Rebuilding Relationships Across Teams in a Hybrid Workplace

Innovating our way to the future workplaces offers an amazing opportunity for cross-functional relationships to be reshaped and refreshed. It is crucial to strengthen these bonds because people will not be returning to work the same as they were before the pandemic. Remote work is not the cause of organizational fragmentation. It is caused by a lack of bridge-building that aims to connect disparate groups and regions. Silos existed before the pandemic, but hybrid work has created new challenges for teams to effectively connect. Three approaches are offered by the author to help leaders and teams rebuild connections between themselves and each other as they transition to hybrid work environments.
People slowly return to hybrid workplaces. It is important to rebuild the bonds that bind them together. Most organizations have seen some fracture over the last 18 months as their social and cultural cohesion has been compromised. Remote work has presented challenges, drama, uncertainty, the slow process of returning to the office, and the mass exodus from cultures that make workers feel low-valued, all of which have contributed to a loss of sense of community. Aside from all this, remote work interactions were primarily with our immediate coworkers and have largely been focused on the task at hand. Microsoft research suggests that cross-functional collaboration dropped by 25% while interactions within groups increased during the pandemic.

Remote work is not the only reason for fragmentation. It is caused by a lack of bridgebuilding to connect disparate groups and regions. Silos existed before the pandemic, but hybrid work has created new challenges for teams to effectively connect and work together in order to achieve common goals.

It is crucial to build bonds because people will not be returning to work the same as before the pandemic. The last 18 months have had a profound impact on our lives. Our priorities and values have changed. Our sense of purpose and meaning have expanded. Anxiety has increased. Some people's tolerance has increased, while others have decreased. We need to get to know each other better. Our natural biases about each other will start to kick in and cause unhelpful dissonance when we react to one another as before the pandemic. One executive said that his colleague used to have the most witty sense of humor. However, quips that I made that she wouldn't laugh at now get no response. He didn't realize that her family was particularly hard hit by Covid-19.

These are the three methods I have seen work to help leaders and teams reconnect with their colleagues as they transition to hybrid work environments.

Make new shared identities

Humans are naturally tribal creatures. We identify and bind to our immediate group. People outside of the group are, by default, "other" and unlikely to be trusted. If cross-functional connections aren’t strengthened, this type of thinking will grow. People can create new shared identities that connect them more widely, which helps to reorient their brains and allows them to see colleagues who were "they" before with fresh eyes.

Jay Van Bavel, NYU's Jay Van Bavel research found that brains can quickly forget about biases if we are working together in solidarity. One experiment that used brain imaging showed that people's implicit biases about certain types were significantly reduced after they were told the same people were "on your new teams." This is a problem that requires a broadening of the concept of "we."

We created cross-functional teams within one organization to address cultural health issues. The teams focused on learning and education, community building and hybrid work health. They were made up of people from many functions and regions who were all empowered and resourced to take action. The ability to create an affinity for a team with a broader purpose instantly improved cohesion and collaboration throughout the organization.

Accelerate solidarity

McKinsey's recent research revealed that people quit when they don't feel valued. This means that they no longer feel like their work matters and lack a sense of belonging. They were lacking what I call organizational solidarity. This is the ability to create strong bonds to one another and a shared purpose that makes it impossible for people to question each other.

It can be difficult to establish relationships across functions with solidarity when you haven’t spoken or seen each other in a while. We did a complete re-onboarding for everyone in a client organization that had experienced a lot of changes during the pandemic. This included a new organizational design, new people and shifts in roles. Leaders realized that trust wouldn't be built if there wasn't equality for all. People met for round-robin discussions over two days to "meet again...for the first time..." Each person was prepared to respond to five prompts.

What has changed the most about me since the pandemic began?...

It was a two-day celebration full of surprises and emotions. The most notable comments were from tenured employees who spoke out about how they saw their long-standing colleagues differently and how it helped them build trust with new colleagues. One participant stated it well: "My default position in dealing with other departments was to assume the worst. They showed me that they were committed to me and I was able to trust them." This is further evidence of my 15-year-long longitudinal study: Trustworthy behavior is six times more likely when there are stronger cross-functional relationships.

When you are bringing people back into work, take the time to rebuild relationships within your team as well as between your team members and your key organizational partners. You can let go of old baggage and strengthen weak ties with cross-functional rivals.

Leadership learning groups should be formed

Cross-functional health can be determined by the leadership qualities of those who lead the teams that work together to achieve their goals. Cross-functional relationships are stronger when leaders model empathy, curiosity and conflict resolution. These leadership skills are not always easy to learn, especially for highly-responsible leaders who have been raised in hierarchical environments.

Immersing them in leadership development cohorts is the best way to create strong, consistent leaders across all functions. We have built cohorts of 12-16 leaders in nearly a dozen companies. They travel together for six to twelve months, learning and developing. They are taught key skills and knowledge that will help them achieve the shared goals of their roles. We have recently reoriented the content to reflect how the hybrid workplace requires leadership. The small sub-teams work on real projects that add value to the organization. Peer-coaches are assigned weekly to meet to share feedback and offer advice in areas of development. These cohort journeys are a great way to build relationships that last for many years.

You can help leaders return to the "new normal" by investing in their growth. Create cohort learning communities to bind them together and share their organizational aspirations. They will naturally pass their expanded outlook down to their teams and their colleagues, who will in turn connect better with cross-functional peers.

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Innovating our way to the future workplaces offers an amazing opportunity to renew and reinvent the most important relationships within our organizations. These are the relationships between people who create results and cohesion that no single team can create. Don't squander it.