Leaders around the globe have done amazing things against the backdrop of the challenging events of the past year—from keeping family and coworkers safe, pivoting to an all-virtual work scenario, juggling home-bound schoolchildren to addressing fatigue and burnout of epic proportions. With all of the challenges leaders have overcome, it stands to reason that many would want the familiarity and logic of a “return to normal.” But there are new challenges to tackle as hybrid work arrangements, those where some employees are physically together and some are virtual, begin to take shape. From policy to processes to communication and leadership, there is little that will be left untouched as hybrid becomes the norm for many organizations.
Several factors are at play
In this new-but-not-completely-new scenario, several factors may be contributing to the stress:
It’s longer term
With the exception of essential workers, virtual work in 2020 and 2021 was the norm. But many anticipated an eventual end to widespread remote scenarios and were willing to make what they thought would be temporary adjustments. Still others have taken the opportunity to re-evaluate their space. Now that a hybrid and virtual scenario will likely be ongoing, more permanent decisions will need to be made—and those decisions are complicated. A temporary change felt manageable, but shifting the paradigm of the office environment for good feels daunting.
One size does not fit all
When the work-from-home mandate was the only solution to keep people healthy, there was little debate about what needed to be done. No one needed to negotiate because a singular approach—everyone staying home—applied to all. But now that the solution isn’t obvious, and each individual’s circumstance is unique, leaders are in murky waters. How many days? Who can work from home? What do they need? Addressing each employee’s personal needs and circumstances is complicated.
It’s being driven, in part, by employees
Employees are speaking up and finding a voice that they didn’t have in the early virtual days. Many are letting their organizations know, in no uncertain terms, that their expectations have shifted about their working conditions and they are unwilling to go back to the way it was. Instead of accepting organizational policy, saluting sharply, and marching back into the office, employees are asking, “Why? Why exactly do we need to come into the office when we’ve gotten it done so well from home?”
It challenges elements of leadership
If individuals were productive, distributive decision making increased, and they were able to hold themselves and their teams accountable, how does that shape the role of the leader? For confident leaders, this team empowerment is a positive development. But for others, who define leadership success by a corner office and the ability to peer over their employees’ shoulders, a more permanent hybrid scenario threatens to undermine the value of their role.
Execution of company policy is on the backs of frontline and leaders of leaders
Leaders are exhausted. After successfully navigating through operational issues to address productivity and personal issues to ensure individuals stay connected, they would like to return to something they know. Instead, they find themselves in the crosshairs of company policy and the practical challenges of implementing that policy. While the C Suite mandates, “Back in the office three days,” those who lead the frontlines are acutely aware of the personal and logistical issues their teams are dealing with. They are put in a difficult situation of getting pushback from their people when they question the “Why?” of the policy.
Adjusting Your Mindset
Undoubtedly leaders will rise to the challenges presented by the new hybrid and they will successfully lead others through yet another change. They will, as they’ve done before, advocate on behalf of their people, while simultaneously respecting the needs of the organization. But it won’t be easy. Not only will they need to apply leadership skills in a new hybrid context, but they will also need to implement new policies, potentially learn different technology, and deal with the multitude of issues that will come from a team that may be physically divided. And they will need to understand each individual’s reality, including some elements of their at-home and personal family situation.
The first place to start as they confidently take on hybrid is the leader’s mindset. Strong leaders have certain mindsets and apply them in different contexts. The “back to office” shift or hybrid shift is no exception. Our research has revealed that four key mindsets, including growth, inclusive, agile, and enterprise, are important in leader success. When a leader applies these mindsets in a variety of situations, it can alter the outcome of the decisions they make and their interactions with others. Holding these mindsets front-and-center can be the start of tackling hybrid angst.
A growth mindset is the belief that skills and behaviors can be cultivated through effort. With this mindset, challenges, obstacles, and feedback become an opportunity to learn and grow.
As leaders transition to hybrid, a growth mindset will be front and center. Leaders can abandon long-held assumptions about how to get work done, bring people together, and develop careers.
From: The team needs to be together to collaborate, innovate, and give feedback.
To: We can innovate and collaborate in new ways, leveraging technology to support us.
From: Collaboration and innovation will decrease with a hybrid team.
To: We can increase our ability to collaborate and innovate through a diverse and talented team regardless of location.
From: All people are more collaborative when they can physically be together and brainstorm.
To: People collaborate in different ways—we can make room for that on our team.
This mindset involves the belief that contribution and performance are unleashed in an inclusive environment. With this mindset, we see differences in how others think and behave as advantages to be leveraged.
The transition to hybrid will include an increased focus on inclusivity. Employees are speaking up and want to be involved in the decision-making process regarding hybrid arrangements. Equity will be a key focus in leader communications, the structure of meetings, and in the way career development is addressed to avoid an “us” vs. “them” mentality among in-office and remote team members.
From: The organization decides what’s best.
Everyone’s work-from-home scenario needs a certain structure.
Individuals in the office are the hardest working and have an important voice at the table.
To: Involving my team in the decision-making process, to the extent possible, will drive better outcomes for all.
Each person’s lived experience is different, and we can account for that in the way we structure their work.
Contribution can come from a diverse group of employees, regardless of where they sit.
I have a responsibility to engage all team members. Career development is an important discussion for all members of a hybrid team.
An agile mindset is the belief that success in a complex and volatile world requires flexibility, adaptation, innovation, and resilience. With this mindset, we fail fast and achieve success by being nimble in the way we think and act.
Last year’s pivot taught leaders much about agility, and they will benefit from this learning. These agile lessons will help remind leaders that they can approach their role differently, as they’ve had to do, and move with speed. An agile mindset includes keeping an open mind to how to use technology to support different ways of working.
From: The hybrid team needs to work the same way our in-person team worked or we can’t sustain it.
To: We will have bumps along the way as we implement hybrid, and we’ll need to make adjustments.
From: Hybrid will be successful with solid protocols in place from the start.
To: We can begin to implement certain elements of hybrid even if we don’t have every aspect of it solved.
This mindset is the belief that success is maximized when we prioritize the needs of the larger organization. With this mindset, all decisions in my team or business unit are made for the greater good of the company.
A hybrid leader balances meeting individual and team needs while keeping the goals of the organization and our customers top-of-mind regardless of physical scenarios.
From: I need to get my team motivated.
To: We are part of a larger organization, and we all need to work together in a hybrid world.
From: I can get the team working towards the goals of the organization and meeting the needs of our customers by bringing them together physically.
To: I can get the team working towards the goals of the organization by reminding them of those goals and the needs of our customers regularly.
I can model this in my communication with my team in all communications regardless of modality.
From: They will remember what they are working for when they see the building and their colleagues.
To: They team will continue to remain focused on serving our customers regardless of location.
The new hybrid world isn’t going to magically appear by thinking it into reality. It’s going to take hard work and strong leadership. But hard work and strong leadership is what so many have demonstrated against the backdrop of profound disruption and, for many, great loss. Reimagining what is possible in a hybrid environment means thinking about things differently—thinking from a place of agility and inclusivity, with an enterprise perspective and, above all, from a perspective of growth and possibility.