The hybrid working model – where some members of a team are in-office full-time, some part-time and some completely remote – has changed the face of how we work together. It has also been a quick transition, one of the many we’ve experienced since the onset of COVID-19.
On my team – and very possibly with yours – blending in-office and remote workers is more of an art than a science, and we’ve learned a lot over the last two years to make it a successful venture. It’s been an incredible opportunity to enable individuality in how work gets done, which in many cases, pays dividends in productivity and quality. It’s also been a challenge, learning how to continue managing well while aligning teams across time zones and connecting with employees in a virtual-only space. Over the fast-paced, sometimes tumultuous last few years, I’ve gained a few best practices for effective leadership in the new work-life paradigm, helping me to help my team continue to deliver their best.
Lessons Learned Feed the New Work-Life Paradigm
In April 2020 many professionals, myself included, found themselves working long hours, never quite making it out of pajamas. Not because we were lazy – quite the opposite. As the physical lines between work and home blurred, we lost track of time. Or more so, what was the point? We were home, going nowhere and there was SO. MUCH. TO. DO.
Things really started getting chaotic in September 2020 when school went back in session. Working parents Zoomed from kitchen tables while pouring cereal and supervising homework for kids. At this point, the 18-hour day was pretty normal.
Oddly, however, studies show that all that extra work didn’t do much to boost productivity. By October 2020, the threat of burnout was palpable. Carrying the emotional weight of COVID’s impact, many teams across the industry began to lose steam and direction.
Yet, things were not all bad. In fact, this is when the earliest of new hybrid leadership best practices began to emerge. The most intuitive business leaders understood that if we didn’t embrace our circumstance as the new way of working, our teams would succumb to the stress. Evolution was requisite to survival.
Discovering Opportunity within the Tension
As all businesses grappled with redefining leadership in a hybrid world, two acute tensions surfaced: work-life balance and isolation vs. invasion.
Work-life Balance: A desire for flexible work hours (or simply time for both family and work) and a growing expectation for being available 24×7 generated the first of these tensions. During the pandemic, setting work-home boundaries was a massive challenge for all working people, and women in particular suffered. Faced with an inability to balance unprecedented demands at work and managing children schooling at the kitchen table, caretaking for relatives or other personal obligations, many women left the workforce. In fact, according to the New York Times of May 17, 2021, women’s progress in the U.S. workforce was set back more than three decades.
Isolation vs. Invasion: Remote work is not for everyone, and even for those of us who love the flexibility it offers, it can be a difficult transition. Competing feelings of isolation from being physically separated from coworkers (and during COVID, separated from EVERYONE), while also feeling inundated – invaded – with constant digital communication was a significant mental challenge. Digital communication was/is, for many, our main connection to the outside world. Yet this also kept us strapped to our desks and, at times, unable to connect with family in the same room. People became exhausted, overstimulated, but also lonely.
The flip side is that although difficult to navigate, this new environment opened potential for greater flexibility, more autonomy and better relationships with our colleagues. The key to achieving this positive outcome was and is supportive management and leadership. Managers must be willing to go through bumpy transitions and help our teams emerge, somewhat different, on the other end.
With empowerment to set boundaries, paired with increased communication and support, my team has been able to enjoy more freedom with more time back in our lives. We have become even more in touch with people’s whole selves – interacting with kids and spouses as they come into view on a digital meeting, hearing pets in the background and seeing how people express their creativity in home office designs.
Three Best Practices for Empowering People in a New World of Work
Leaders can improve their chances of cultivating this opportunity with a few best practices. Each is rooted in the values of empathy and empowerment.
Be a Homing Pigeon: A good leader in a hybrid world is a homing pigeon, ensuring the troops are continually coming back to the same destination, even amid massive distraction. These leaders have a flexible vision with paths to pivot; they ensure everyone knows their roles and responsibilities; they anticipate what’s next and communicate it; and they prioritize company goals as unplanned work arises.
Get Personal: Frequent 1:1 meetings help leaders stay in touch with their team members’ personal lives, a key element to satisfaction for today’s workforce. Those with large teams may benefit from some of the more scalable ways to forge bonds in team meetings, such as inviting people to share a personal win or a funny photo week-to-week.
Watch for Signals: Observing your team with empathy is another best practice for leadership in a hybrid working world. What are the patterns of behavior across different team members, and when they shift, what could that mean? Take camera-on/camera-off, for example. When someone who almost always attends meetings with the camera on suddenly stops, that can be a sign of disengagement.
Best Practices on the Horizon
We have come a long way, but we certainly haven’t solidified our new hybrid working culture. There are still a lot of opportunities for investigation, including:
Building Digital Dexterity: Upskilling for capabilities like application development, automation, machine learning and business intelligence will enable the movement to create the digitally transformed experiences modern members expect. Investing in individual employee’s development can also stave off apathy and boredom.
Developing ERGs: Employee resources groups (ERGs) create new and meaningful work-life connections across teams. Co-op Solutions began engaging in this important inclusion effort before COVID, but during and since the pandemic, ERGs have gained a whole new and very important role for our company culture. Aside from cultivating feelings of belonging and connection, ERGs are giving people a social break throughout the day, which is crucial for productivity.
Embracing Hybrid: It’s a new world, and it’s imperfect. The same can be said for the “old” model for working. Choosing to coach compassionately through it is the only real option we have if we want to thrive rather than merely survive. It will be messy, and mistakes are to be expected. But like all forms of innovation, failing forward yields the best results.
Finding our way in a new workplace culture hinges on communication, mutual trust and understanding. And above all else, empathy. Not everyone adjusts at the same pace. Leaders who recognize this and hold themselves accountable for employee well-being will have the greatest chance for success in the new world of work.