5 Tips for Leading a Hybrid Workforce
Performance, productivity, and … proximity bias? Leaders navigating hybrid work environments have new risks to watch for when trying to level up their leadership skills.
We’re two-plus years into the ever-changing COVID era, and employers and employees alike are wondering what the future of work will look like. “Employees are happier and more productive when they work from home two or three days a week, so very few employers are forcing them back to the office full time,” Nicholas Bloom, a professor at Stanford University, tells Forbes. Sure, it’s hard to argue that, but what comes next?
For now, hybrid work is forming a solid foothold. A recent Conference Board survey of HR executives found that 90 percent of organizations now allow hybrid work arrangements. Likewise, research by Gallup indicates that 53 percent of employees anticipate it will be their typical work arrangement in the future. Another 24 percent of employees expect to work fully remote, while the remaining 23 percent plan to return be on-site full time. Gallup also found that nearly 60 percent of employees whose duties are conducive to remote work prefer a hybrid environment. But what does a hybrid environment even look like?
For some organizations, hybrid means that staff split their time between working remotely and being in the office on dedicated days each week. For others, hybrid means staff will work remotely on any given day. In many cases, hybrid means some combination of those two dynamics, or maybe even a limitation on them as leaders push to get back to business as usual.
The challenge for leaders now is not just implementing a framework that resonates with employees seeing various hybrid work environments continuing to gain traction elsewhere, but also learning to lead those employees in these hybrid environments. Needless to say, it’s anything but business as usual.
Here are five tips to help you level up your leadership now.
Beware of Proximity Bias
This phenomenon can be best described by an old English proverb, “Out of sight, out of mind.” It’s human nature to pay more attention to what’s in your line of sight or what’s within earshot. If you’re not careful, you could unwittingly favor your in-person staff members with communication, assignments, networking activities, and other opportunities that aren’t readily available to your remote workers.
Comments like, “I wish you were going to be in the office that day,” and, “I realize you work from home,” are indications that proximity bias could be creeping in. “They were in the office, so I assigned them to this new project,” is a clear indication that preferential treatment is tipping one way.
As a leader, you must guard against these signs of potential bias, because even just the perception of favoritism can be detrimental to both you and your team. I’ve seen proximity bias even damage peer relationships. To increase your awareness of any risks, and naturally keep the lines of communication open, I recommend regularly inviting your team members to provide feedback on how they’re doing. This is the least you can do in a hybrid environment.
Provide Collaboration Equity
If proximity bias is a potential poison, collaboration equity is a potential antidote. Prasad Setty, vice president of Digital Work Experience at Google Workspace, says collaboration equity is achieved “when all workers have the ability to contribute and communicate equally, regardless of location, role, experience level, language, and device preference.”
When you break down that definition, there are three clear aspects to creating collaboration equity:
- Representation equity requires that everyone on your team can be seen, heard, and portrayed equally, regardless of their work location.
- Participation equity requires that your employees have access to the same tools and can fully participate in meetings and discussions—this puts you as the leader in the role of a facilitator.
- Information equity requires that all team members have equal access to the same information.
Be Hybrid-Aware When Communicating
Frequent and effective communication is even more crucial in a hybrid work environment due to the numerous, subtle advantages that are lost out on when teams aren’t working together in person. These advantages stem from the many informal, unstructured bites of communication that occur organically—think conversations over the cubicle wall, dropping by a coworker’s desk, talking at the coffee pot, or a spontaneous invitation to grab lunch.
To be a leader, you need to ensure that your entire team is accounted for when vital information is shared, whether that’s during meetings or informal conversations. In many cases, this may mean using a combination of Zoom, Microsoft Teams, chats, emails, or phone calls to meet all your people where they’re at. The goal is to be flexible and engage your remote team as if they were in person.
If you’re at risk of overlooking remote employees (i.e., the proximity bias danger mentioned above), appoint one of your more detail-oriented team members to serve as a communication coordinator, watching for potential gaps, particularly when communicating updates on important decisions or when progress reports are shared. I encourage the use of questions to aid in team communications. You may consider asking at the start of a mixed in-person/Zoom meeting, “Is there anyone missing from this conversation who needs to know this information?” Or if something comes of one of those informal in-person communications, ask, “How can we inform the team members who aren’t present about this?”
Again, this is about ensuring equity by using whatever tools your organization has at its disposal to communicate with everyone on your hybrid team.
Coach for Performance and Productivity
Leading in a hybrid work environment requires you to focus even more on what needs to get done, and how to get it done productively, given the increasingly different work styles that develop in these situations. I think it’s important to help your team members learn to maximize the advantages of each work setting. Remote work is often best for tasks and projects that require focus and undistracted attention, while working together in person is better for the tasks that benefit from connection and collaboration.
While that seems straightforward, many workers give little thought to their priorities before starting work each day. In one amusing news article I recently read, workers bemoaned that they had gone into the office one day only to discover the people they hoped to connect with weren’t there that day. That’s probably happened to most of us more than once at this point. Coach your team to avoid this trap by inspiring them to plan their days based on where they’ll be working. Instead of unnecessarily losing time to a commute, encourage your team to coordinate schedules when there’s a need for collaboration with one another and with members of other teams. Plus, this extra communication can serve to help everyone be more hybrid-aware, ensure equity, and reduce the risks of proximity bias.
Work on Your Team, Not Just as a Team
The truth is that our working environments are going to continue to evolve, and the sheer number of variables and moving parts associated with that evolution make it essential that you continually work on building healthy relationships within your team. Step back occasionally and intentionally focus on the team itself: Are there situations where everyone will be together in person that you can plan special team events around? Getting away from work to play, learn, or serve together is more important now than maybe ever for building affinity among team members.
One team I know followed up a recent training event by going axe throwing together. Another team invited me to facilitate a team-building day centered around a behavioral assessment that generates insights on leadership styles, communication preferences, and other workplace dynamics. As a leader navigating a hybrid work environment, watch closely for healthy (and unhealthy) behaviors as they emerge during the activities you plan. And don’t neglect one of the most critical parts of the experience—debriefing the lessons learned. Ask your team, “What did you learn about yourself? What did you learn about your teammates? What did you observe about our team? How can we work together better in the future?”
We don’t know what working together in the future will look like, but as a leader currently navigating a hybrid work environment, it’s up to you to bring your team together in creative and meaningful ways. Follow the five steps above and you’ll not only level up your leadership skills but also the skills and relationships of your team.
This article was first published in my Leadership Matters column for the Illinois Society of CPAs Insight magazine.