Leadership in a hybrid world: Stop dehumanising, start reconnecting
As leaders plan for a return to the office and a hybrid model of working, now is the time to reconnect, reimagine, reset.
We’ve all had time to reflect on pre-pandemic working versus a new way of virtual or hybrid working. In hindsight, how many of us had been feeling dehumanised under the old way of working? Full time office hours, commuting, endless meetings, doing things the same things, the same way, every day. And now we’ve had a taste of working remotely, independent thought, innovation. New priorities, new opportunities. Who wants to go back to the days of 9 to at least 5 office working, tiring commutes on public transport and being institutionalised robots? It’s time for leaders to reconnect, reimagine and reset how we work together.
Rest and recovery
As one of my clients so eloquently put it, “We are burned out, bored out, bewildered and bladdered.”
We are in the midst of uncertainty and standing on the precipice of a step change. Our brains are frazzled with different threats, priorities, scenarios. We are tired. And when we are tired, we think negatively and we are unable to do our best thinking which, in turn, impacts our behaviours, our actions, our results. But how do we do our best, most creative and courageous thinking and feel positive about a return to the office, when our brains are tired and pre-set to be negative?
Only this week, dating app Bumble gave its workers the week off to recover from burnout. But sleep and rest are not the same thing. Saundra Dalton Smith says we are suffering from a ‘rest deficit’ and describes seven types of rest that every person needs; physical, mental, sensory, creative, emotional, social and spiritual rest.
The pandemic may have offered the time and space to sleep more, relax more, be with family more, and it may have accelerated productivity and change, but it also left us chronically tired and burned out. For me, and so easy to say and so tough to do, leaders need to invest in different types of rest, particularly in emotional rest and having the time and space to express your feelings and connect with others, for better thinking and better results.
Of course, there are leaders at the other end of the spectrum – inspiring human beings leading brilliant businesses that we can only view in awe and admiration and who have achieved the equivalent of walking whilst pole vaulting. It’s important that we learn from the best and reconnect with what really matters.
Better normal: office, remote or hybrid working?
Research by Deloitte on future working habits has found that 42% of workers are hoping to do their jobs from home twice a week or more. Hybrid working is here to stay.
Different groups have different interests and responses to the prospect of returning to the office. Younger workers are desperate to get back to the working environment, to reconnect with colleagues and progress their careers. On the other hand, working women with responsibilities for caring for children or elderly parents, and those with underlying health conditions, are less anxious to return.
Organisations are currently announcing their position on hybrid working; a balance of recognising the efficiencies of reduced costs and safety of working from home with the need for creativity and collaboration. Jamie Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan, said he wants staff back in the office because remote working is not good for young people and it doesn’t work for spontaneous idea creation. NatWest is planning for 55% of its workforce to adopt a hybrid working model, with only 13% expected to be office based, and KPMG has announced a ‘four days a fortnight in the office’ hybrid model.
But how much choice should employees have in determining their working practices? Deloitte has announced it will give its 20,000 people the choice of when, where and how they work, including how often they come into the office. Trusting their people to decide how they can deliver their best work and best serve their clients.
Some argue that the old office-based environment dehumanised individuals. Others might argue that solely remote working has led to dehumanisation, lack of innovation and social contact. Either way, leaders have the opportunity to strike the right balance between virtual and hybrid working for each individual and organisation.
Is hybrid working the panacea?
Exciting times ahead. But hybrid working raises several concerns.
What does working from home mean for learning, development, progression, promotion, creativity and collaboration? Are people that work virtually really front of mind for recognition and promotion? Can they sustain their visibility, presence, impact and influence from home?
Research by HBR suggests that people working from home have around a 50% reduced chance of promotion. With women being more than 50% likely than men to want to work from home, this creates a gender diversity issue; women will have reduced opportunities for progression and promotion. We have been striving for years for equal opportunities and pay for women, let’s not take steps backwards and exacerbate the situation now by creating more conditions for subtle discrimination.
Listening to Chris Evans interviewing journalist and businessman Matt Ridley, he referred to ‘middle class homeworking,’ whereby office and professional services workers have embraced working from home, new technologies and innovation. But, he says, there’s a downside to this innovation: “ We've innovated so much that the posh folk can stay at home and don't see the problems being caused by it.” As white collar workers strike a deal for virtual and hybrid working, is this causing an even greater social divide?
Let’s strike a balance
I think it would be a big mistake to lose office working entirely. There are so many positives; those spontaneous conversations in the hallway and kitchen, opportunities for learning, access to diverse thinking, new ideas and collaboration. There’s no substitution for having face-to-face interactions, rich conversations and building social capital. Just one chance conversation can change your career and life. Productivity isn’t just about getting the job done, it’s about building your knowledge, expertise, reputation and career. And offices are increasingly about coming together, connecting, creativity and collaboration.
It's about finding the best balance between employees returning to the office and allowing some level of flexibility and working from home.
But hybrid working also creates additional challenges for leaders. How can they manage a hybrid team, with some employees at home, some in the office? How can they ensure their teams reconnect and move forward together?
And should employers limit connection? It’s happened in France and a recent poll of 500 UK business leaders by Owl Labs found that one in four employers are considering introducing ‘right to disconnect’ policies to help staff keep their home and work lives separate under a remote working or hybrid working model, ranging from allowing staff to ignore out-of-hours phone calls to banning the sending of emails after a certain time.
Changing our leadership levers
If the future of work has fundamentally changed and hybrid working is the new normal, then we need a strong pull to attract people back to the office. Leaders need to think about how to make a better and more compelling work/office experience. And the same old leadership levers and behaviours just won’t hack it.
With PwC finding that 85% of workers feel their wellbeing has declined and 55% say they are unable to balance work and home, leaders have an incredibly tough challenge.
Traditional leadership behaviours focus on face to face, external levers; a nice office environment, dress code, inspirational speeches. In a hybrid model, traditional leadership behaviours are becoming increasingly irrelevant. Leaders need to think differently.
Hybrid working offers leaders the opportunity to reimagine, reset and recalibrate. Leaders need to flex their leadership style and behaviours to the new situation. But how many organisations are investing in their leaders to be successful at avoiding the pitfalls and successfully creating and leading hybrid teams?
The need for psychological safety
Google’s Project Aristotle, a study of hundreds of Google’s teams in a quest to build the perfect team, found that teams are more productive than individuals working by themselves and that good team work can lead to innovation, better results and higher job satisfaction. The study identified the five key elements that make a good team; psychological safety, dependability, structure and clarity, meaning and impact.
The Neuro Power Group in Australia goes further, citing psychological safety and belonging as critical. How can leaders embrace these elements to build high performing cohesive teams across office, remote and hybrid workers?
Ask don’t assume
Remember those times in your career when you felt so completely immersed and aspirational, when opportunities opened up and you progressed and flourished? How can we offer the same experience to our people, if we don’t create the environment for them to be immersed, connected and recognised?
And how can we create the right environment that meets employees’ expectations? A recent survey of over 5,000 UK professionals conducted by Michael Page in May 2021 found that 23% of employees surveyed hadn’t had any communication from their employer with regard to working pattern expectations going forward. Such silence is dangerous as it cultivates assumption. Why isn’t my employer talking to me? Will their expectations meet mine? What will happen? The last thing anyone needs is further uncertainty. And an employer that doesn’t offer flexible or hybrid working now will restrict the talent pool. Previously reward, skills development and career development determined attractiveness of the offer. Now, hybrid working is in the mix.
Leaders I’m working with are trying their utmost to avoid making assumptions about employee expectations and preferences and, instead, asking their people and listening. Harvesting shared experiences, insights and lessons learned. Work with your people to identify what’s important to them now and to define their new normal, whether that means a return to the office, working remotely or a hybrid option. Reflect, reimagine, reset and reconnect together to evolve the culture of your team and organisation.
To be truly successful, our brains need to express emotion, achieve, connect through relationships and networks, learn and hope – and much of this requires physical presence.
A longitudinal study of adult development conducted by Harvard since 1938 found that social connection and relationships are the single greatest predictor of long term health and happiness. And that loneliness can kill.
Before the pandemic, workplace loneliness was growing. Without a new approach to connecting people at work, employee isolation and disconnection will continue to increase in a hybrid model, regardless of whether people are back in the office. Leaders need to put the right structures and rewards in place to ensure a connected workforce.
Fast Company argues that leaders must not throw away the lessons learned over the last year, such as working smarter and increasing productivity by reducing commute time. New ways of working have shattered long-held beliefs that virtual working isn’t possible. And today, culture doesn’t exist within walls, it exists in relationships and connections.
Connecting then leading
Harvard Business Review found that, compared with people at low-trust companies, people at high-trust companies report 74% less stress, 106% more energy at work, 50% higher productivity, 13% fewer sick days, 76% more engagement, 29% more satisfaction with their lives and 40% less burnout.
American psychologist, author and speaker Amy Cuddy believes leaders must connect, then lead, but that you can’t lead and truly connect with people without trust. To exert influence, leaders must balance competence and warmth. She found that warmth and strength account for 90% of the variance in the positive or negative impressions we form of those around us.
Leaders who establish strength before trust run the risk of generating fear, in turn undermining cognitive potential, creativity and problem-solving, causing disengagement.
There is a growing body of research that suggests that to influence and lead effectively, leaders should prioritise warmth, helping to connect immediately with those around you and demonstrate to your people that you hear them, understand them and trust them. So trust is imperative. Without trust, people might comply but they are less likely to conform privately.
Reconnect in meaningful ways
If we are going to successfully and sustainably transform to new ways of working, we need to reconnect in meaningful ways, listen to our people and deliver a working model that meets employer and employee expectations.
To do this, leaders need to flex their style, one size has never fit all and nor will it now. It’s all about being human, human leadership, using your EQ, your powers of connection and keep working on generating trust. These are tough times, expectations are high and organisations need to invest in their leaders to equip them to meet these expectations.
Leaders, you don't need to go it alone; reconnect with a change buddy or as one of my clients calls it, a chaos buddy, a coach, a thinking partner and navigate this leadership challenge together.
There is no going back; virtual and hybrid working are here to stay. Take the time now to reconnect with your people and reflect, reimagine and reset how you will work together so that you, your people and your organisation flourish.