How to lead in a hybrid world

Early in my career I remember asking a senior partner at the management consulting firm where I worked how they handled the long hours and stress. “That’s easy,” they replied. “Life is much easier when you have control over your schedule and what you work on.” 

The evidence agreed. In general, leaders experience less stress than the average employee, largely because they enjoy a greater sense of autonomy and are better able to direct their own work.

But the pandemic and the shift to remote work changed this dynamic. Academic literature shows that employees who work from home need more guidance, consistent feedback, and clear, output-oriented goals compared to those in the office. That means leaders who manage remote teams need to spend more time than ever before in meetings and putting structures in place. At Microsoft, managers’ after-hours meetings went up by 25% in 2020, and the amount of work they did on weekends tripled.

Today, simple snapshots of leaders show they still experience greater satisfaction and engagement than average employees. But in our data — can you guess which group experienced the greatest drops in job satisfaction in the last 12 months? It’s senior leaders. This may be why in survey after survey, leaders and employers are also the most enthusiastic about returning to the office.

Leaders value the fast collaboration and apprenticeship that can occur in the office, but research indicates that their employees often feel happier and are more productive with a flexible model that includes a couple of work-from-home days per week. Surveys show that, for those able to, 78% want to shift to hybrid work post-pandemic. 

With that in mind, leaders who want to retain top talent will need to embrace hybrid work. As plans are put in place over the next few months, they’ll have to ask the question — how are we changing our own habits to make flexible work successful? 

Based on our research and experience helping the Fortune 500 adjust to remote work, here are a few tips for how leaders can set themselves and their teams up for success in a hybrid world.

Create new norms and expectations

Ahead of the return to offices, leaders should meet with their teams to create new norms for hybrid work. It may be useful for leaders to spend an hour with their people creating “user manuals” in which each person outlines how they like to work, what they value, how they prefer to communicate, and how others can help them be their best. These user manuals can be the start of a productive conversation on what processes or expectations the team wants to put in place. In general, creating deliberate and transparent norms across an organization is an essential part of leadership within a flexible working model. 

Coach for empathy

In Humu’s work helping customers shift to a remote working model, we’ve found people are best able to adjust when personal flexibility, empathetic leadership, and emotional support are present. In a world of flexible work, a core skill for leaders is empathy. Small habits can help leaders improve. This includes starting 1:1s by checking in with how the person is doing outside of their work life, looking out for signs of stress in others, and partnering with employee resource groups to understand and surface diverse concerns in the organization.  

Embrace experimentation (and some failure too)

Leaders and their teams need room to experiment with new approaches and tools to make a hybrid model successful. Practically, this means creating a budget for teams to try different collaboration software tools and setting up forums where leaders can discuss what is going well and what is not working with their peers. Importantly, leaders and teams should document what they have tried and have regular feedback sessions to share lessons and make improvements.

Harness the reset

The return to the workplace offers a clear reset opportunity. Leaders can deliberately call out this moment to utilize the power of a fresh start. We suggest leaders set aside time to explain their plans for hybrid work, speak about the benefits of getting together in-person again, outline new norms, and request feedback and advice from employees. The goals of these types of discussions should be to set a clear direction and to outline how teams can best approach the shift to hybrid work. 

All of this may sound like a lot. It is clear leaders will need to change habits to make hybrid work successful and meet employee expectations for the future of work. If you are reliant on manual training or a top-down approach it is likely you will not hit the scale and pace needed for our times. This is why we built Humu. Our platform gives leaders the small, personalized coaching moments they need to make work better for themselves and their teams. 

The shift back to the workplace and hybrid working is the most significant opportunity for organizations in 2021. To hear more about how Humu can help, contact us here.

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