Leading in a hybrid world: Neither at home nor in the office

The hybrid world catapulted by the pandemic has left very surprising contradictions in its wake, such as the multiplication of online meetings even at the office. Beyond being awkward, these contradictions could jeopardize teams, productivity, and the same work-home balance that remote work was supposed to facilitate.

Managing in an environment halfway between in-person and online

It clearly had to happen. As soon as millions of professionals were forced to work from home for more than one year due to the COVID-19 crisis, the walls that distinguished and separated home from office were torn down. Many people went to bed one night with a lovely living room and woke up the next day with the same room invaded by laptop screens and the ringing of company telephones.

That transformation would have never been so vast and immediate if it hadn’t been preceded by three phenomena that occurred in the years leading up to it: the mass distribution of corporate cell phones at more and more levels within organizations, the universal spread of cell phones with Internet connections and access to free instant messaging services, and the common habit of sending and receiving messages and notifications at all hours, driven by the social media. Thus, when the COVID-19 pandemic and its ensuing lockdown arrived in early 2020, the ground was already fertile for a revolutionary change that imposed remote work over in-person work and digital communication over face-to-face conversations from overnight.

Now, with the health crisis just about over, it is extremely important to properly manage not only the return to the office but also the entrance into a world where remote work and online work will continue to coexist with everything we can do in person. And this is why we have to yet again question and change habits and customs that sometimes make no sense anymore.

Hybrid office: Habits that have to change

The sudden plunge into remote work, especially at the start of the pandemic, lengthened workdays and made professionals reorganize them so they could take care of household emergencies at the same time. Consequently, the amount of communication outside office hours grew exponentially, precisely because there were no offices to go to. Now, even though regular timetables and in-person work have increased substantially, emails, messages, and calls outside the workday are still more common than they were before the COVID-19 crisis. And this is compromising the work-home balance.

Another habit that has kept its momentum since the outbreak of the pandemic – especially since the home and perimeter lockdowns – is the belief that the most efficient way to communicate is digitally. This is the source of the idea – which has become widespread in many companies for less than a year – that in-person work is extremely expensive and a waste of time because of factors like the cost of company transport and commutes, the time that professionals spent on the roads of large cities, and the steep office rents and expenses. It seemed that it was obviously always better to meet on Zoom.

And thus we’ve reached the point where we are today. Before the pandemic, it would have been unthinkable to call an online meeting when the organizers and guests are in the same office and only have to get up from their chairs and take 40 or 50 steps to reach the meeting room. And an even greater paradox is when the organizers and guests agree that participation is much easier and communication richer and more efficient when the participants are near each other. Plus, some studies have shown that virtual communication increases the number of meetings held.

In the before times, it would have also been striking if many professionals preferred to talk to their colleagues via email, instant messaging, or telephone calls when they could have easily done so in person, and that this also saved them many misunderstandings and a long series of emails with clarifications. Now, however, it is possible to see entire rows of workers in offices who aren’t speaking to each other because they are using the new technologies to communicate with colleagues sitting just a few meters away.

This massive preference for electronic messages hinders innovative, cross-cutting solutions because it is harder for us to ask for, share, and spontaneously debate opinions and ideas. Those informal, unplanned conversations among team members or workers from different departments are crucial in stimulating cohesion, complicity, and trust in an organization.

The health crisis and lockdowns even got us used to doing tasks remotely that are optimally done in-person. Professionals simply adapted to the situation because it was out of their hands, but the attitude can no longer be the same anymore. If we want to improve our teams’ performance in this new hybrid context, both managers and employees need to choose what days, times, communications, and specific actions in a project require meeting in-person and which do not.

Keys to being a good ‘phygital’ leader

Managing teams in 2020 cannot remain the same with such high levels of remote work, nor can it be the same now that there is a massive return to the office, which is not the same as it was in 2019. In fact, almost half the managers questioned in a McKinsey survey acknowledge that they need a clear view of how they are going to organize their employees’ work from here on out.

1. Reevaluate when a physical presence is needed

As suggested above, in a hybrid office it is essential to encourage all the members of the organization to identify what they need in-person communication for and what they don’t. This affects both the manager’s agenda and the way they organize their team’s work.

What defines whether a physical presence is needed is the efficiency of the time invested, the means used, and the results obtained. For this reason, it is important to learn how to reevaluate how time, means, and results are measured in order to adapt them to the new context of hybrid workdays. If the context changes, it makes no sense to keep the same indicators to measure performance. We didn’t do it during the pandemic and we shouldn’t do it now in the post-pandemic world.

The only way to learn how to quickly identify the degrees of physical presence required by tasks is experimentation , and therefore, we have to risk making mistakes and tolerate and even reward others’ failures.

2. Design spaces that foster cohesion

A manager needs to spend time designing strategies and spaces to keep their teams motivated and unified. Precisely because their workers are going to see each other less in-person, a conscious effort has to be made to ensure that they share – both on and off the Internet – time and places to interact, come together, and feel part of a whole, and to encourage innovative ideas to emerge spontaneously. The new technologies can also be used – through shared platforms – to boost interaction among the company’s different departments.

3. Convey trust and transparency to your teams

Transparency and trust are essential in the transition to hybrid workdays. The manager should know what they need and expect from each employee and communicate it with utter clarity to both those they hire and those that are already working in the company. And even though they don’t see their employees’ cars in the company parking lot – or, in fact, precisely for that reason – they have to believe in them, have people they trust, and give top priority to results, not physical presence. Delegating, and even delegating supervision, helps to generate trust and motivate employees.

4. Consider your image and the way you interact

Images and the way we interact with our teams have changed. Meeting in person is not the same as meeting on Zoom, just as a telephone call is not the same as a conversation at the office. As IESE professor Sebastien Brion explains, “each situation has its own etiquette and requires the emphasis to be placed on different skills.” There is no real-world equivalent to the background image that we use in our Zoom conferences.

5. Spend time managing upset feelings

Perfection doesn’t exist, and this means that not all employees are going to fully concur with the manager’s approach to hybrid workdays. Managing upset feelings, easing them, neutralizing them, and even turning them into a strength that builds and coheres are tasks that all managers should highlight on their agendas in this new context.

 

Beyond these ideas that managers need to bear in mind, what they can never lose sight of is that the changes and upheaval in the past two years are not over and that we are not going back to the peaceful (or not so peaceful) world of 2019. The return to the office is not a return to the past; it’s a return to the future.

To manage teams in such an uncertain environment as today’s, leaders have to constantly update their knowledge and develop skills that they never would have thought about in a different context. IESE’s management training programs will help you fine-tune your leadership style, and the portfolio of focused programs offers you the chance to zoom in on specific issues like leadership of remote teams.

Most important managerial skills and attitudes in the post-pandemic world

In a little over two years, a disease has totally changed the way we tackle work in our lives. Plus, with the rise in remote work, the skills and attitudes that are essential for any manager today have also changed. These are the five most important ones:

Hybrid leadership skills

1. Leadership
2. Communication
3. Organization
4. Execution
5. Teamwork

Attitudes of the hybrid leader

1. Reaction
2. Overview
3. Resilience
4. Commitment
5. Initiative

* Source: Retos empresariales y competencias profesionales necesarias después de la COVID-19: el impacto sobre el empleo juvenil. THE EDUCATION FOR JOBS (ExJ) INITIATIVE. IESE, 2022.

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