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Hybrid Work Demands New Skills of Leaders

Many leaders likely do not possess the new mindset and skill set necessary to manage large scale hybrid work. But they can skill up. Here’s what you need to know.

office workers on a zoom meeting

If the number of new management books, conferences, and executive education programs are any indication, senior leaders and team managers are going to need a whole new set of skills to succeed in the new model of company culture — hybrid work.  

Surveys show that employees want, and employers will oblige, flexible work arrangements where employees work in the office only part of the time. It makes sense, given productivity has remained strong as everyone from CEOs to individual contributors worked remotely for the past year and change. 

But large scale, sustained hybrid work is something much different. It requires a mind set and skill set shift many leaders and managers are still learning about and may not possess.  

“What COVID has brought out are the enormous pressures people are under to manage how they live their lives,” said Elizabeth (Beta) Mannix, a scholar and researcher at the Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University. “You can’t teach things like perspective-taking, empathy and self awareness in a one-day workshop. How do managers acquire those newly-critical soft skills and manage a P&L at the same time? These are not easy things.” 

Hybrid work requires a new set of management skills

Leaders need to be adept at vision, strategy, and execution — this has always been table stakes — but now they need to have the emotional intelligence and resilience to manage hybrid teams with widely differing needs, goals, work styles, personal situations, and more. Further, they need to manage interpersonal leadership dynamics, while creating an environment where all colleagues can thrive and trust each other. They also need to ensure remote workers don’t feel left out. 

The Wall Street Journal noted this will all require a “massive rethink” for managers. 

Communication has always been important for managing remote teams. It is exponentially so in a hybrid world where it is critical everyone understands how their work contributes to broader objectives. 

“For teams to be effective, each member must feel optimistic about their individual role, what they can offer the team, and what the team can offer them,” wrote Tsedal Neeley in her new book “Remote Work Revolution: Succeeding from Anywhere.” “Learning to work together as a group rather than an individual is what creates a cohesive team, and the key ingredient is social connection.” 

Neeley, a Harvard Business School professor, told the Washington Post in March that the number one question she’s getting from companies is how to plan for and implement a hybrid workforce.  

The future of work is about the rise of humanism as the new driver of value.

idc

Managers need to understand the overall value of each person versus the hours they put in at their desks. This requires a new, deeper level of communication and understanding.  

“It’s hard, and is hugely different from how many managers lead,” said Mannix. “It’s a skill you can learn, but you have to start by believing that it’s important. Not everyone has emotional intelligence, but organizations have to make a decision about how much they value these things.”  

Indeed, IDC wrote in a report that, “The future of work is about the rise of humanism as the new driver of value” with skills including empathy gaining prominence. Tools are emerging to help managers gain a deeper insight into employees. 

Ray Dalio, founder of the world’s largest hedge fund, Bridgewater Associates, founded Principles in April 2020 to help managers collect and process employee data with an app called Pulse. “It lets you look at each individual, how they’re interacting, their mood, and their work/life balance,  and you get feedback on that,” he told Salesforce on a recent podcast

“I wanted to create a meritocracy in which goals, work and relationships are meaningful,” he said. 

This tool will ultimately help managers see and understand employees in new ways. “Any tool that signals some data that suggests when to check in with employees is helpful,” said Karen Mangia, Salesforce vice president of customer and market insights and three-time author of books on remote work. 

“It’s another set of eyes and ears when managers can’t be walking around talking to employees in the office, and gives us some context about when to check in and, ideally, helps solve for a trust gap” that might arise with hybrid work.  

You need to level the playing field

Those working remotely are often at an inherent disadvantage to their in-office peers. They’re the only one dialing into a meeting when everyone else is seated around a conference table. And they miss out on idle banter that can lead to great ideas and connections.

“What happens over time is the person who is in the office will have a closer relationship with managers and better, faster access to information.” said Mannix. “Whether or not it’s intentional doesn’t matter.”

In her book, Neeley outlines a scenario where in-office team members have informal but substantive conversations about projects the entire team will discuss at an upcoming meeting. This does not bode well for team cohesion, and leads to resentment among remote workers for being left out. 

One way to give all stakeholders an equal voice, writes Neeley, is to create a meeting structure wherein each person talks and listens equally in meetings, and makes an effort to address every person in addition to the leader. 

Even the most experienced managers face new challenges when managing an all or partially remote team.

“Remote inc., How to thrive at work — Wherever you are”

It’s inevitable that office dwellers will share tacit information during the workday. There is nothing nefarious about that, but “the leader of the team has to work much, much harder to make sure that information is shared equally,” said Mannix. 

Managing distinct sources of power that can impede hybrid work

If that weren’t enough, they must also recognize and effectively manage two distinct sources of power that can impede or facilitate hybrid work, according to Harvard Business Review: hybridity positioning and hybridity competence.

Hybridity positioning refers to someone’s access to resources and management due to where they work, or are positioned. Hybridity competence refers to their ability to navigate and balance between remote and in-office worlds. For example, being strong at relationship-building both in-person and virtually, and being willing to ask for and find resources they may not have easy access to.

HBR notes that “hybridity’s real threat is to fairness,” and lays out four ways leaders can manage the inevitable power differences in a hybrid environment.

Track and communicate

Once you understand where and when your team is working, discuss potential problems that might arise and how to overcome them. The dynamic nature of hybrid schedules requires ongoing tracking and rule-setting to help everyone stay aware of the configuration in a given work group.

Design

Managers should redistribute power in hybrid teams by shifting access to resources and/or visibility levels. They should revisit policies and procedures to ensure they don’t inadvertently provide an unfair advantage — for example, key performance indicators (KPIs) shouldn’t align with accessibility to resources.

Educate

Managers and employees should both be aware of the power imbalances hybrid arrangements can create. Managers must promote awareness and educate employees and themselves on how to avoid bias

Monitor

Managers need to be aware and take advantage of opportunities to address all of these challenges, such as during performance reviews, onboarding, and new team launches. 

Understanding and communicating purpose is more important in a hybrid workplace

Regardless of where they work, people want to know their work is valued, and that what they’re doing is purposeful and contributes to larger organizational objectives. In a hybrid environment, managers and leaders have to work much harder to consistently communicate larger objectives to team members. They also have to work to understand each person’s value, and how their work specifically drives those objectives forward. 

“We’re asking the middle layer of managers to perform in a much different way” by asking them to help drive transformation, communicate broader objectives to team members, and keep their finger on the pulse of the team’s well-being, said Mangia.

In their new book, “Remote Inc., How to Thrive at Work, Wherever You Are,” Robert Pozen and Alexandra Samuel write that managers need to rethink how they get employees to pursue objectives which, again, requires a new level of communication and transparency. 

“You need to motivate and inspire their best effort by explaining how it matters to the larger mission.” 

The skills that define effective leadership are always changing, but they’ve never changed as fast or dramatically as the last 14 months. “Even the most experienced managers face new challenges when managing an all or partially remote team,” wrote Pozen and Samuel. “You need to ensure your team gets its work done, but you also need to put some extra thought and TLC into managing the issues that crop up for remote workers, like personal isolation and trouble communicating with colleagues.” 

And that is a delicate dance all leaders will have to learn as we enter this new phase of work in the coming months. 

Leading a hybrid workforce in addition to all the usual leadership responsibilities, they wrote, “makes you Ginger Rogers to the conventional workplace’s Fred Astaire: you’re doing everything he does, except backward and in high heels.”

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