The mindset and skill set that is imperative to successfully leading a hybrid team.
The year of the pandemic, 2020, was also the year the traditional office morphed into a brand-new beast, with the entire workforce driven to working out of their homes. A year in, we know that remote work has been a tremendous success. According to a Pricewaterhouse Coopers (PwC) survey conducted in November-December 2020, 34% of US employees reported improved productivity from working remotely while 83% of US employers said the shift to work-from-home had been a success. Studies conducted in other parts of the world showed comparable results.
Now that Covid-19 is in its second year and vaccinations are rolling out, another change in the way we work is inevitable. That is the transformation to a hybrid workforce, where some people continue to work remotely while others return to the office. With employees reluctant to completely give up remote work and the flexibility it affords, the hybrid workplace is the middle path most organizations will take in the near future.
But with a hybrid workforce comes an entirely new and unique set of challenges. First off, it breaks the rhythm of remote work most of us are now used to. There are other concerns too. When is the right time to bring people back to the office safely (a July-August period has been much talked about)? How will office space be managed in keeping with pandemic protocols? How will organizations achieve seamless collaboration between remote and onsite groups? For a hybrid workforce to run smoothly, it all boils down to the mindset and skill set of the managers leading them.
So, what does it take to lead a hybrid team? An open and experimental mindset, for sure. But that is just the beginning. This piece delves deep into what a manager must do to successfully lead a hybrid workforce in a volatile work climate where change is the only constant.
Flexible work is here to stay. People want more control over how, when and where they work. Managers must accept this reality. The Microsoft 2021 Work Trend Index says 73% of employees surveyed want flexible remote work options to remain while 67% are in favor of more in-person work or collaboration. As and when offices reopen, the first challenge managers will likely face is the disconnect between employers and employees over the division of the workweek into remote and in-office days. By most accounts, employers want workers in office three days of the week while employees are in favor of working from home for the same number of days in a week. As a manager, it would make things easier for everyone, including yourself, if you ask your teammates about their preferences on future schedules (for example, two days in the office, fully remote, or whatever it is they are comfortable with).
Flexibility is closely tied to work-life balance. One challenge remote work presented was that it made people feel they were always on call. Is it working from home or living at home? In a hybrid workspace, managers must work closely with team members, individually and collectively, to set boundaries – such as the time a worker would need to be in a physical or virtual meeting for, say, a brainstorming session or collaboration exercise; the time they can work remotely; and the time they can be off work altogether. Managers must not impose on employees during those off-work hours.
The way to making flexible work work for everyone is to prioritize what is important. One way of doing this, experts suggest, is to call a regular Monday huddle to discuss the most important jobs that need to get done that week. Pandemic or not, it has always been the manager’s responsibility to empower employees. Helping them work with flexibility is one way of doing this.
As the world slowly returns to normal, people who choose to remain remote might feel that they are at a distinct disadvantage compared to their colleagues who return to the office. Their fears are not unfounded. “Distance bias” – where the manager gravitates towards team members who are present in the office for any task, including information-sharing – is all too real. This is due to the traditional importance assigned to office culture and what is clearly a false perception among employers and managers that onsite workers are more productive and engaged than their remote counterparts. The leader of a hybrid team must understand and respect the reasons why an employee might choose to remain remote or return to the office. For example, someone who shares an apartment with a roommate or has their home life intrude on their professional life might be more inclined to go back to the office. On the flip side, someone with a health condition might find it more advisable to continue to work from home. Whatever their choices or compulsions, it is imperative for a leader of a hybrid team to ensure both sets of workers feel included and are visible in equal measure. For many managers, this might include overcoming their own biases against remote workers.
A great way of fostering an inclusive climate is by ensuring meetings continue to take place virtually, even if it might be easier for an onsite manager to have a physical meeting with onsite colleagues and inform remote colleagues later. Recording the meeting will make sure those who missed out (maybe because of family pressures) can catch up at their own pace and do not feel left out. As a manager, you might want to think of yourself as a moderator or facilitator who ensures your teammates, irrespective of location, get to share their ideas and have equal access to information and other resources. To lead an ideal hybrid office, a manager should enable collaboration across teams. What’s more, a hybrid workforce holds the potential to enable collaboration between departments that originally worked in silos in the traditional office.
A leader’s duty, at the end of the day, is to get the job done, and done right. For this, it is essential that they establish clear structures and guidelines on how the work will be done. Who needs to attend what meeting? Who has access to what information? What channels of communication (video, email, Slack) will the team use? These are all important decisions that need to be taken early and with a great deal of thought. Taking each member’s opinion on board to arrive at the best decisions will leave no scope for confusion. Of course, these guidelines must be communicated clearly to the team. Additionally, managers must set clear goals and expectations and communicate these as well. What will each member’s role in a specific project be? What are they expected to deliver and by what time?
Communication fuels innovation and creativity. One might have taken those casual water cooler conversations at the office for granted, but they are often the inspiration for an organization's best work. Furthermore, they encourage feelings of inclusion and collaboration among workers. In the new hybrid set-up, many workers will miss out on these invaluable opportunities. Opening the channels of communication to such casual conservations and not limiting them to serious meetings and discussions will help employees bounce off ideas in an informal atmosphere free of pressure. And who knows what the pay-off will be?
In the past year, the term “Zoom fatigue” has been everywhere on social media. There is widespread consensus that video calls are exhausting. They force you to look at your gadget’s screen constantly to show that you are paying attention, whereas you might be too wired to listen to and retain anything of what is being discussed. Apart from multiple video calls in a day, employees have had to contend with longer and more frequent virtual meetings, emails and chats. A digital workplace means a barrage of information, most of it unstructured, unplanned and unscheduled. An exhausted mind and body are but an expected result.
This digital exhaustion must end if the hybrid workforce is to function at its peak. This calls for management to rethink digital processes, let go of old practices and embrace newer ones. Everything doesn’t have to be on video. Managers can decide what matters can be dealt with just as effectively over email. Another step would be to put an end to unproductive meetings. Again, not everything that needs to be conveyed needs a meeting. Meetings and calls for social events should be strictly optional.
Another challenge remote workers faced last year was the lack of office infrastructure they needed to work from home. The Microsoft index found that 42% of employees lacked office essentials at home and one in 10 had an inadequate internet connection. Many found it difficult to access certain resources from their homes. A weak home office set-up affects productivity and competence. Managers and organizations must recognize that this challenge will carry over into the hybrid workplace. They must invest in arming both remote and onsite workers with the tools they need to work optimally. Many companies are offering their employees funds to step up a home office as well as allowances to pay their internet and phone bills. In today’s new normal, office space is no longer limited to the office. It extends to employees’ home offices. And, yes, it even transcends the physical and encompasses the technology that allows workers to participate from their homes and from a shared workspace.
While managers communicate their expectations to their team members, they must not forget to ask after their psychological wellbeing as well. At the beginning of the pandemic, employers were highly attentive to their workers’ mental health. Now is not the time to let up on this vigilance, what with the Microsoft index showing 54% of respondents feeling overworked and 39% exhausted. Similarly, this survey of workers from 11 countries reported loss of mental health on account of the pandemic among 78% of respondents while 76% said companies should be doing more to protect workers’ mental health. If a team member is irritable, stressed or seems disconnected, they might be showing signs of burnout. How do you, as their manager, help them? By offering wellness days, arranging for therapy sessions and yoga workshops. Beyond obvious wellness schemes, managers can create a stress-free work environment simply by encouraging team members to use their holidays and vacation time, monitoring their workload, and establishing a clear beginning and end to the workday to avoid the blurring of boundaries between work and home life. They can also offer childcare facilities, the absence of which has been cited as a major disruptive factor for remote workers, especially women.
Job satisfaction is vital to mental wellbeing. And one of the factors driving job satisfaction is the social network colleagues form at the shared workspace. To lead a healthy hybrid workforce, a manager must strive towards rebuilding this support system that has been a casualty of remote work culture. Remember, a manager’s ability to build trust can start from something as simple as asking a team member how they are coping and if there is anything they need help with. Once trust is established, workers will be more confident about speaking up about their struggles and challenges.
The success of a hybrid workforce rests on its leaders’ choices. It is a heavy burden. And leaders, too, need help. They need the right skills – an agile mind to experiment and make decisions on the fly, ownership over those decisions, and a growth mindset to strive for development and success despite uncertainties and disruptions. They need their company’s support to get them ready for the challenge that lies ahead. Fortunately, organizations are aware of what is required at their end. According to the PwC survey, 64% of US executives spoke of plans to invest in training for their managers to help them better manage a hybrid workforce. Employers cannot afford to be unprepared, given that a large section of the global workforce is right at this moment evaluating what direction their careers will take post-pandemic. Their unwillingness to go back to the old ways of working could result in a huge loss of talent for employers and managers who refuse to embrace change.
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June 17, 2021
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