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Are You Ready for Hybrid Leadership?

September 15, 2021 Leadership
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By Sarah Fister Gale

The pandemic changed the way we work, and leaders need to adapt in response.

While a few companies have chosen to retain a strategy that emphasizes remote work, others are embracing a hybrid model that mixes in some in-office work. The resulting challenges of hybrid leadership will be a tall order for some organizational leaders. They will need a new set of skills to keep their teams engaged and performing.

“It’s almost easier if everyone is remote,” said Kai Andrews, Seattle-based managing principal of Point B, a management consulting firm.

When no one is in the office, managers can rely on one set of skills to engage teams equally, and prioritize virtual communication and collaboration tools. But when some employees are face to face while others work from home or remote, it creates a new set of management challenges. 

The lack of visibility to everyone makes it difficult to determine who might be struggling, who is thriving, and who is ready for a new assignment. In this environment, managers need to find more adaptive ways to lead meetings and encourage collaboration, said Alex Mastin, founder and CEO of Westbury, N.Y.-based Homegrounds, an online community of home baristas.

“This becomes crucial when you are looking to add new skills to your team and leaders,” he said.

Beware of Bias and the Remote Worker

Hybrid work models also create an equity risk, Andrews said. If managers habitually pick employees for projects based on who is available, the in-office team will always come out ahead.

“If an employee is working remotely they are not going to get those opportunities, and it will likely reflect in their evaluation,” Andrews said.

Prior to the pandemic, such hybrid workplaces were uncommon, and the bias given to on-site workers was passively accepted as the price to pay for the flexibility to work remotely.

But that approach now could threaten future productivity and retention. Demand for talent is high and competition is growing from companies who no longer care where workers are located. That means employers need to reimagine their culture and leadership practices to keep their best people engaged. 

Related Article: How Workplace Leadership Shifted in the Last Year

Executives Need to Accept the Need for Hybrid Leadership

To do that, executives need to embrace a hybrid model. For some leaders, that transition will be a struggle.

According to a January 2021 survey conducted by professional services firm PwC, more than half (55 percent) of employees say they prefer to work remotely at least three days a week, but 68 percent of executives said they want them in the office at least three days a week. This disconnect could put employers at risk of losing talent to companies who embrace a more flexible work arrangement. 

It also suggests a trust gap among leaders who don’t know how to effectively monitor their people from afar. “CEOs see an empty desk and think people aren’t working,” Andrews said.

But that thinking won’t work in a hybrid environment. 

Train Leaders to Operate in the New Environment

To be effective, leaders need to recognize that their face-to-face management methods, and a culture built around group activities, won’t be effective. Then they need to training on how to adapt.

“The fundamental leadership principles will remain the same,” said John Eades, executive coach for LearnLoft, a leadership development firm in Charlotte, N.C. “It’s about building relationships, holding people accountable, and creating a culture where all employees feel like they can thrive.”

However, the methods and tools managers use to create this thriving environment in a hybrid situation are different. Eades encourages companies to reformat their leadership training courses, providing content that managers can use independently to build their hybrid leadership skills, and live virtual group lessons to role play and ask questions. The aim is to give managers the flexibility to consume content in a way that is convenient for them, and then bring them together to debrief.

“Microlearning will help them build skills over time and hold them accountable for changing their behavior,” he said. 

This approach to leadership training can also be replicated when they coach their own teams. Eames noted that one of the biggest challenges managers face is how to support employees when they can’t see how they are performing. “In the past you might witness someone struggle in a presentation or on a sales call, and follow up right away,” he said.

But in a virtual or hybrid world, leaders need to be more deliberate. To ensure employees are getting the help they need, he suggested scheduling informal coaching sessions, and inviting team members to practice new skills before they face clients.

“We’ve lost those moments of casual interaction, so now we have to be more intentional about creating them,” Eades said.

Related Article: The 2 Critical Leadership Skills for the Digital Workplace

Establish New Development Routines

Mastin’s team recognized this need for hybrid leadership transformation early in the pandemic and adapted its leadership training and development program, both in the material they taught and how it was delivered.

“The priority used to be in personal interaction and retreats scattered through the year,” Mastin said. “Now we have shifted to a weekly or bi-weekly development routine.”

Much of the content his team delivers now focuses on how to communicate effectively and concisely in remote environment. That includes running virtual meetings.

“Most meetings drag on simply because the team does not have the communication tools to explain something in brief,” Mastin said. “A leader cannot afford that.” He teaches leaders how to commit to a schedule, stay on point and recognize when it’s time to move on. 

Related Article: Why Soft Skills Matter and How to Develop Them

Engage Leaders in the Change

Homegrounds also began offering leaders one-on-one sessions with mental wellness and business coaching experts to help them address their own mental health needs, and brainstorm ways to support the transition to hybrid leadership.

That was a big boost to their confidence, Mastin said, helping them develop better problem-solving skills and coaching methods that would normally require a lot of in-person training.

“It has been a lot more effective than holding a day-long retreat,” Mastin said. 

The most important lesson for organizations embracing the hybrid work model is a fundamental one: Leaders will require training, opportunities to practice new skills, and feedback on how they are doing.

“Policies alone won’t change your leadership culture,” Andrews said. “HR needs to learn how to engage leaders just as leaders need to learn how to engage their teams.”

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