Culture   //   January 10, 2023  ■  5 min read

How hybrid working brings teams closer but also creates ‘micro cultures’ and internal conflicts

Who needs a water cooler in the digital age? Paradoxically, the pandemic-induced shift to hybrid and remote working has, in many instances, drawn teams closer together, according to Gartner research. 

“We have seen that people have stronger ties with their immediate hybrid team as they have more interactions with those members,” said Piers Hudson, senior director of Gartner’s HR functional strategy and management research team.

Conversely, Hudson noted bonds between people from different departments, who they would have previously run into more often when in an office environment, have weakened in hybrid and remote setups. “We found that employees interact once a week or less with their ‘weak ties’ — people outside their function — versus several times a week before the pandemic,” he said. 

For most hybrid or remote workers, though, team members are “the only people they interact with several times a day,” added Hudson. Tellingly, when Gartner quizzed hybrid workers about who influenced the connection to the organizational culture, the team ranked highest, and the direct manager was second.

This increased closeness, forged by the push, pull, and ping of digital communication channels, is creating what Hudson called “micro cultures.” And there are pros and cons to this phenomenon. 

One considerable benefit is that the team, with the right management, effectively runs itself, and work can bend and flow around individual needs. “It can adapt to what different team members value, accommodate their flexible work requirement, and therefore get the best from those people,” said Hudson. 

There is a caveat, warned Hudson. “The challenge is that this needs to occur within some parameters so that no ‘toxic’ culture within a team is allowed to develop.” Instead, he urged organizations to ensure that teams working with autonomy are “respectful of the culture that other teams may have.”

Missed opportunities

Simon Hartley, an international sport psychology consultant and performance coach, identified a significant potential downside of hybrid working teams not communicating with those outside their bubble. “In the vast majority of organizations, people don’t work together — they work alongside each other, and the biggest challenge is getting people to work across teams,” he said. “In most cases, the organization functions but misses huge opportunities.”

For example, Hartley said he recently calculated that a law firm client lost £2.7 million ($3.35 million) to competitors because its partners were not collaborating. While knowledge sharing is critical for the business, it is also vital for the broader company culture. “Leaders have an opportunity, and a responsibility, to engage with employees and share the bigger picture,” said Hartley.

Establishing values and setting goals to work toward — and communicating what they are — help empower and motivate teams. “Once we have this, we can help teams and individuals understand how they align and can contribute to this — it gives purpose,” said Hartley. “If we don’t have this understanding, people [and teams] often find their own direction, become isolated and siloed.” He added that hybrid working must be “more planned and intentional” regarding sharing information.

Roy Thompson, a director at interior design company Advanced Commercial Interiors in Nottingham, U.K., listed other likely issues of teams working more closely together in silos. “Potential conflicts, limited diversity of thought, loss of individuality and ‘groupthink,’ which is where team members are so focused on maintaining harmony and consensus that they are unable to consider alternative viewpoints or ideas.”

On the subject of conflicts, Hudson agreed that the dynamic and politics within a team, or micro culture, would likely be intensified due to the higher frequency of digital interactions between hybrid workers. Similarly, team members may feel the effect more keenly when a close colleague departs than they would have before the pandemic. 

Related to this, a lack of intra-team communication and a lack of awareness of the vacancies left by people in other departments who had moved can extend blindspots regarding internal opportunities. “You’re less aware of other careers and what else is going on within the company, so there is a magnified impact both ways,” Hudson added.

Beware tribalism

Teams that have closer bonds with immediate members and weaker connections with others in the organization can also lead to tribalism, stated Daniel Stander, an employment lawyer at international law firm Vedder Price. “Factionalism, by definition, speaks to conflict, and conflict among teams who may be working a combination of in the office and remotely can impact on the well-being of employees,” he said.

Stander offered suggestions to help hybrid working teams, and most importantly, their managers, break silos and avoid insularity. First, he said employers must review existing policies and procedures to check they are appropriate and tailored for hybrid working. Special attention should be paid to performance management policies, disciplinary and grievance rules, and data protection and security of information policies.

Additionally, Stander said employers should make all staff aware of important company information, including how to access internal job opportunities. “Without that,” he added, “there is a risk that employees will complain about being treated differently — or left out of the loop — and unfairly compared to others in the organization. It is a recipe for poor industrial relations and claims.”

Hudson provided a few more practical tips and strategies to optimize the closeness of hybrid teams within an organization. For instance, establishing shared goals across groups that are in each team’s performance metrics will encourage collaboration. 

And temporary rotations between roles could help provide experience on both sides of an employee swap with the visibility of the job and skilled talent. Keeping things fresh and looking at work from different perspectives is crucial, said Hudson. “We’ve seen the use of technology that will allow different employees’ skills profiles to be visible across the whole organization, or even that will match up skills and job profiles and proactively ‘push’ job opportunities to internal candidates.”

Hudson’s final tip was arranging regular forums for managers to air their blockers and opportunities. “Organizations should ensure that managers come together to share challenges and share ideas on what is working in hybrid working — breaking down the rivalry between teams,” he added.