headshot image of Erin Diehl with a photo of a person's hands typing on a keyword with a virtual call happening in the background to show that this podcast will answer: how do you engage a hybrid team?


How Do You Engage a Hybrid Team?

Get to the bottom of what it takes to effectively lead and motivate hybrid and fully remote teams. How do you engage a hybrid team? What are tips for connecting with people working virtually?

Publish Date: November 2, 2021

Episode Length: 33 minutes

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In this Episode

In this episode of the Leadership 480 podcast, Erin Diehl, founder and CEO of professional development company Improve It, answers the question we all have: "How do you engage a hybrid team?" She also discusses tips for guiding, coaching, and connecting with members of your hybrid or fully remote team. 


Beth Almes:

Hi leaders, and welcome back to The Leadership 480 Podcast. I'm your host, Beth Almes. And today, we're talking about one of the biggest challenges facing leaders today, engaging your team in a hybrid or fully remote work world. And I know a lot of you are thinking right now, "Hurry up. I hope you have some magic," just because this is really hard. 

So I'd like to introduce our guest, Erin Diehl, to chat with us on this hot topic. Erin is the founder and chief, yes, and officer of her company, Improve It, which is a unique professional development company that pushes others to laugh, learn, and grow. She's worked with clients like Connect Airlines, PepsiCo, Groupon, Deloitte, Walgreens, lots of really big companies, where she's helping them to engage people and engage their leaders. Erin, welcome to the show.

Erin Diehl:

Thank you so much for having me, Beth. I'm so excited. I'm ready to chat all about this hybrid world. People need it. We need it. Let's chat it out.

Beth Almes:

Sounds great, Erin. So before we dive into magic tips that are going to fix the hybrid office, let's talk a little bit about how employees are feeling right now about their bosses. So what are you hearing about how people are reacting to their leaders, the reactions to the hybrid workplace? How are people feeling right now about their bosses?

Erin Diehl:

That is a really great question, and I think it all depends on who your boss is. You know that saying, I know a lot of people listening know this, we don't leave jobs. We leave leaders. And I think it's so important just now more than ever to really think about the way that we are communicating, the way that we are interacting in this hybrid world, the way that we show up for the people on our teams, because it matters. 

And it matters so much so, that you're hearing this term the "Great Resignation." I like to call it the "Great Re-Engagement." And I think that's really where improv as a teaching tool is the way to go. It's a way to connect people in a way that is authentic. It's a way to get people laughing.

So I'm hearing from leaders that it's really challenging right now because people are just frustrated. Right? We all thought, "Hey, we're going to be back by Q four." And with the delta variant with things going the way they are, things have been pushed. And so the one constant in 2020 to 2021 is change. So as a leader, it's up to you to communicate how you're reacting to that change and how you're re-engaging your team. As a leader today, I think we have to be so creative in the way that we communicate, the way that we connect, and the way that we lead our people.

Beth Almes:

I think so too. And I've been seeing so many articles lately, Erin, about managers having to change their style, that they're very anxious about not being able to see people in their chairs so you know that they're working all their hours. 

Do you know that they're not taking too long of a lunch or anything like that? So let's talk a little bit about trust. How are you seeing trust play out in the manager and team dynamics as people are navigating these newly hybrid or remote work world?

Erin Diehl:

Oh, my God. I mean, it is the number one thing that I think we must focus on is trust because it's just like a sales relationship. You don't want to buy from someone that you don't trust. And that's how sales are made, is trust. If you look at your team and you look at the people on your team, they are there for a reason. 

If you inherited the team, they are there for a reason. They were hired onto that team before you got there. Right? If you are the person that hired your team and you've created this relationship with the team, the number one thing you can do is to hire them, train them, and then get out of their way.

I think a lot of times before the pandemic, a lot of this work from home being autonomous, people said were buzzwords, but now more than ever, it's these things that we really have to latch onto. And I think we are seeing two things. 

One, we are having to let go and just trust that the people that we've hired to do their jobs are doing their jobs and doing things like weekly check-ins, making meetings meaningful, creating Zoom meetings with agendas, and having a cadence to them, so we are holding ourselves accountable and we're holding each other accountable to the work, but also providing a boundary on allowing people to step away from their screens. I'm seeing with a lot of our clients right now who are leaders in talent development, HR, they lead the organizations internally, but also, they lead their teams.

We're hearing a lot of just burnout and fatigue because people aren't turning off. There is no separation. There is no community anymore, so people are just go, go, go. So I really think this issue of trust has to be twofold. One, we have to trust our teams that number one, the work ... The proof is in the results. Are the results there? Is the work getting done? If that work is getting done, then step out of their way. Allow them to figure out a process for themselves on how to get it done with your guidance. 

But number two, also trust that your team wants to do a good job. They're here for a reason. They want to work. They want to shine. So allow them to have opportunities to step away and trust that away time is going to benefit them in the long-term.

Beth Almes:

Yeah. I do want to dive into that a little bit on the burnout side. So just as you have the fear that people aren't putting in enough time at work, you really are often seeing that so many people are putting in so much more time. They're struggling to disconnect. And in a short period of time, that's actually kind of great for the boss to look at all this stuff we're getting done. They're so dedicated. 

But how do you manage to think long-term of managing that burnout of you're going to see the lower quality work over time as people get tired? They get overwhelmed, or possibly leave the company. How do you advise leaders on spotting and preventing that burnout on their team?

Erin Diehl:

Oh, my gosh. Such a good question. I just spoke with a colleague of mine about this. I have a podcast as well. And she came on and we talked about a burnout battle plan. And there were three things. And this is fresh in my mind, so I want to share them with you. Number one is if you're feeling burnt out, so if you're showing up at work and you feel like what I call a Zoom-bie. I live on Zoom, so I'm a Zoom zombie. And you know that feeling. 

You're like, "Oh, my God. My eyes are red. I cannot stare at this screen. I can't think clearly." You need a day off. You need time away from screens. And you also need to protect your energy, so you can do that in three ways. The first is limit your news intake. Now this doesn't mean, don't go cold turkey and turn it off, but just limit.

And that includes things like social media. It includes the news that you're receiving in your LinkedIn feed. It includes just limiting the amount of inputs that you're putting into your body, so your outputs can be more just refined and refreshed. The second thing is to be present and to focus on being present, so focusing on one thing, one day at a time. And that has proven, I've been really focusing my focus on this strategy. 

And I'm telling you, I'm getting so much more done because overwhelm is also a source of burnout. So if you focus on all these things, you're not going to really focus on the one thing, the one step that you need to take today to get to that step that you want to go to in the future.So really taking a step back, closing your tabs, figuratively and literally in your brain, and also on your computer screen. 

And then the third is just to really be able to ask yourself, if things fail, I'm a fail-fluencer, I'm all about failure. If things fail, ask yourself, "What is the lesson that I learned here?" So if you're feeling burned out, it's because you're trying, so give yourself grace and give yourself praise for trying. And then also, if things aren't going as planned, allowing yourself that time away to reassess and say, "What were the things that I failed at? What were the lessons I learned?" 

And really, those three tips, I swear, I've been implementing them since I talked to her. She is an amazing mindset coach. And I am putting them into action in my own life, and really feeling a difference.

I'm trying to limit my news. I'm trying to take my phone and put it in a drawer at 8:00 PM, and then really focusing and also just really trying to take a step back and learning from the things that I perceive as failures. And as a recovering perfectionist, there's a lot of things, Beth. There's a lot of things.

Beth Almes:

I love that concept of embracing the failures. And I think it's one of the things, as we're on hybrid teams now, can be extra lonely. So if you're working remotely, and that can be both a success and a failure, I think when we were in the office, you might have gotten some great news. And you even said something at your desk like, "Oh, fantastic," that your neighbor overheard. Or you're just excited to tell someone when you went to go get coffee about the good news you just heard. So you both had your success. 

And then also, people could kind of tell when you were having an off day, or you could talk through some things when you were struggling maybe with some failures in a way that now, you're kind of processing a lot of that on your own. So how do you coach and guide leaders into celebrating those successes and the failures in this remote and hybrid world?

Erin Diehl:

That is a great question and I have two solid answers for you. One, okay, let me tell you, this is a fun one. So we use Slack as our communication channel, so whether you're in Teams, any type of just communication channel, my preferred method is Slack. What I like about Slack is you can create names of communication, so whether it's a Facebook group, or some just area, have a dedicated channel to celebrate the wins of the day. And we call it hashtag winning. So if we book something, we go into the winning channel, and we're like, "We just booked yada, yada." 

If we get a great podcast guest, we're like, "We just booked blah, blah." If we get tickets sold to an event we're hosting, or if we just hear back from somebody that we've been wanting to hear back from, we celebrate those wins. And so you go in, you type in your win. The team chimes in. And you just start to feel like, hey, I'm not sitting in this void of my home, in my bedroom that I sleep in and also work, and I'm feeling like I am communicating to my team, and we're doing this together because it can feel lonely.

And you don't have that opportunity to turn to your neighbor and say, "Oh, my gosh. This just happened," and you high five. That's your virtual high five. 

Now the losses, this one's my fave. Okay, so there is a rule, as you know, I use improv to teach on power skills, we don't call them soft skills anymore, power skills. And there's a rule in improv that there are no mistakes, only gifts, so that's again going back to this whole, look at the lesson. How can you propel forward or fail forward? So every quarter, my internal team and I have a failure party. And what this means, so you've heard of a vision board. Right?

Beth Almes:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yep.

Erin Diehl:

Okay. Instead of a vision board, we create a failure board. And these are fails that happen at work, and they're fails that happen personally. And instead of on a vision board, you post things that you want to happen in your future and create little pictures, you can cut them out of magazines, we take a PowerPoint. We just grab clips from Google. 

We put them on the PowerPoint and we present to each other our failure boards. After each fail is said, so let's say I failed at ... My technology failed in this big meeting I had, and I posted just me with my head down on a computer, or just a picture from the internet. After every fail, we as a team say, "Fail, yeah." And it's just silly, it makes us laugh. See, you laughed right there.

Beth Almes:


Erin Diehl:

What it does is, number one, it normalizes failure. So it allows us to think, "Okay, I can fail because that means I'm trying." And also, it makes us feel less alone. And in the moment, when those fails happen and we're not together celebrating them at a failure party, oh, you feel so alone, especially in this hybrid world. 

You're like, "Oh, my God. I suck. I can't ... What did I do? How can I get through this?" So it's really allowing ourselves in those moments to feel those feelings because they are valid. But over time, we reassess them and we look at them, and we see how we've learned from them. And we do that collectively because we need to humanize work and we need to humanize failure as a part of the process.

Beth Almes:

I love that. I was laughing along as you were telling that story. And what I like too is the opening to transparency. I think when a lot of people are working in different locations, or you just don't see what's going on with people quite so much. And a lot of times, then those failures become internalized, or even successes become kind of like, "Does anyone even know I did this?" 

And all the good things in there, and that creates lots of insecurities and burnout and things like, I have to work 10 times harder because of this. I just love that opening of transparency. And I'm curious how you've kind of seen that working. Are you seeing transparency becoming more the case in a remote and hybrid option? Or is it going away, and leaders have to kind of work really hard to grab that back?

Erin Diehl:

Oh, my gosh. I will tell you this. So first of all, just to give some quick background, our entire business prior to March of 2020 was completely in person. And we had an office, and now we are completely virtual and we don't have an office. And we are not going back to the office, and that's just for a variety of reasons. However, I am seeing, and what I have seen and felt working with the various organizations that we work with, I mean, we are not specific to any industry, but what I have seen in this past year and a half is actually kind of magical to me because my entire life's purpose is spent trying to get people to take off their hypothetical masks at work. If you want to wear a mask to feel healthy in 2021, please do. But take off the armor. Take off the shield because we're human beings working together.

And I have seen so many leaders who have, when you used to walk in their office, and they were in suits, and they were like, "Good to see you." And then you go into this big glass conference room. It's so transactional. That is one type of leader, and I can tell you from experience, I've experienced talking to a leader, one in particular comes to mind, in person. And in 2021, we had a Zoom meeting. 

And that person was in their home office, their dog was sitting next to him. He was in sweats and a T-shirt. And it felt so amazing and completely different than it did back before we had this whole pandemic happen. And I don't wish the pandemic on anyone. I don't want to ever have to go through this again.

However, the beautiful silver lining is that I think we have taken those masks, that armor that we carried, and we placed it to the side. And we've said, "You know what, we're all in this situation together." And we're seeing people for who they really are. And a lot of times, people show up at work really differently than they show up. 

And that's okay, if that's something that you need to switch to and that makes you feel more comfortable and confident. I know there's a variety of reasons why that happens. However, I find that a lot of it is shielding our vulnerability. It's shielding who we are on the inside because we don't want to come across as weak, or we don't want to come across as less powerful because we're in a leadership role. I've seen some really beautiful conversations and a lot of transformational leadership this year. It's a joy to watch, honestly.

Beth Almes:

I think that's so great that we're starting to see some of those walls come down. And that can be a really good thing for leadership. At the same time, for those leaders who are truly motivated by the connection, and who are saying that it's not so much that I'm worried that is everyone's butt in their chair kind of thing, but I just miss seeing their faces. I miss the collaboration. I miss talking to them and getting coffee, or grabbing lunch and chatting in the elevator, all those things. 

Our team used to have fun, we used to have soup days in the office. And we'd dress up for Halloween or whatever, so we had some of those cultural fun times. So on that side of things, where leaders are truly, it's not that they want to monitor their team. They do trust them. And they do see them for human beings, but they miss those connections. Do you have tips they can try to just regain some of that and connect with people in the virtual world in the way that they used to a little bit more in person?

Erin Diehl:

Oh, my gosh. I have seen it all. So yes, I have so many tricks. And that is really the role that Improve It plays with a lot of organizations, is we are that connection. We are that energy booster. We are that way to do things differently in this virtual world. I mean, I'm going to be honest with you, Beth, I had been sitting at home until about four weeks ago when I took my first trip on an airplane, which I used to fly three or four times a month. And now I haven't flown in a year and a half. And I got on a plane, and I went to Chicago, and I had a team ... We did a team happy hour, saw a lot of our improv professionals, saw my internal team. We brainstormed in person very safely. Oh, my God. It felt so good.

So there is something to that in-person connection, and in a time where we can't have it, there are so many ways to connect virtually. I have seen some of the most creative things come out of 2020 and 2021. I don't want to plug myself, but I kind of want to plug this because it's so different. We created something called laugh breaks. 

So we break up meetings with virtual laughter. And what we do is we do short form improv over Zoom for 20 minutes, 30 minutes, or 45 minutes. And that, we've done since we launched in August of 2020, close to 92, just close to 92 of them. And that has been a really, really exciting thing that we would've never thought of pre-pandemic. 

I've also seen things like for example, we have a client of ours, it's a smaller consulting firm with about 50 people. And over the holidays, they had chefs in a restaurant send kits, home cooking kits, to their team for the holidays. And they had a wine pairing sent to each person's home. And they cooked meals together and they had a wine tasting.

And I was actually a part of that for ... I was helping them with Zoom. But that was a beautiful joy to watch because they were put into different breakout rooms. I think things like Zoom breakouts are just a wonderful way to create connections. There are so many different ice breakers. 

I have tons of ice breakers and tips that we provide to people too, just with different content that we provide, that you can get people interacting virtually by utilizing breakout rooms, ice breakers, activities, laughter. There's another company I really love called Goat To Meeting, like baa goat.

Beth Almes:

Right, right.

Erin Diehl:

I've just used them personally for my internal team. And literally, you can take your team on a virtual tour of a goat farm on Zoom, and it donates to this not for profit organization, and that's the whole purpose. But people have gotten really creative with ways to connect virtually in 2020 and 2021. So there are ways to do that. I think that the tools that we've been given with Microsoft Teams and Zoom and Webex, they've just continued to update their platforms and make it easier and easier for us to connect. 

I also think there comes a point when Zoom fatigue is real. So you have to evaluate your team and ask yourself, "Is this meeting worth a video? Or should I just do a phone call? Or can it be an email?" And those things exist too. So it's that fine balance of, I feel like in the early 2020, everybody was like, "Let's do a Zoom happy hour." And everybody ... And that sort of fizzled because we are able to be in person again and do it safely.

It takes a lot of forethought, and I think planning to do it effectively. And that's where I land on it, is that you can do it. And we've been seeing it happen. We've seen so many creative things from our clients, but you've just got to take the time to plan, seek them, seek out people who are doing very unique things virtually, and then execute against it and make sure it's the right fit for your team at the time.

Beth Almes:

I think that's an important message for leaders right now. This can be done, but you're going to have to adjust and be thoughtful about the way of doing things because I do see a lot of longing for leaders of just, I just want to go back. I just want to bring my team back. And that's the only way I can really picture us really collaborating and innovating together again. 

And if that's not available to you, and your team has decided to, that they are going to stay remote, or you're going to have some remote and some in the office, or things like that, that you have to take that responsibility of being more proactive to plan than you did in the past.

Erin Diehl:

Totally. And that is I think where a lot of people ... I'll give you an example really quick. I have two girls on my internal team recently who had birthdays. And before this month, our whole thing was like, "Okay, birthdays. We're going to do a lunch on Zoom. Here's a 30 minute time of your day. We're going to get together and we're going to do this." And one of the girls on my team who helps me plan these said, "I think people are sick of Zoom." And I said, "Noted, noted."

So instead, we sent one a GrubHub gift card and said, "Grab lunch." The other one lives in a more rural area, so we sent flowers. And so we just showed gratitude in a different way. And so it's really meeting your team where they're at and understanding those needs. And I'm going to be honest, I was going to go straight to the Zoom lunch conversation. But you've got to listen to the team. I'm so glad I listened to my team member because I didn't know that. I was just doing what we had been doing, and that doesn't always work.

Beth Almes:

I think that's so important, personalizing that approach to hybrid, as well, especially as you're going to have different people reacting. Some may want to come back into the office. They love that. Some don't. And making sure you meet people where they are, and not necessarily saying that because that's the way I like to do it, I like a Zoom lunch, or I like this part, to make sure that everybody else does that. And I would say especially in hybrid, if you have some folks in the office, some folks not, there's a real risk there that you start to kind of show some favoritism.

Erin Diehl:

Yeah. And that is a really good point. Can I just caveat on that really quick? A lot of clients will ask, "Well, I've got the team in the office and I've got people working from home now. And I've hired people in the pandemic who I've never met, but they're going to stay remote. Can you do a workshop or whatever it may be, an engagement, with the people in the office? And can the remote people Zoom in?" And my answer to that is absolutely not. It is so unfair. 

This is this whole thing I talk about of being cloudy. I believe that our comfort level of our team, this is my personal belief, the comfort of your team is more important than anything right now. And that's what we're seeing with this resignation, is people want to go where they're feeling comfortable, there is a safe space for them. So if you have people that say, "I'm not comfortable coming into the office. Or I prefer to work from home," meet them where they're at.

And so my suggestion is twofold, one, just have an offering specific to the people who are working from home, and let it all be on Zoom. Or two, have the people that are working in the office sit at their computers individually on Zoom. And then that way, it'll be the exact same experience for both people. And then you're not showing favoritism to the people that are in front of you. You're just making everybody feel included, and that's so important because things are so divisive, and you don't need that. As a leader right now, you need them to feel included.

Beth Almes:

Yeah. I think that's such an important matter of the inclusion. Every single person on your team, regardless of what they're doing, or why they're doing it, making sure that they all feel part of that. I'll say that it's one of the advantages I've seen of remote work, at least at our company. 

We've always had some people who were remote just because they lived in different areas. Most people might've been in the corporate office. We had some people who lived in different parts of the United States and they worked from home, or just that we also have a bunch of global offices.

And the nice thing has been we've all been able to connect now. And I feel more connected to those people, whereas in the past it was all of us together, and then there was a couple dialing in from home. And the audio in the meeting room didn't always work as well, and you couldn't see them. And now everybody's on. I can call my colleague in the UK and have just as good of a conversation as the one that lives just two minutes down the street, but you're just not seeing them in person.

Erin Diehl:

That's it. I hear you. And I feel the same way, and it's also really opening up opportunities for people to go and live where they want to live. I moved in this pandemic. That's why we don't have an office anymore. And my team moved. So I feel really like what you just said is so true. 

And so many people are seeing that, whereas before, if you were remote, it was a disadvantage. And now we're all getting equal treatment. We're all kind of getting on the same playing field. And you can make that work to your advantage if you want to live a different way.

Beth Almes:

I think that's just fantastic. So the last question I'll ask of you, Erin, is one that I ask all of our guests on the show, just to tell me a moment of leadership that really had an impact on your life, whether it was for good or for bad, that you were like, "This is why I want to be a leader." Or if I'm ever a leader, I will never do things that way, a moment of leadership that had a real impact on you.

Erin Diehl:

Yeah. And I thought about this. This question is one that I knew you were going to ask. And I will say my one thought is, Erin, you're supposed to be this fail-fluencer. Talk about the times that you were like, "Wah," but I have a moment of pure proud, just I can't believe this is happening, so I'll share this because it's pretty cool. 

And this is regardless of political affiliation, we were asked to be a part of the training, first ever training day for the Obama foundation in Chicago. And however this was 250 citizens between the ages of 18 to 24. And one of my interns turned employees named Jenna, she is still with us today, was able to go and participate as a participant while we were doing the keynote and some of the leading of things.

Long story short, the day cumulated in a project that was supposed to create positive change for the community of Chicago. And each individual small group of 250 participants picked one person in their group to share an idea, and that idea became their idea. But this person had to be the advocate for the group. So Jenna's idea was chosen. 

And everybody loved her idea so much. I had no idea this was going on because I was doing my own thing and facilitating. We found out that former President Barack Obama, was there, and that Jenna and two other participants were going to have to present their idea to the collective group, but specifically to him.

Beth Almes:

Oh, gosh.

Erin Diehl:

So I witnessed this quiet, and she classifies herself as an introvert, young professional woman, walk up to a podium and hold her own to a former president, who was asking her questions about her idea and picking it apart, but in a loving way. And then I watched her, literally I was like Amy Poehler in Mean Girls, if you've ever seen that movie. Know how she's standing there with her video camera like, "Oh, I'm a cool mom." I was crying behind my video camera, just watching her life change before my very eyes. And I tell you what happened after that. 

Literally watching this shy woman blossom, and know because of that experience, she could do anything that was set in front of her. This was in 2017. She's our client experience manager, and she is the person who handles almost all of our business development. And I have witnessed her blossom from that experience into this fantastic, young professional who ...

And I won't even say the word young professional, but a fantastic professional woman, who because of that experience, has gone on to work with so many and bring in so many amazing organizations for us to partner with. And I am just thrilled to witness and to be a part of it. It's the coolest thing that I've ever seen. And it was because of that moment, because she believed in herself and because I believe some of the tools that we use and teach, that she was able to say, "I'm strong enough to stand in front of a former president and deliver this idea and get feedback." 

And now, and I'm telling you, she used to pick up the phone and be like, "This is Jenna." And now she is rocking and rolling and crushing it. And I tell her she is Improve It, that is what our company is all about. It's helping people be their best selves professionally through the use of improv. And she is the picture of it, I'm so proud of her.

Beth Almes:

That's such a great story. I think so many leaders, you start to forget sometimes that your number one job is developing others, and letting them shine, and your moment of leadership is just such a great example of that. So thank you, Erin, for being here on The Leadership 480 Podcast today.

Erin Diehl:

Thank you, Beth.

Beth Almes:

And thank you to our listeners who took part of their 480 minutes to be with us today. And remember to make every moment of leadership count.