Internal Communications Consultant scarlettabbott
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Leadership in the hybrid world of work

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Hybrid working is here to stay, but with this new way of working comes new challenges for managers. Traditional leadership models will have to evolve to keep up.

14th May 2021
Internal Communications Consultant scarlettabbott
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As we emerge from a year of remote working, new research is building a picture of a hybrid working future (where employees spend part of their time at the office and partly work remotely) – but what does this mean for leaders? How is it likely to affect the relationships between leaders and employees? In addition, how can HR and IC teams help bridge the gaps in a disparate workforce for the long term?

The rise of hybrid working means that organisations will need to re-evaluate their performance and promotion models. 

Experimenting with new ways of working, connecting and communicating over the past year has made space for new, and arguably better, ways of leading. The unfamiliarity of our circumstances encouraged camaraderie, authenticity and vulnerability, all powerful, empathetic facets of good leadership. While we sat, uncertain, at our screens waiting for clarity in the chaos, this meaningful communication from leaders was needed.

As we begin to reimagine the workplace, we may see traditional leadership models, based on personal charisma and hierarchy, begin to erode. Physical workplaces have enabled and reinforced these leadership styles, but as our working environment changes to encompass more fluid working styles, it’s likely that more traditional models of leadership style will also have to flex.  

The rise of quiet voices

Remote working has made it more challenging for extroverted leaders to maintain the same level of visibility. In a remote workplace, however, bolstered by digital democratisation, quieter voices and introverted personalities have had an opportunity to rise to the surface. Quieter colleagues, whose contributions are no less important than their louder counterparts, have been able to work in ways that better encourage their productivity, clearing their own paths towards leadership.

A more level playing field that focuses on ability and output could usher in the potential for a revolution in leadership, where bite matters more than bark. It will be important, in the hybrid workplace, to continue to build spaces that encourage these voices to thrive, share, and grow. Look at where these quieter voices have thrived over the past year and continue to include those channels as part of your communications and content strategy.

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Managing presenteeism

Most organisations’ policies and procedures weren’t created for remote and hybrid workplaces. The rise of hybrid working means that organisations will need to re-evaluate their performance and promotion models to accommodate different work patterns and to discourage presenteeism.

The dangers of presenteeism aren’t fading away, they’re just taking new forms. Some people may feel pressured to be physically present and highly visible in the office, reinforcing traditional notions of presenteeism. On the other hand, remote colleagues may also feel pressured to erode their own personal boundaries to stay visible and to work longer. Indeed, one survey found that the average worker spent an additional 28 hours working per month in the early days of the pandemic.

In order to manage presenteeism, organisations need to be clear about their expectations of their people. The ultimate factor in performance should be how effectively people do their work, not how many hours they spend in the office or online. Emphasising this to staff through clear boundaries and behaviour modelling, while also realigning performance reviews and criteria to account for off-site employees will be vital.

The issue of presenteeism is vital to address. The risks to employee wellbeing are self-explanatory. This is also, however, a D&I issue: concerns are already arising about presenteeism and its adverse effects on remote employees with family commitments (particularly working parents and working women).

Connections and touchpoints

In a hybrid work structure, leaders won’t be able to rely on management visibility purely by walking around. Solely working the room doesn’t have the same effect if half your staff is working remotely on any given day. Leaders need to find ways to check in with remote workers – to connect with them, to observe and to maintain their own visibility. Internal communications teams, who themselves have stepped into the spotlight over the past year, play a crucial role in supporting leaders to do this, through improved technologies, and new strategies to help them reach everyone, everywhere.

Regular and frequent touchpoints like coffee breaks and other gatherings to informally connect online colleagues with on-site staff and leadership can seem superfluous, but they’re still important. If done correctly, they play a vital role in keeping people connected and visible in order to rebalance the dangers of on-site presenteeism. If remote colleagues are detached from check-ins, collaboration and the social dynamics of the workplace, they are vulnerable to many risks or missed opportunities, from being overlooked for promotions (by management) to disengagement (by the colleague).

Maintaining trust

Over the past year, we’ve seen old assumptions about remote working and productivity challenged. While leaders may have feared that their people would slack off behind the screens, it’s evident that for many organisations, the reverse was true; 93% of companies in a Mercer study reported that productivity has stayed the same or increased since employees began working remotely.

Unfortunately, some organisations found trust to be a leap of faith too far, as the use of surveillance technology showed, creating a legal and morale minefield. This lack of trust echoes 1960s management scholar Douglas McGregor’s Theory X style of management, which outlines the traditional view that people are lazy, unmotivated and will avoid work if at all possible. Spying makes an unfair blanket assumption that employees are disengaged and unmotivated. While this may be the case in some organisations, this cynical judgment can easily backfire. Trust is not a one-way street.

Sentiment tracking, regular forums and other opportunities for teams and individuals to provide regular feedback introduces a more constructive way to understand engagement across the organisation. This data can help surface any issues of productivity, and explore the root causes, in a way that encourages leaders and their teams to co-create solutions.

Practical tips

As we approach the dawn of the hybrid world, here are some tips to keep in mind:

  • Expect that the transition to a new (hybrid) normal will take time to settle in.
  • Make room for ‘quiet leaders’. Check in with them and find out what support they need.
  • If not kept in check, presenteeism can poison your organisation. Manage this by setting clear boundaries and transforming your performance review processes.
  • Build trust by creating opportunities for regular check-ins and informal interactions – for both on-site and off-site employees. Some companies such as GitLab (an online services company) set up virtual coffee break rooms. They also have a ‘random room’ on Google Hangouts and a dedicated Slack channel where people can just drop in for those informal, water cooler moments.
  • Keep observing, checking in with people to understand how they’re adjusting. Reassure them that you’re keen to understand their experience to create a better environment for them.

Interested in this topic? Read How to design a hybrid working model that overcomes common fatigue factors.

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