This is the first article in a series discussing the leadership challenges of hybrid and remote work. Particularly, the complexities that arise when your team members aren’t all in the same physical (or even virtual) space – but could be anywhere at any time, sometimes with no standard schedule.
In future articles, we’ll dive deeper into how leaders can address these challenges and ensure their team is at peak performance. While we can’t cover every challenge – the challenges selected are some of the most common leadership issues our clients have faced.
Why is Hybrid Work Different?
Thanks to COVID, what was a niche term just a few years ago is now mainstream. But what makes hybrid work different from all-remote or all-onsite?
Simply, hybrid work allows your team members to either be remote, or in the office, depending on their specific schedule. Often schedules are determined in advance (i.e., Megan is going to be in the office on Monday and Thursday, and home the rest of the time). But sometimes people will come in at random as needed. Plus, some people will be in the office full time and while others are fully remote. Depending on the side you take on the debate, it can either be the best, or worst, of both worlds. But no matter how you look at it, this new model creates many new complexities and challenges for leaders.
It is pretty obvious that maintaining effective communication is one of the biggest challenges in a hybrid environment. Simply the fact that at around 55% of communication in a conversation happens non-verbally, it’s hard to argue that a virtual meeting is as effective as an in-person meeting. Even with the most current virtual options, almost half of the nuance of a face-to-face conversation is lost.
But does that mean you can’t solve problems, come up with new ideas, and that communication issues are going to plague your team from now on? Absolutely not. By that logic, it would also mean you should only communicate in-person from now on, which, given the use of phones, virtual meetings, instant messages, and email, clearly isn’t the case (even pre-2020). It’s all about if the mode of communication fits the communication goal. In hybrid work, it will just take a little more thought to convey all the needed information.
Maintaining effective communication
Leaders need to keep communication going. Or really, the “right” communication. Nature abhors a vacuum, so if a void in communication isn’t being filled with something of value, it’s always being filled by something else – and it’s likely not of value. During 2020, the world was somewhat used to dealing with the void. If it wasn’t filled, there was at least an excuse as to why. Now, if your organization is going forward with a long-term hybrid model, the void must be filled. This means that what once was second nature in how you communicated with your team now needs to be much more formalized.
Feedback and Crucial Conversations
Providing helpful and timely feedback – or holding difficult conversations – is hard enough in-person – but gets even harder when you can’t look someone in the eye. When possible, it’s best for these meetings to happen in person. This allows for the most connection and communication to occur. But if they must be done remotely, a virtual meeting where you can at least see the other person is always best. Like all areas of hybrid work, this will take some adjustments and new expectations. Make it known that virtual feedback is going to be common and regular given the new working environment. This will help make it less awkward during the moment.
Conducting successful meetings has obviously been one of the biggest changes in the last year. And even though some will be in the office, leading effective hybrid meetings is still going to continue to be a major challenge for leaders. Pre-planning and structure are going to be even more critical now than before. When should a meeting be held versus sending a message? How should a meeting be hosted? Is it worth people coming in? What type of meeting will it be? These are a few of the questions you must ask before even having a meeting. And that doesn’t even scratch the surface of how to best facilitate a hybrid meeting. That’s why skills to lead effective virtual meetings is going to be top priority for leaders to develop in the near future.
Culture is more than a buzzword – it’s how your team gets things done. Unless dedicated action is taken to maintain your culture, any major change, such as shifting to a hybrid model, is going to change your team’s existing set of norms.
During longer term hybrid work, culture is likely to be redefined across various groups that share traits in common. Where there was once one main culture, there could now be many cultures – such as the “in office” culture, the “remote” culture, the “commuter” culture, the “all work all the time” culture. And, sadly, human nature is to find fault with cultures that are different from their own. This means a more focused effort must be made to maintain the traits that are desirable and remove those that are not.
When it comes down to it, culture is ultimately about getting results. And physical location shouldn’t change that. Your team still needs to get things done well, on time, and on budget – and everyone is just as accountable now as they were before.
However, now more than ever before, the level of work effort put forth is determined by the individual. The example set by co-workers for “how hard to work” isn’t as obvious, and people are left to their natural inclinations. Plus, there are now many more competing forces to capture their attention (laundry, walking the dog, that soap opera). But on the flip side, times of “flow” or maximum productive output are also going to be more common, as people can work when and how they want to work.
How to create the cultural environment that maximizes productive energy is the job (and challenge) for the leader. Continually instilling your team with clear goals – and more importantly, a larger vision and purpose of work – will be the key to ensuring everyone stays focused. What does each member of your team value? Make sure to tailor the “purpose” to what they personally care about.
Effective leadership in a hybrid workplace certainly comes with many challenges. Thankfully, it also comes with many benefits. And quality leaders are the best chance an organization has to limit the downsides and leverage the opportunities. In the next article in this series, we will look at a couple more “hybrid leadership challenges” – staying innovative and maintaining your team health. Both of which are critical to team performance.