Leaders In A Hybrid World Of Work

Andrew Brough

Although some organisations were successfully navigating the challenges of remote work and distributed teams way before the pandemic, the last 12 months have highlighted issues that leaders cannot ignore.

In the recent 2021 Work Trend Index report The Next Great Disruption Is Hybrid Work – Are We Ready? Microsoft uncovers some pressing trends.

  • Flexible work is here to stay.

The 2021 Buffer State of Remote Work confirms that the top three benefits to working remotely are a flexible schedule, the opportunity to work from anywhere, and not having to commute.

  • In many instances, leaders are out of touch with employees and need a wake-up call.

The Microsoft Study shows many people are struggling with isolation, disconnect and digital exhaustion. High productivity is masking an exhausted workforce. Gen Z is at risk and will need to be re-energised. Remote leaders are either too focused on execution or lack the skills to make deep and meaningful connections with team members from a distance. Digital overload is a reality. We are more swamped by emails, meetings, virtual chats, and shared documents than ever before. At the same time, the opportunities to network and build meaningful connections seem few and far between.

  • Shrinking networks are endangering innovation.

Although we seem to navigate the challenges of remote collaboration within intact teams, our networks have shrunk; close network interaction has improved, and distant network interaction has declined. Whether a function of priority, time or necessity, the result is we have become siloed in our thinking and interaction.

  • Authenticity will spur productivity and well-being.

Work has become more human. It is now commonly accepted that team members are dealing with immediate and pressing responsibilities while working from home and, consequently the boundaries between work and home have narrowed. On the one hand, this can be challenging as the temptation is to be “constantly on” and “always available.” On the other, it seems perfectly natural to share introductions to pets and other family members in our work-from-anywhere environments. The shared stresses of managing work and family have meant some people feel comfortable about being themselves and about showing up in an authentic way.

  • Talent is everywhere in a hybrid work world.

One of the most significant game-changers is access to talent. Lockdown proved people did not need to be co-located and over 46% report they are planning to move to a new location in the next year. A wider talent pool also works conversely as employees can now expand their reach in terms of job opportunities beyond their immediate geography. Job switching intent has nearly doubled. Employees have greater choice as to where they want to work from. At the same time, there is wide access to the talent pool and companies can now recruit anyone from anywhere.

Using HYBRID as a mnemonic, my thoughts on this world are that to be effective, leaders and teams will require:

H – A clear handbook or remote playbook where everything is documented. Keeping everyone informed is a top priority. We need to find ways to do this without further clogging our in-boxes. Digital overload is a reality; meeting time has more than doubled, email communication has increased by some 40 billion messages over the last 12 months.

Y – A virtual yoke. In an aeroplane, this is the control wheel or a control column, a device for piloting some fixed-wing aircraft. Leaders will need to consciously give people control and enable them to balance autonomy, authority, and alignment, all from a distance. Trust is paramount. Flexibility is key.

B – Effective boundary spanning that will break silos. Shrinking networks are endangering innovation. Although we have successfully found each other within our intact teams, outside of that context, the evidence of successful collaboration has shrunk. Teams have become increasingly siloed in this digital work world.

R – Clarity on a results-only work environment where people are empowered and trusted to work remotely and are able to combat digital exhaustion. Individuals are assessed not by counting the number of hours online, but rather by the quality of the outputs achieved. High productivity is masking an exhausted workforce. Policy to address this will be critical.

I  – Leaders who work from the basis of influence rather than position. Psychological safety is paramount in a virtual team and requires moving through inclusion safety, learner safety, contributor safety and challenger safety. Shared vulnerability and authentic leadership are crucial. Social capital is now more valuable.

D – Digital fluency. Focus on the workplace experience, equip teams with space and technology to bridge the physical and digital world. Technical difficulties can be exclusionary. Digital fluency does not equate to digital intensity. We need to ensure our teams have developed the skills to innovate and collaborate remotely without expecting them to be online 24/7.

Although in an ideal world, we would be all co-located or all-remote, the HYBRID option looks as if it is here to stay. The opportunity to work remotely and come into an office infrequently provides independence and flexibility supported with some degree of centralised services and structure. While some who are critical of a hybrid model – arguing that an all-remote approach is ultimately the way to go – it seems as if the ‘head office’ will still be around for a while. Even if that is the case, whatever happens, leadership in virtual teams will need to adapt, reluctantly or willingly.

***Dr Andrew J Brough (Andy) is a global leadership and organisational development and e-learning specialist, professional speaker, lecturer, facilitator, and conference moderator. His book, Leadership: The Exponential Effect is available for purchase in South Africa via www.publisher.co.za (paperback copies); theexponentialeffect.com and all good local bookstores. Internationally the book is available via Amazon (paperback and e-book). South African users can also purchase the e-book via Amazon.