How to Strengthen Hybrid Team Bonds


Learn to adapt your people strategy to the five types of interdependence

Paper men joining together as team, union, family or network

If you’re a hybrid or remote worker, you’ve likely experienced the many perks of not going into the office every day. Your comfiest clothes are now your work attire. Your commute is a few steps to your home office. It’s a bit easier to go to daytime appointments and pick up your kids from school.

But how closely connected are you with co-workers? Do you still depend on each other for work-related tasks and feel that you are part of a team? 

While people are experiencing the many benefits of hybrid and remote work, research during the height of Covid has shown that there’s a downside playing out within organizations: employees’ bonds with colleagues are weakening, and team interdependence — the extent to which people rely on each other for the functioning of their teams — has suffered.

“In hybrid settings, we see each other much less often,” says Matthias Spitzmuller, Distinguished Professor of Organizational Behaviour at Smith School of Business. “That means it is easier for us to express our individuality, and our autonomy goes up — but the experience of belongingness also goes down at the same time.”

He says there are ways for organizations to foster team interdependence among remote and hybrid employees without them having to give up the benefits of working from home. Spitzmuller and Smith colleagues Chenyang Xiao and Michalina Woznowski addressed some of them in a paper for the journal Personnel Review .

Five shades of interdependence

Spitzmuller and his colleagues outlined five dimensions of interdependence: spatial, horizontal, vertical, outcome and temporal.

When people work together in person, Spitzmuller says, they fulfil the spatial dimension of interdependence — meeting face-to-face every day and feeling a strong sense of belonging among their colleagues.

As more people transition to hybrid or remote positions, the spatial dimension weakens. But Spitzmuller says employers still have tools to foster team interdependence without undermining the remote or hybrid worker’s sense of autonomy.

Workplaces can host in-person social events for employees or, if this isn’t possible, arrange online events for workers. When it comes to hybrid workers, organizations can also schedule employees to be in the physical office at the same time — promoting social interaction and enhancing feelings of belonging.

He adds that for remote workers, online tools such as Slack or Microsoft Teams boost spatial interdependence because they help people stay connected. 

Even if it is a struggle to maintain spatial interdependence, says Spitzmuller, there are other forms of connection that can be nurtured. 

“The argument we’re trying to make is that interdependence, overall, does not necessarily have to suffer (in remote and hybrid work),” he says. “You can compensate for the reductions in the experience of belongingness by increasing interdependence in any of the other four dimensions.” 

Training and ownership

One of those dimensions is what Spitzmuller describes as horizontal interdependence, which is when team members interact with one another to complete a task. 

“If you are co-located, you can get in touch with each other,” he says. “You don’t need to schedule meetings. Sometimes you can just shout out to the person next door. In (hybrid work), this communication becomes more difficult and, as a consequence, it’s difficult to maintain horizontal interdependence.” 

Organizations can support this type of interdependence by offering remote and hybrid employees training in communication techniques. Training will help them learn to communicate more effectively with each other when not physically sharing an office. 

Leaders can also help team members feel more connected to their organizations and their colleagues by strengthening the experience of leadership, which Spitzmuller refers to as vertical interdependence. This can be done by leaders showing a stronger presence and emphasizing a sense of meaning and purpose in the team’s work. 

Alternatively, leadership can be strengthened if it is performed collectively by bringing employees into the decision-making process. The idea is that team members feel a sense of ownership, involvement and being part of the decision process. This strengthens the bond between the individual and the rest of the team. 

Shared outcomes 

Hybrid and remote workers can also become more interdependent through shared outcomes (that is, outcome interdependence), notably when the success of a project is based on a team’s performance — not an individual’s performance. 

“For many of the teams that are working in modern manufacturing and assembly line settings, their compensation derives from the productivity of the entire team,” says Spitzmuller, adding that these employees also have a shared goal. “They’re all going to get the same rewards if they are able to accomplish that shared goal.”

Lastly, Spitzmuller says organizations can create an environment where team members have a lasting and shared experience with each other, known as temporal interdependence. This comes about when teams have a shared history and expectation of a shared future. 

Organizations, for example, can recruit and promote team members internally to create temporal interdependence. This gives all employees a shared collective experience and enhances their perception of belonging. 

Interdependence versus autonomy 

Spitzmuller acknowledges that, particularly for hybrid teams, there’s a potential tension between autonomy and interdependence. 

“Sometimes employees don’t know what they really want,” he says. “The reason everybody wants to work from home is they have freedom. But then they complain about how they don’t identify with their co-workers and the organization. There is a direct tension that exists there.” 

Ultimately, if employers provide their employees with hybrid or remote work, which reduces spatial interdependence, they should think about which of the other four dimensions they want to enhance to help workers have a positive employment experience. 

“Employers need to look at it as part of a holistic employment experience,” Spitzmuller says. “They have to recognize that if interdependence goes down (in one area), they should increase it in other areas so that employees feel that they are still connected to the organization.”