal footing.

If in-person staff are sharing a tight office space, they should be muted unless speaking and, if at all possible, use headphones to avoid echo (this can also help make your voice and diction clearer).

For people with hearing impairment or who are not native speakers, the ability to see people's mouths when they are speaking is essential, as is good audio quality.

If someone on your team doesn't have a reliable Internet connection or device for video, it is your job to get them the tools they need in order to be synced up with the rest of the team. Don't let anyone be left behind.


4. Manage Large Meetings Effectively

Managing any large group meeting is challenging, and a hybrid meeting presents challenges you've probably not dealt with before. Take everything you know about running a successful meeting and incorporate it with the following key lessons to define your new reality:


Be thoughtful about scheduling

You might need more lead time for a big meeting in order to coordinate everyone's calendars, and again, you need to take time zones into account as well. Don't ask anyone to attend during their off-hours unless it absolutely cannot be avoided and their live attendance is required. Make it clear that this will not be asked of them on a regular basis.


Get input from stakeholders in advance

As you create the meeting agenda, make sure to check in with all stakeholders. Consider using an online survey tool to collect suggestions for topics to discuss.


Don't (just) take live questions

Use a tool such as Slido or EasyRetro that allows people to submit questions before the meeting, so even those who can't attend can see their questions answered when they watch the recording later. This also works well for people who aren't comfortable speaking live in a big meeting. Slido and EasyRetro each allow for voting on questions, so you can tackle the most popular questions first. If you're using a software tool, be sure to include a link to it in the invite.

You can also take questions via chat or Slack, but make sure there is only one avenue for questions. You don't want speakers to have to track multiple channels or for people to think their questions are being ignored.


Share what's going on in the room

To ensure that remote colleagues don't feel confused or left out, make sure to repeat in-person questions that might not have been audible, or even describe something in the room that made everyone there laugh. Even these minor interactions can make remote participants feel they are on the same team.


Reduce side conversations

Limiting (or, ideally, eliminating) side conversations is essential for keeping everyone feeling involved. If something is being discussed in the room, it should be discussed with everyone. If you and a colleague need to sync up about something that came up, make a note to do so after the meeting.


Make input from remote team members a priority

There is a bias toward listening to the people in the room with you first, so you need to make a conscious effort to request input from the people online. You might do this simply by saying, "Does anyone have any questions? We'll start with the people on Zoom "


Stay on top of meeting settings and muting

In general, it's best if everyone else is muted while one person is presenting, to avoid unnecessary interruptions and background noise. However, people frequently end up unmuted. Make sure you're familiar with the meeting software you are using so that you can stay on top of essential settings.


Record and share recordings

Maintain Slack channels where you post recordings, reminders, documents mentioned, to-do's and who they are assigned to, and follow-up questions. This is helpful both for the people who attend and those who do not.


5. Make Slack Work for Everybody

Slack is your new best friend, since it is one of the best and simplest ways to keep your team in touch, on the same page, and able to access important information.

The quantity of communication that goes through Slack in a large organization in just one day can be overwhelming. Here is how to make it work for you:


Create groups and categorize channels

With a hybrid team, all conversations should happen online. Slack is great for that, but with all-online communication, you need to create organization to prevent chaos. Create groups so teams can keep conversations limited to essential people, and use channels (e.g., team, priority, etc.) to organize conversations by topic.


Control your notifications

Not every channel needs your urgent attention, so be intentional about which notifications are always essential and which areas you can simply check in with as needed. You can also set notifications for certain words, so that you'll see all messages containing that word, regardless of channel. Star any channels that are particularly important so they always stay at the top.


Sort by recency and delete old channels

Sort Slack in chronological order so the most recent messages go to the top, rather than sorting alphabetically. Don't be shy about organizing your Slack channels and getting rid of old ones that are no longer active. Make sure the system is not so cluttered that you can't use it.


Use Slackbot for reminders

As mentioned, Slackbot can be set up to send reminders, which is a good way to get daily or weekly status updates without having to continually ask for them.


Schedule non-urgent messages to send during business hours

Even if you catch up on Slack messages after hours, you can schedule your replies to go out during normal business hours. You do not want to ping an employee's phone during off-hours for something minor.


Update your status

Change your status on Slack so team members know if you're available. This helps people know whether they should expect a quick reply, and take the correct action when needed.


6. Pay Attention, Learn, and Don't Give Up

Managing hybrid teams is not easy. It might be one of the biggest challenges you will ever take on—but if you can do it effectively, you will level up your skills in a way that will open many new doors.

Take time on a regular schedule, perhaps quarterly, to review how things are working. Harvard Business Review suggests looking at things through the lens of the "5 C's": communication, coordination, connection, creativity, and culture. Give each one a rating from 1-10, and start by making improvements to your lowest-ranking one, because "it's your maximum leverage point for making high-impact changes."

You do not have to stick with any plan forever; if something is not working, don't be afraid to acknowledge it and work on a solution. Keep in mind that change is hard, especially in a large organization. There will almost always be resistance and some people who are unwilling to adapt, so it is better to get things right from the beginning and not assume that it will be easy to change things later on.

Listen to feedback from your team and reflect on any patterns or themes that you are hearing about consistently. If an item comes up often enough, you may need to either address it and explain why things are done that way or implement a change.


Kate Matsudaira is the VP of technology for SoFi's Money (checking and savings), credit card, Invest, insurance, At Work, and partnerships. Previously, she was a VP at Splunk, where she was responsible for the Observability product suite. She has also worked as an executive at Google and helped build several successful startups that were acquired by companies like eBay, O'Reilly Media, and Limelight. She started her career as a software engineer and lead at Microsoft and Amazon. She is a keynote speaker and published author, and has been honored with recognitions such as the NCWIT Symons Innovator Award. She lives in Issaquah, WA (outside of Seattle), with her husband, Garrett, three boys, and three dogs.

Copyright © 2023 held by owner/author. Publication rights licensed to ACM.


Originally published in Queue vol. 21, no. 3
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