Recently, I discussed with a friend who is preparing to lead a partially distributed team. Like many companies and leaders, my friend also faces having a somewhat remote but partly on-site team. So here, my suggestions to my friend about overcoming some of the difficulties of leading these partially distributed teams.
Distributed or on-site teams are fantastic. You can go with either side; it doesn't matter which one; they are great because the processes and organization work similarly all the way through. In partially distributed teams, you have people working from the office and other people from their houses. There is a mixture of async and sync processes. Juggling between them is challenging. The office employees often prefer synchronous methods because that's the nature of seeing everyone's faces. Remote employees can adapt synchronicity as well, but it's not ideal and can lead to stress and burnout. That's why many existing remote companies limit sync communication to certain time boxes.
The major problem with partially distributed teams is that one side gets more advantage than the other: often the office because of face-to-face communication and spontaneous encounters. This situation is one of the concerns of my friend as well. Employees in the office having more interaction is natural. However, if the team doesn't have proper processes, the remote employees might feel excluded. Involving remote employees in the processes shouldn't be an afterthought. For example, when the on-site team members want to spontaneously talk about a problem to solve it quickly, they use sync communication. Most often then not, they usually miss getting in touch with remote colleagues. Without setting up processes, the remote employees will be left out.
Day-to-day social interactions are not the problem of remote employee relationships but making the business depend on personal relationships is. If the processes, business meetings, team building activities, promotions favor in-person advantages and relationships, they create problems for remote employees. If the part of the team works like all the team is in the office, then the problem arises. One of the intricacies is hybrid meetings: one or two people remotely join while others join in a conference room together. To create equity, everyone should join the meeting remotely from their computers if one person is remote. The team shouldn't leave someone out and turn their life decisions or obligations into a disadvantage. Requiring everyone to join remotely might not be convenient in the office, but the team has to put in the effort to have the best collaboration.
Partially distributed teams use partially async, partially sync communication. Slack is both the most prominent supporter and also the biggest enemy of effective communication in these teams. If not used correctly, the problems await. Slack is for short and straightforward interactions. Although it has rich features, the information easily gets lost. Most companies use it to communicate everything in sync model. Then it becomes a burden and creates information overload and FOMO. The complexity of Slack and the nature of mixed communication are hard to manage. The office has the advantage of face-to-face communication, and it's easy to replicate it in Slack via direct messages. However, when many things depend on direct messages, remote employees start to suffer. When not careful, decisions and small questions slide out from Slack to face-to-face interactions, and as a result, you get all the downsides of the tool. But it is solvable by using long-form but concise writing and keeping Slack as a discussion, broadcasting, and socialization tool, not as information storage.
My friend's other concern was keeping the morale and team spirit high. Some companies organize regular social events with teams to achieve this. These events can happen in the partially distributed teams in two ways: online and a few times a year on-site. Many remote-working companies such as Buffer, GitLab, Zapier gather their teams together once or twice a year for a couple of days to get to know each other better. Choose your rhythm; mix both of them but don't leave anyone out.
Managing or being part of a partially distributed team is difficult. It requires mindfulness, extra efforts, and solid processes. If you can choose to be entirely on-site or fully remote, go with using one of them. It will be more efficient, and you will be more effective in communication. However, choosing one of them also has advantages and disadvantages; be mindful about your choice.
Create inclusive processes. Don't unwittingly fall into the office practices during remote work. Advocate writing, hold everyone-is-remote or on-site meetings instead of hybrid ones. Either define core working hours for sync communication or go with a fully distributed approach. If you leave these decisions to form naturally, you invite chaos. Your team members can have low performance, many struggles, conflicts, burnout, or they might even leave.