Hybrid teams: how to grow a positive company culture
Building and sustaining your organisational culture is an oft-mentioned challenge of remote or hybrid work models. But, says Chris Dyer, author of Remote Work, by using appreciative inquiry and positive deviance you can find common ground and start to build that positive culture
Most companies place a high value on problem-solving skills, and there are always challenges to overcome in running a business. Few people would discount the importance of positivity, but it isn't always easy to foster it, particularly when part of your team is on-site and part is working remotely. However, successful companies promote positivity, encouraging employees to frame challenges as opportunities to optimize strengths rather than to fix weaknesses. A 2015 study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology showed that positive and optimistic interactions elevated team effectiveness (Knight & Eisenkraft, 2015).
Issues with conventional problem-solving
How do conventional problem-solving models fall short? Problem-focused thoughts, words and actions have the opposite effect of positive ones. They create a fixed mindset and make circumventing obstacles more difficult. Negativity is contagious, but so is positivity and positivity is one of the seven essential pillars of culture success.
A proven way to infuse difficult situations with positivity is to operate from a standpoint of what is working and make decisions from there, rather than labelling problems and wondering what to do about them. We will look at two working methodologies that experts have been using for decades: appreciative inquiry and positive deviance.
The Corporation for Positive Change argues that appreciative inquiry is "founded on the simple assumption that human systems – teams, organizations and people – move in the direction of what they study, what they focus upon and what they talk about with regularity" (2015). Appreciative inquiry changes the way in which we frame challenges to make overcoming them more likely. There are four practical steps in this approach. To illustrate them, I'll use an example from my own company, PeopleG2, when we identified a decline in customer survey satisfaction scores.
Step one: Discover – or understand what is working and why. We recognized that the survey was working -- it helped us identify the problem– and so we dug into the data for more information. That also highlighted our company's willingness to understand and respond to customer feedback.
Step two: Dream – involves imagining what might be. This approach openly invites creativity. My team came up with a very workable wish: knowing that perfect customer satisfaction 100% of the time isn't realistic, we decided to focus on how we responded to customer concerns. We took steps to make it easier for clients to share their honest opinions with us.
Step three: Design – in this step you focus on developing processes and systems, taking into account existing strengths and incorporating new approaches from the Dream step. We knew that our customer survey structure was effective, so we took steps to make clients more comfortable in responding. We also decided to follow up with clients to let them – all of them – know what steps we were taking and the impact of those steps. This transparency demonstrated our commitment to continuous improvement, and also sent the message that constructive feedback is welcomed.
Step four: Destiny – is about putting it all to work. It was fairly straightforward to tweak the existing survey mechanism, and we also sent email announcements to clients to share the new approach. We also implemented steps to share the concerns, changes and impact across internal teams, promoting a positive approach that invites additional ideas and suggestions.
Positive deviance recognizes that "in every community there are certain individuals or groups whose uncommon behaviors and strategies enable them to find better solutions to problems than their peers, while having access to the same resources and facing similar or worse challenges" (Positive Deviance Initiative, 2016). Positive deviance creates novel ways of approaching obviously compromised situations, like poverty and illness – or in a business context, perhaps, looming bankruptcy – with new avenues for change.
The power of this approach is demonstrated by the efforts of Save the Children, an international non-governmental organization, in addressing malnourishment in Vietnam. In the wake of the Vietnam war, in villages across the country, 64% of children were seriously malnourished and many were facing starvation. In 1990 Save the Children sent Jerry Sternin, along with his wife Monique and their young son Sam, to assess the situation and develop a solution (Dyer 2018).
Previous efforts, which focused on bringing supplies in from outside the country, had failed. Instead of focusing on why 64% of the children were malnourished, Sternin focused on why 36% were doing well. It turns out the more successful families would go to the rice paddies every day to collect shrimp and crabs, along with certain wild plants, all high in protein. Sternin's team shared this and other locally based practices with other villages, and malnourishment diminished. The solution was there all along, but it took a different mindset to see past the assumptions and the failed focus on the problems.
Challenges of hybrid
If you start with a positive mindset, the tough times are easier to handle. If you focus on problems, misfortune can drag your company's morale and business performance down with it. With that in mind, let's look at the unique challenges of running a hybrid on-site/remote model.
In one sense, companies have been doing this for years – holding meetings and collaborating across dispersed locations or supporting field times in sales and/or service. So, we have a positive deviance model to draw from. In some ways you have to interact with your remote employees differently than you do your on-site employees. However, to promote a positive culture, you might also focus on the common ground, and on minimizing too much differentiation.
You definitely don't want an 'us-them' dynamic. This is where your company's mission and vision come in. If you can get everyone to embrace a shared mission and vision, then it shouldn't matter much where each team member works. Two practical considerations:
1. Organize mixed virtual/online meetings in a way that ensures the remote participants have equal opportunity to participate to avoid 'privileging' one group over the other. You might ensure the meeting facilitator is assertive enough to solicit input from the remote participants. Another is to have everyone remote, so that even on-site employees join from their desks, not a conference room.
2. A second concern is overcoming time zone differences. If your team is spread across two or even three time zones, it shouldn't be too difficult to find a time that works for everyone. However, if you work with teams in Europe, North America and Asia, someone is always going to be inconvenienced and required to join during off hours. If this is the case, rotate the meetings so that the same group isn't always the one inconvenienced.
Success in remote or hybrid models requires an investment in time and effort. The importance of careful thought, planning and execution in creating remote or hybrid models is vital. After all, if you don't design what you want, you may end up having to deal with what you get.
Chris Dyer, pictured below, is founder & CEO of PeopleG2 and author of new book Remote Work (Kogan Page)