While the idea of managing a hybrid workforce may seem unappealing, it could yield significant rewards.
Much media coverage of how companies have coped during the Covid-19 crisis has focused on the challenges of leading a team that isn’t physically together. For many individuals and businesses, the pandemic ushered in significant changes that they’re still working out how to manage. How do we keep company culture alive? How do we stay on top of performance management? How can we ensure that remote working doesn’t hit productivity?
In the aftermath of the pandemic, business leaders are grappling with how their firms will adjust to the new world of work that’s taking shape around them. It’s a world in which the hybrid model is preferred by employees and executives alike, according to studies by the Office for National Statistics and PwC.
The hybrid approach allows employees to divide their time between home, the corporate HQ and a nearby flexible workspace. It locks in benefits for people, profits and the planet. And with businesses as diverse as Google and Standard Chartered bank committing to hybrid working for the long-term, it seems clear which way the wind is blowing.
Continuing to lead a hybrid workforce remotely – and effectively – is therefore a key challenge many companies and HR professionals will need to navigate. But consider this: management and leadership of a distributed workforce could be an opportunity to do things better.
No longer abiding by the conventional rules or habits of face-to-face management, perhaps the era of hybrid management provides an imperative to focus on the things that really matter – and to verify that your organisation’s leadership is truly working well.
Leading a distributed team comes with some natural advantages. For a start, you can recruit a more inclusive workforce.
“The ability to work [remotely] allows enterprises to attract top-quality candidates whose family and other commitments would have previously precluded them from working at your location,” according to executive search consultancy Horton International. What’s more: “By choosing candidates from different time zones, companies can make better use of valuable assets, improve response times, and maintain round-the-clock working on essential projects.”
Enterprises looking for a less vertical style of leadership will also see a benefit. “While many companies have been moving away from hierarchical organisations, remote work further encourages horizontal interactions with increased equality,” explains Bill George, a senior fellow at Harvard Business School. “In a Zoom meeting, there is no privilege on seating order or physical presence, as everyone’s screen is the same size.”
No more micromanaging
More importantly, remote leadership places more importance on outputs than the time employees spend at their desk. “Managing by results goes hand in hand with job autonomy,” argues Sharon Parker, Director of Australia’s Centre for Transformative Work Design, with her co-authors Caroline Knight and Anita Keller. “An extreme version of managing by results is a results-only work environment (or ROWE) in which you take little or no notice of when or where or even how people do their work, so long as they deliver the results.”
Focusing on results makes performance reviews objective. Meanwhile, trusting people to manage their own time builds confidence and allows leaders to concentrate on providing support rather than micromanaging.
Stronger communication skills
Communication skills are a vital part of any leader’s armoury, and when teams are working in a hybrid fashion, those abilities are honed. Leaders who are used to working with virtual teams know that it’s vital to match the right media to the right conversation: while some discussions require a video call, other interactions might work better via IM software.
Good leaders also become better, more sensitive listeners when they work with distributed teams – they learn to look for signs that employees need support or should take a holiday, because they’re not reassured by an individual’s continuing presence at the desk next door.
In a hybrid world, leaders should schedule regular catch-ups that allow team members to talk about what’s going well, what’s challenging them and what they might need help with. Often these conversations are more honest and productive than the quick ten-minute coffee breaks they’re designed to replace.
Finally, leadership in a hybrid workplace tends to be more explicit – and this means everyone knows where they stand. Unable to rely on seeing people’s faces in close up, or reading their body language, leaders of hybrid teams know they need to be clear about what they want and check that they’ve been understood.
Even difficult conversations such as appraisals can be more effective in hybrid circumstances, says leadership coach Susanne Madsen. “It can be more direct when you do it online or over a video call,” she says, “because it’s not so easy to be jovial or crack a joke. But that means we’re talking about what needs to be talked about.”
Madsen believes one of the benefits of working outside the office environment is that leadership and management must be undertaken more consciously. Unlike in a traditional, Monday-Friday office model, hybrid working demands that leaders think about how they relate to their staff. “We need to be conscious about how we work together, conscious of how we create personal contacts [and] conscious of how we onboard new team members – because these things aren’t just going to happen automatically,” she says.
Different kinds of leaders?
Finally, Iowa’s Drake University has offered interesting insight on the question of whether, in a hybrid world, different types of people might find themselves promoted into leadership roles.
The study tracked 220 US-based teams to see which team members emerged as leaders across in-person, virtual and hybrid groups. The face-to-face teams chose leaders who were generally considered to be extroverted, attractive and charismatic. But the remote teams chose leaders who were considered doers, who excelled at planning, connecting teammates with help and resources and, above all, at getting things done.
“In face-to-face interactions, most of us are very easily swayed by the power of personality,” says lead author Radostina Purvanova, an Associate Professor of Management and Leadership at Drake. “Virtually, we are less swayed by someone’s personality and can more accurately assess whether or not they are actually engaging in important leadership behaviours. People are more likely to be seen based on what they actually do, not based on who they are.”
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