We have seen a massive shift in what ‘work’ means since early 2020. Instead of being a place that we go to, it is now something that we do from wherever we can manage to do it. Working this way allowed businesses to stay functional and stay afloat when the lockdowns brought the world to a standstill. However, over the past several months, remote working models have transitioned from being a safety net to becoming a mainstay. In fact, the majority of both C-suite executives (85%) and employees (71%) in the UK believe hybrid working will make their organisation more resilient and better equipped to survive future economic cycles.
Some of the world’s biggest companies have taken notice. At IBM, the frequency in which an employee is required to go into the office will be determined by work deliverables or the need for team collaboration, while Ford’s office workers will need to be on site for certain meetings or projects. Other companies like Uber and Citigroup are requiring a specific number of days in the office, typically two to three per week, rather than a full return to work or totally remote model. A few employers such as Salesforce and TIAA will place workers into categories or tiers based on how they will work, ranging from fully remote to flex to fully in-office. Top tech companies such as Google, Microsoft and Apple are embracing flex as their future and professional services firms such as Deloitte and PWC have empowered employees by providing them with a choice. Deloitte has given it’s 20,000 employees the choice of when and where they work and PwC has introduced what they call ‘the Deal,’ a flexible working solution that enables employees to set their own schedules provided that 40-60% of their time is spent alongside colleagues at its offices or at client sites.
This way of working recasts the corporate HQ as a destination (‘hub’) to which employees will travel for collaboration and creative meetings, rather than the base from which they should work every day. The shift to hybrid work is more than a logistical challenge, and there is no single blueprint for success in these models. Companies need to start thinking about hybrid work as an opportunity for transformation and reinvention and by doing so recognise that a fundamental change in leadership mindsets and skillsets will be required to continue to provide the best employee and customer experiences and to innovate to new required operating models.
Rialto are working with leaders and their teams to create, maintain and enhance high performance through combined best practices from pre-pandemic leadership and new remote working and hybrid leadership. Our work has identified five key mistakes leaders tend to make when adapting to these models, which ultimately lead to friction, lack of results and engagement and retention challenges. We have outlined these areas of concern below to help guide you through your own transition.
Mistake #1: You aren’t managing collaboration or workflows effectively
From the examples above, it seems as though teamwork and collaboration will be the primary function of the office for many organisations and their staff. This is a smart approach, as it gets everyone in a room together so nothing gets missed and no one feels left out. But not every business will adopt this approach, and teams will likely have to navigate working across locations.
This might mean that those who are not on site feel left out of discussions or miss information that their teammates in the office can easily and casually exchange. It may also mean that work is unevenly distributed with the bulk of the burden landing on either the in-office staff or remote team members.
At first, this may be easy to overlook so long as work is getting done. But over time, it can have negative effects on productivity, effectiveness, and team morale. It is likely to become grating if team members feel excluded or overworked. As a result, leaders should encourage their team to follow meeting etiquette where video calls are prioritised over phone calls and remote workers are given equal opportunity to contribute. Extra care and attention should be paid to making sure that remote staff are kept in the loop when it comes to the casual discussions that happen naturally in face-to-face settings. If something is decided during one of these talks, then a call or message should be sent right after informing the rest of the team of any changes or updates. It may seem tedious, but it ensures everyone has the right information at the right time, regardless of where they may be working from that day.
Another option is to keep the office as a hub for in-person collaboration and allow remote time to be spent on independent work. Save team meetings, strategy sessions, brainstorms, or collaborative activities for the days of the week where everyone will be together in the same place. Use that time as productively as possible to align the team and ensure everyone has clear marching orders to take away and work on while they are remote. Communication will still need to be a major focus here, but it is much easier to navigate this format than constantly trying to loop everyone in.
Leaders also need to take care to ensure that work is being evenly distributed. You should not assign work to people simply because they are in the office that day, or alternatively because they are working remote and you feel they need to be ‘kept busy.’ Hybrid model or not, a good leader should always prioritise the workload based on who has the right skills and capabilities first and foremost. You should not be enacting any sort of preferential treatment for those who came into the office, nor using that as a reason to overload them. As a Leader, you need to take care to ensure that the right work is making its way to the right people in order to ensure the right outcomes are achieved in a timely manner.
Leaders in particular need to be more visible than ever. The easiest way to ensure you remain accessible is to run regular check-ins. Frequent contact via video technology is an effective way to maintain your visibility, and provides your employees with the opportunity to ask questions and keep the lines of communication open and transparent. Communication will be crucial for the success of these models, and should be a top priority for all.
Teamwork supports connections between colleagues via the opportunity to discuss projects,
share ideas, network, mentor, and coach, for example. Two-thirds of leaders report that
these kinds of collaborations have enabled high performance. As leaders look to maintain high performance, they will need to design and develop the right spaces for these small interactions to take place, and adapt their culture to support it.
Mistake #2: You’re sacrificing culture
It is easier to create and foster team relationships and culture when your entire staff is in the same place as one another day in and day out. The pandemic will have diluted company culture, removing the chance for certain rituals, routines, jokes and valuable ‘water cooler moments.’ Moving to hybrid working is a challenge because it requires acceptance from leaders that the future will be culturally different to what it was. That said, it also creates an opportunity to review what aspects of a culture are important to keep and which no longer serve the organisation well.
To shift to a hybrid or even remote work model does not mean that culture has to die, and many make the mistake of either doing too much or too little to adapt to this change. On one end of the spectrum, we had those organisations who overloaded their staff with Zoom quizzes, virtual happy hours and online activities when the pandemic first broke out, which was nice at first but eventually became a bit annoying for staff. At the other end, there are organisations where staff’s only interaction with one another is for work-related purposes and there is no real sense of community.
Leaders now need to find a happy medium that fosters those bonds between colleagues but does so in a way that feels natural for this type of working model. It might be as small as starting all meetings with having everyone share an anecdote from their week just to get people talking or arranging in-person events periodically just to get everyone together and mingling. What works best will differ based on your organisation, but the important thing is to meet people where they are and do what feels natural. If you aren’t sure what that is for your organisation, then talk to your people. Make them active participants in determining what your new culture will look like. Not only does that help you to find what works, but it also fosters deeper investment into the organisation and a wider sense of community. The best organisations are those that empower their people to be part of the decision making by being truly inclusive to create a winning culture.
Mistake #3: You’re still in panic mode
There has been a lot of uncertainty in the current circumstances, and many leaders have had to scramble to adapt quickly to changing conditions. That has led to a lot of trial and error, which has proved successful in some cases. Experimentation is a good and necessary step to change, but if you are constantly trying something new without learning from it or acting in support of a solid strategy, you are doing it wrong.
Haphazard experimentation worked fine at the start of the pandemic when everyone was just trying to stay above water, but now is the time to be strategic and deliberate. We shared our advice for maximising the value of your people with strategic workforce planning in this blog, but leaders should be focused now on creating long term plans for the business now that the situation is more stable. Whereas remote working started as a means to an end to facilitate business continuing during the pandemic, leaders would be naïve to continue viewing it this way. It is time to see remote and hybrid work for the strategic and human-focused value they can provide to the business moving forward, rather than just serving as a life raft in tough times.
That’s not to say that experimentation should be scrapped; rather, it needs to be intentional. A failed experiment does not mean you need to immediately launch into another. Take the time to learn and assess. What went wrong? Why didn’t it work? What can be improved going forward? How do attitudes need to adjust? We are no longer operating in panic mode, and it is time for boards to continue making strategic decisions about the future of the organisation that go beyond the end of the pandemic period. Begin to lay solid foundations for your bigger picture objectives and future proof for technologies, changes in consumer behaviours, or shifts in the marketplace. That might mean beginning the process of upskilling your staff or deciding what your organisation’s permanent relationship with the office will be.
This is the time to determine and understand best practice in the new normal. Keep your focus on the future and on the steps you can take now in order to meet your objectives for long term success. Take risks, learn from your team, learn from outside your organisation, and formulate a strategy to achieve something that matters.
Mistake #4: You aren’t taking a people-centric approach
As we plan for the future, we have the many lessons of the pandemic to take along with us. One of the major takeaways of this past year is the importance of people-centric leadership. This past year was a challenging, humbling, and humanising experience for most of us. Not only did the pandemic bring widespread loss and hardship, we saw major social issues come firmly into focus and businesses take public stances.
For example, sustainability has been a hot button issue for many years but became even more prevalent after the pandemic revealed just how much our previous day-to-day activities impact the environment. A study by KPMG showed that 89% of CEOs want to lock in the sustainability and climate-change gains they’ve made during the pandemic. Hybrid working may be the answer to achieving environmental goals, as cutting commutes or switching business trips to online interactions can significantly reduce a company’s carbon footprint. However, organisations must also consider that many large office buildings are more energy efficient than residences, but for workers at organisations where climate change has been cited as a priority, it is going to be harder to justify the five-day-a-week office model as being aligned with carbon goals without a clearer accounting of exactly how that is being measured. It will be a fine balance for leaders to manage the expectations and priorities of their people while continuing to deliver value.
Beyond catering to what their people care about, businesses need to also begin catering to and caring for their people more. The employee wellbeing implications of COVID-19 will be with us for some time. This may require supporting employees experiencing poor mental health, addressing specific concerns and anxieties about the return to the workplace, supporting staff through personal loss, and mitigating the impacts of ‘Long COVID.’ In the longer term, hybrid working may support improved wellbeing through reducing commuting time, providing employees with more autonomy around their schedules, and allowing extra time for health and wellbeing activities. But every pro has its con, and there are also issues of work like balance involved with remote work.
Leaders will need information and guidance on ensuring inclusion and diversity, effective induction, and employee engagement with a distributed team. More importantly, there needs to be an empathetic understanding of the challenges staff face day-to-day. The way in which managers monitor performance, engage their team, and approach mental wellbeing are all areas which need to be developed for hybrid working. Understand that staff may be dealing with issues that go beyond their work responsibilities, and work to be empathetic and as accommodating as is appropriate. Your team are human beings with needs, emotions, values, fears, and concerns. While the nature of your relationship is to serve the business, that does not mean that you need to remain cold and detached. In fact, the most inspirational leaders are those who show compassion, respect, and vulnerability with their people. The human face of business will need to take shape over the next few years.
Mistake #5: You’re resting on your laurels
One of the worst things you could do as a leader in a time like this is to settle. Although leaders may have developed new skills for managing a remote workforce over the past, hybrid working brings unique challenges that are different from both fully remote and predominantly office-based models. The leadership styles that worked five years ago, a year and a half ago, or even six months ago might not carry over to hybrid work models.
Organisations will need to put enhanced learning and development in place to ensure effective people management. We already touched on the challenges of navigating dispersed teams and appropriately managing workloads. But another area that may require rethinking is assessment and expectations. High performing leaders need to invest time into themselves and their teams to shift behaviours. Some examples of this include honing and improving soft skills such as communication and mentorship. It also requires an honest and potentially harsh examination of both the positive and negative impact your behaviours can bring forth. Avoid micro-managing, set specific metrics for productivity, encourage open and empathetic communication, and provide actionable feedback. Understand that this is a transition for everyone involved, and seek out constrictive criticism so that you can grow and improve.
Performance management is an area worth reassessing for the hybrid environment. Instead of assessing employees based on time in the office or in virtual meetings, managers will need to adjust to assessing performance through outcomes, contribution, and value generation. Managers will not be able to monitor every aspect of an employee’s work when they are working remotely, nor should they try. Instead, create new systems for ensuring that objectives are met and impact is created without sacrificing the autonomy and flexibility of hybrid work models.
While we may no longer be in panic mode, the rise of hybrid is still a new chapter that will take some adjusting to. These mistakes are common, but very easy to correct once you are aware of them. The key is to listen, learn, and adapt. Remain strategic, yet people centric. Above all else, understand that this new phase will likely require you to personally reflect and make changes to your own style and approach.
If you would like additional support in strengthening your capabilities as a leader or aligning your team for the world of hybrid work, get in touch with our team regarding our range of Leadership Development or Culture, Digital and Business Transformation services.
During 2020, digital transformation initiatives helped businesses to stay afloat when the world was plunged into challenging and uncharted territory.…