No matter whether teams are based in the same country or scattered around the world, there’s one complaint about hybrid working that always comes up when I talk to senior leaders in large companies: you only get a sense of what your people are already good at.

You may talk to them often, and your team members may have regular contact with each other on platforms such as Zoom – but the type of knowledge transfer that we were so used to seeing in the in-person workplace just isn’t happening.

It’s understandable why this is the case. In an office setting, it’s possible to quickly walk over to someone and have a quiet word about something you’re not quite getting – or perhaps to ask for some training on a particular aspect of your role that’s proving a challenge. You learn from colleagues around you in a very natural way.

But when everyone is working in dispersed clusters or hubs, they know what they are good at and are just ploughing on with those skills – never pausing to highlight areas where they may need help.

Asking for help with learning and development in a group Zoom call with 20 other people on it is very exposing. People just wait for the call to end so they can get on with their work.

Mixed messages

Things get even more complicated when you introduce the whole idea of collaboration between colleagues of different cultures.

First of all, they will be operating across different time zones – so they will be more worried about focusing on task-based conversation to make sure everyone is on the same page. But a bigger issue is that some employees may have lots of information pent up inside them that could be very useful indeed for knowledge transfer – but end up keeping it to themselves, because their managers are on the call.

That’s a particular concern with deferential cultures such as Japan, where junior staff are simply not used to talking openly with senior figures even on home turf – never mind on videocalls with colleagues overseas.

On a related note, another barrier to knowledge transfer in the hybrid world is where you have companies that are structured around the billable hour – with law firms being the prime example. Much like I mentioned above with the focus on task-based conversation, the billable hour literally compels people to maximise the time they spend working for results, and minimise time they could devote to things like helping each other learn, or just getting to know their remote colleagues better.

In fact, workers in those types of companies often feel as though they are receiving mixed messages from their leaders: “We want you to be creative – but we also want you to work as many hours as possible.”

Another issue with hybrid working is the very nature of online communication. As such a large amount of interpersonal contact online seems to be passive aggressive, that’s exactly what people expect it to be! So, the scope for getting people wrong is much greater than what we would typically see in an office setting.

Climate of trust

Clearly, there are things that leaders should do to set the stage for a less constrained and more fluid and effective hybrid working environment. And the most important step they should take is to be far more intentional in the ways they interact with their staff.

1. Check-ins Leaders must put a lot more emphasis on being where their people are, no matter where those people are located. Use team messaging apps and non-task based videocalls to check in with your people ad hoc and make sure they have everything they need to meet their objectives.

2. Knowledge transfer With so many people feeling awkward or nervous about mentioning their weaknesses – or simply too busy exploiting their strengths to think about where they could get better – leaders must stress that it is absolutely fine, and indeed essential, for remote staff to raise with them any concerns about training needs.

Leaders and managers must also assure staff that if they need to set aside some time to speak to each other by video for knowledge transfer purposes, that’s absolutely fine. It’s not something they should feel nervous about – it’s already factored in.

3. Sincerity Creating a communication environment that squeezes out passive aggression and assures everyone that people mean what they say has to come from the top. To nurture that climate of trust, leaders and managers must speak from a place of heart and good intentions. That will carry over to everyone else in the team. Managers must also be clear that members of staff can come to them and discuss any problems that are preventing them from coming to work, whether remotely or in person.

4. Creativity It is important for leaders and managers to tell their staff that for one day per month – or even per fortnight – they must focus entirely on putting together new ideas that could help the organisation advance. Whether those ideas touch on internal admin systems, product or service innovations or customer service, it is crucial for organisations to catch them all in the net – and time must be set aside to give employees room to think.

5. Get the team together Workshopping new ideas is certainly doable by video, and could even be quite fun – but meeting in person to thrash them out is more effective. Plus, encouraging team members from one country to meet their counterparts in another will help to break down invisible communication barriers that often affect hybrid working in a multinational context.

Voices from our community: Birgitta Sjostrand is a leadership trainer specialising in communication, change and group development, and author of Outstanding in the Middle (Panoma Press, 2020)

Want to see more posts like this?

Get notified of great stories from our community, top tips and upcoming webinars & events.


Be recognised and get ahead.

Join our community of over 50,000 leaders from around the world.