Chapter 4
15 MIN READ

Leadership in Hybrid Settings

To begin with, the discussion on how teams interact is not a recent one. However, in the last year, the new work debate experienced another peak. lots of debates have been going on about the conflict between hierarchy and agile work formats. Now, the global covid-19 pandemic added another flavor to this. Everybody – no matter at what level of hierarchy – was forced to experience what remote work feels like. Now that we have learned that there’s a lot about remote work that actually works pretty well, we also realize that the concepts and discussions around “remote work” are too limited. If at a given time 50% of staff are in the office, 30% are working from home and the rest is traveling or in a co-working space, the learnings we made during the “all-remote” pandemic don’t apply.  

The promise of hybrid work is attractive: If leaders and managers can successfully make the transition to an anywhere, anytime model, the result will be a work life that is more purposeful and productive. The first and most important takeaway is that this promise will only materialize if your teams or employees' expectations are part of the implementation process.  

Have a conversation with your team about how you can best work together in this new environment. Discuss when and how you’ll communicate, who needs to be in on which decisions, and how employees will structure their workdays. Before further detailing the different elements to be considered, an important element needs to be introduced without which hybrid work will be difficult to implement: Trust.

From control to trust

Trust is a mutual confidence that is earned through a relationship of faith in individual expertise or potential ability being reinforced with consistently-fulfilled expectations. Despite the fact that there is no evidence whatsoever that trust can only be established in a physical in-office environment, many leaders still see a lack of trust as the biggest challenge for managing remote employees. What they actually mean is not a lack of trust but a lack of control. This view completely neglects the long-lasting discussion on the critical role of trust-based work for organizational resilience. Trust is a cultural value that doesn't relate to a physical location. Recent research clearly showed that trust can be built via video (and even audio) almost just as good as in a face-to-face setting. Understanding the role of trust for the successful management of hybrid teams is crucial. What tools are the best to build trust in a hybrid work setting? Garen Staglin has developed key elements in a feature for Forbes Magazin (see good reads box):

  1. Build relationships with regular check-ins. What used to be the "good old management by walk around" style hasn't lost it's value in the hybrid world. Taking the temperature and being present and available is important to create a good relationship and understanding. Use check-ins to provide guidance or share information, not for micro-management purposes.
  2. Tailor strategies to individual needs - know yourself, know your chicken. Understanding how the other builds trust (either by default/automatically or by evidence over time) helps to find ways to create trustful relationships.
  3. Send messages of trustworthiness: being honest and transparent creates evidence of trustworthiness, disingenuous communication on the other hand is a burden for establishing trust.

Trust, of course, is nothing exclusive to the relationship between manager and employee. Establishing trust between team members is equally important. When teams share trust, they feel comfortable working without supervision or micro-management, because they have the confidence their colleagues will do their work well. Establishing trust in a team requires transparency with respect to performance expectations as well as work results, independent tasks and a healthy feedback culture.  

Communication

Communication is the glue that holds a team or a company's employees together. Therefor the ground rules on how teams or employees communicate in a hybrid work setting is an important managerial task. Depending on the hybrid work model adopted, communication channels have to be organized accordingly. Take meetings for example: In a "flexible hybrid" model all meetings will need to be online in order to maintain equality between participants while in "synchronized hybrid" one might decide to have meetings only on in-office days. So in order to build a hybrid work communication model, all communication situations (from meetings to stand-ups, 1on1's or social get-togethers) need to be looked at and suitable communication means, modes and tools identified. This process should be part of a team conversation developing an approach for the implementation of the selected hybrid work model.  

Make sure the communication style is appropriate for the purpose of communication in a specific situation.  

There aren't too many best practices for hybrid work for the time being. So testing different communication styles and format in an agile "test and kill fast" way seems to be a good approach. What has to be pointed out is that the hybrid work support technology (see tools section above) sets the boundaries for certain formats: spontaneous water cooler conversations for instance are difficult in a scheduled video call, the same holds true for check-ins or virtual walk arounds.

Career considerations

There are plenty of tips and tricks lists for employees not to let work from home get in the way of the next promotion. The sheer fact of the existence of such advice points to an important obstacle for hybrid work - in this case from employee's perspective. A recent study from Ten Spot (see links) confirms this: 47% of respondents are concerned that they might be passed over for promotions, wage increases, or new opportunities, if they continue working from home full time. And, of those who want to continue to work from home full time, 53% have this concern.  

A vital discussion is currently going on, about how justified this concern is. Do employees and managers underestimate the negative impact of less on-site visibility on the distribution of flagship projects, performance appraisals or even promotions? The idea is not backed by research: A survey conducted by Henley Business School about reasons behind the number of promotions being down in 2020 revealed that only one out four drivers was related to the absence in workplace communication (such as water-cooler conversations) during the pandemic presumably made it more difficult for managers to recognize their employees' work.

An interesting perspective on career considerations in hybrid work settings has been added lately in the Kahoot! Workplace Culture report showing an impressive generational divide: 65% of millennial HR leaders say that office workers are more likely to get raises while only 19% of baby boomer HR leaders agree to the same statement. One can conclude that over time / in the futuere career considerations won’t stand in the way of hybrid work.

However: If today (a part of) employees fear that working remotely can entail negative consequences for the own career, most hybrid work models (with the exception of "synchronized hybrid" as in this model chances to get in touch with managers are equally distributed) will need to deal with this perception irrespective of its actual truth. So what are the tools to demonstrate that hybrid work is not a career-killer?

Ground rules

Establishing ground rules as such isn't something that is specific to hybrid work. But in order to make hybrid work function, some areas require special attention.  

The precise specification of above ground rules depends of course on the hybrid work model to be implemented and the supporting technology. Almost needless to say: the development and documentation of ground rules is a team exercise.

Good Reads: