Mastering hybrid leadership: Adapting to the “new normal” work culture

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It’s amazing to be back facilitating workshops face-to-face. It’s even more exciting to be doing it interstate and internationally again. Even if it means long flights wearing a mask, it’s still absolutely worth it.  

Last week I was in Indonesia running a program for a group of leaders from all around south-east Asia. Whilst it was a face-to-face workshop, ironically the topic was all about mastering hybrid leadership and creating connectivity within a hybrid team. After all, the “new normal” is all about combining the best of both worlds. 

In the months since we’ve emerged from Covid-induced lockdowns, there have been countless headlines in the papers and online suggesting that the five-day office workweek is dead, that it’s time to reimagine the post-pandemic workforce, and that now is the time to fully embrace the hybrid model because it’s here to stay.

With this in mind, the main message I wanted to convey to the delegates in Indonesia was that:

Hybrid leadership is not about managing remote and on-site teams. Instead, it’s about ensuring connectivity between your remote and on-site team members despite any type of separation. 

McKinsey research refers to a “hybrid virtual model” in which some employees are on premises, while others work from home. This new model is said to increase productivity for individuals and teams, provide more flexibility, and improve employee experience. 

Whilst I couldn’t possibly summarise the entire workshop in a single article (it’s a jam-packed 2.5-day agenda), I wanted to share some of the core themes, since for so many first-time as well as experienced leaders, adapting the ‘new normal’ work culture hasn’t necessarily been the easiest transition. 

The days are long gone of needing to build your business in one central location or having all your team sitting in the same office together. Pods of employees chained to their desks, motivational posters, and conference rooms named after native animals, cities, or figureheads are fast becoming a thing of the past. Having said that, when it comes to a hybrid workplace, as a leader, it’s important to get your language right.  

Whenever possible, try not to refer to team members as being “in the office” or “working from home”. Everyone is part of a ‘hybrid team’ and is either working “on-site” or “remotely”.

Research has found that when leaders refer to those “in the office”, it comes with a connotation of being the preferred location (and with that therefore comes preferential treatment); while “working from home” conjures up images of tracksuit pants, fluffy slippers, and putting loads of washing on between Zoom calls. Sure, in lockdown, we were all confined to literally work from home. But in the hybrid context, “remote” is the preferred term to describe those who have chosen to work virtually whether permanently or on particular days of the week. 

Interestingly, several of the participants in the workshop openly admitted that although they are now promoting a hybrid workplace, they are only doing so because that’s what many of their competitors are doing. In other words, it’s purely an employee retention strategy, while they would ideally prefer everyone to be back in the office (I have now used this phrase intentionally) full-time.  

Now thinking about your organisation or the business unit you are leading, ask yourself whether your employer brand truly reflects or embraces the benefits of a hybrid workforce.

Is the leadership team 100% on board, or is the idea of a hybrid workforce simply a passing trend? 

The McKinsey research goes on to explain how leaders now need to “show up” differently when they are interacting with some employees face-to-face and others virtually. By defining and embracing new behaviours that are observable to all, and by deliberately making space for virtual employees to engage in informal interactions, [hybrid] leaders can facilitate social cohesion and trust-building in their teams. 

In one of the workshop breakout group activities, I asked the participants to work in pairs and to think about what hybrid team members need and expect from their leaders.

Here are the most common responses from last week’s workshop. 

  • Remote employees do not want to feel like they are being treated any differently from those on-site. 
  • A combination of both synchronous and asynchronous communication / meetings. 
  • Respect for the importance of work-life balance. 
  • Extra effort when it comes to team building. 
  • Face-to-face connection whenever possible (even on video). 

Several leaders also admitted that one of the biggest complaints coming from their hybrid team members today is that when they are asked to spend time in the office (once again I’m using this phrase intentionally here), they end up spending most of their day either at their desk or in a meeting room on back-to-back Zoom calls.

Why would anyone want to commute to and from work to simply stare at the same video screen they could stare at remotely? 

Of course, it’s a fine line. By introducing the hybrid scenario, every leader is trying to rebuild a culture of camaraderie. But then at the same time they can’t expect people to want to work on-site if their colleagues (and therefore their so-called camaraderie) have all opted for the virtual option.

Having back-to-back Zoom calls from the office really is the worst of both worlds when it comes to hybrid work-life. 

For the purposes of this piece, let’s assume that you have all your communication technology and tools in order. After all, we’ve been playing in this virtual world for a while now. 

The delegates in the workshop all stressed that they place a strong emphasis on setting an appropriate cadence of communication with their team members so that those working on-site and those working remotely feel that they have equal access to their leader.

One suggestion I provided to the group (which was well-received) was that when they are having team meetings in a hybrid setting, rather than having those working onsite gathered in a meeting room, then even though this contradicts what I implied earlier, it’s better to have everyone (onsite and remote team members alike) dialing in on Zoom or Teams. That way, everyone feels equal, rather than the remote team members seeing their on-site colleagues all walking into the meeting room chatting together before the meeting starts. It’s only natural that they would also assume that once the meeting ends, that the on-site team will continue chatting for a while, creating unnecessary FOMO on the part of the remote team members. 

Remember, it’s about ensuring connectivity between your remote and on-site team members despite any type of separation. 

One of the other big topics we covered over the course of the workshop was the importance of building trust in a hybrid environment. Whilst a leader can’t possibly be across everything all the time, it is essential that any hybrid leader is aware of (and can acknowledge) the tell-tale signs of separation anxiety in their remote team and that the remote team members feel comfortable enough to speak up if they are feeling like they are missing out. 

If you have any best practice hybrid leadership or hybrid team communication tips, feel free to share them below. We’d love to keep this conversation going. 

Of course, hellomonday can provide support to every leader – whether your team is co-located or hybrid – prioritising development initiatives that result in long-term sustained learning and change, reinforcing habits through curated learning and impactful coaching, and ideally helping leaders navigate the challenges of adapting to the new normal work culture.

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