Article

Don’t Let Organizational Silos Creep Into Hybrid Work

As published on HarvardBusinessReview.com. 

A divisional CEO of a global technology organization thought her silo-busting days were over.

For the previous decade, she had joined other management team members in breaking down silo walls across teams, functions, and regions. The new era of sharing and collaboration made for better business outcomes, improved customer experience, and more satisfied employees.

So, when this CEO noticed organizational silos cropping up after the company rolled out its flexible hybrid work model in response to the pandemic, she was surprised.

It turned out that while giving employees more flexibility in where and how they work may be key to attracting and retaining talent, it can also lead to the return of counterproductive internal silos.

The Return of the Silo

For many companies, having the majority of employees working from home during the pandemic meant the work silos created by physical space and geography evaporated.

But in new hybrid models, with some employees happily back at the office and others preferring to stay home, those in the office may be quick to jump into a conference room and brainstorm a solution without remembering to dial in their remote team members. Managers may defer to the opinions of employees sitting right across from them in a meeting room instead of intentionally encouraging equal participation from everyone both in person and remote. Conversations and decision making may continue when some employees are walking back to their desks together after a video meeting.

Employees who enjoy the flexibility of working from home may now find it harder to contribute and be heard when they work on hybrid teams. And essential employees whose roles don’t allow the option of working from anywhere but the office may feel resentful and separated from those who are taking advantage of the work/life balance benefits of being at home.

What can leaders do to bust these hybrid silos before they emerge? Three key actions can help your hybrid workforce maintain collaboration without divisions:

1. Set expectations for employee collaboration. 

Now is the time to be explicit: Spell out exactly how you want hybrid teams to work together. That means making sure in-office teams always invite their at-home team members to unscheduled brainstorms. That means everyone is equally able to contribute—whether on video conference or in the room. And that means leaders can’t only defer to the people in the room with them—they need to encourage and enable every team member to offer opinions.

People managers should establish and agree on these behaviors and communicate them across the organization. Leaders need to act as role models, and even more importantly, they need to call out and correct wrong behaviors when they happen.

2. Strengthen your inclusion muscle with bias management skill building.

The old ways of managing no longer result in effective collaboration. Dismantling hybrid silos starts with awareness and requires leaders to strengthen their emotional quotient (EQ) skills. To address different needs and achieve true inclusion in your new flexible future of work, it’s vital that leaders and people managers understand the new hybrid team dynamics, working styles, and working preferences of every team member.

Leaders need to understand their own biases, even subconscious ones. And in a hybrid working model, there are a lot of them.

One of the most common biases is the “in-group/out-group effect,” which means that people tend to identify with those they can relate to. In a hybrid working environment, this may mean those working in the same type of model. This can lead to the formation of “in groups”—where people favor working with those they most closely identify with. Those who find themselves in the “out groups” may feel disillusioned and even lonely at work.

Similarly, the “can’t be bothered effect” comes up when employees working from home feel they are unable to contribute to meetings that are happening predominately in person. While they may have valuable points to add, they feel at a disadvantage because they are not in the room and may find themselves easily ignored. Eventually, they might give up trying.

When leaders are aware of such arbitrary factors that might affect their perceptions, they’ll be more likely to recognize and eliminate those biases.

3. Integrating digital collaboration platforms into everyday work. 

If your company has been investing in digital collaboration tools to boost productivity during the dark days of the pandemic, you may already have strong hybrid silo-busting powers.

But while many digital collaboration tools are great equalizers, helping all employees contribute equally in a flexible model, not all employees will feel comfortable using these tools, and certainly not to their full potential. Focus on upskilling all employees—being digitally savvy is now a must.

Some organizations that succeed with digital-tool adoption use the “EAST” (easy, attractive, social, and timely) model of behavior change, which combines elements of behavioral economics and psychology to influence change.

Breaking down the old organizational silos was time-consuming and exhausting, but ultimately the right thing to do, because it led to cost savings, a healthier workplace, competitive advantages, and more customers getting what they needed.

Now, as new organizational silos form due to the hybrid working model, it’s essential for leaders to take fast action to shut them down.

By clearly articulating desired behaviors, recognizing the biases and perceptions that can develop, integrating a suite of digital tools aimed at cross-model collaboration, and focusing on building a digitally savvy workforce, hybrid teams will be more engaged and produce positive business outcomes, real recovery, and growth.

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Liz is a Senior Principal and a member of the global leadership team at Daggerwing Group, applying her background in Organizational Psychology and more than 20-years of consulting experience to serving as a source of strategic counsel on change to Executives of many of the world’s largest firms. From managing the people side of major global mergers and acquisitions to helping firms strengthen culture, sharpen leader decision-making speed, bust silos, implement new ways of working and adopt new capabilities, Liz is an expert in driving sustained business impact and improved employee performance. Liz is also an active speaker and thought leadership producer, as well as a driver of service innovation within Daggerwing. Since COVID curtailed Liz’s life of traveling the world on business transformation assignments she had finally found time for something she’s always wanted to do: train to be a Level 3 ITC Professional Massage Therapist.