Management in its earliest forms was all about control. Inflexible structures, rigid procedures and regulated monitoring in order to command and contain workers.
Fortunately, business has been moving away from that paradigm toward a more flexible supportive style for some time; too slowly for some, reluctantly for others. But now the pandemic has demanded an acceleration in the change of management practices that has left some organisations struggling. Many managers are finding the transition into hybrid working a challenge because the ability to control, or be in control, has lessened considerably.
Flexible working means that some folks will be in the office for some of the week and at home for the remainder; it means that the mix of people in the office will be changeable, perhaps never everyone in at the same time. It means less visibility, reduced proximity, increased disconnection, diluted engagement and ultimately less control.
Hybrid working has many opportunities but can also negatively affect productivity, engagement, and development. It requires a particular approach from the manager for it to be successful. It decreases the ability to direct and increases the need to do what we call ‘results coaching’.
Even the most capable of managers struggle as there are few precedents to follow, and many pitfalls. It is important for organisations to support these managers and to help them discover what will work in their context. They will need to be able to communicate effectively; guarantee inclusion and fairness wherever people are working from, provide empathic responses, motivate when necessary and harness the productivity of their hybrid teams.
There are three essential elements to leading a highly engaged and effective hybrid team; Connection, Communication & Collaboration.
The team leader needs to build and maintain the foundations of personal relationship in a disjointed hybrid world. This means committing time and attention to each individual, increasing pastoral care, and to engage in relational conversations rather than just transactional ones. Having ‘one-to-one’s’ is vital at any time, but increasingly this is important. And discussing well being and boundaries between home and work will ensure it is a healthy connection with the company, and not one that is out of balance.
It is also important to ensure the connection between the team members themselves. Consider setting up peer mentoring groups to create a context for inter-team connection thereby fostering a culture of openness, trust, and responsibility.
We would recommend that when some members of the team are working in the office and some are working remotely, meetings should always be held online, otherwise those working from home will have a much-reduced experience of connection in comparison to those in the room, thereby limiting their opportunity to meaningfully contribute or be heard.
When obstacles to communication are increased through hybrid working what can we do to ensure our messages are heard, felt, and understood?
Managers should remember that true communication is not a monologue, but a dialogue. Do not simply start talking, downloading instructions, pontificating on strategy and tactics. Our advice would be to ‘open your ears and listen, open your heart and listen with empathy’.
Inevitably those people who are in the same office space together will communicate more often and with greater ease. This can create an imbalance. Ensure that you are reaching out to those who are remote.
Miscommunication may well increase in times of hybrid working and that may create more conflict. As always, deal with this quickly and impartially.
Communicate clearly about purpose and task, so that expectations are clear, thereby allowing you to manage and give feedback. Leaders may benefit from exploring the use of story in their communication to create compelling and memorable messages that will empower people wherever they work. It is more important than ever to win hearts as well as minds.
And don’t forget to create time for social communication, allowing for informal conversations and activities.
The result orientated coach will need to be able to build rapport and partnership within the team, ensuring integration, despite the nature of the de-integrated workforce.
For example, this may be an interesting time to get the team to collaborate on ‘the way we work’. Get them to be creative, to see if there are opportunities to work in a different way, or to consider other forms of flexibility; for instance tearing up the usual 9 to 5 framework and working flexible hours. Involve them in shaping a flexible response to these new circumstances.
Productive partnership is far more difficult across digital platforms. The creative dynamic between people who are collaborating is served by proximity; the clues and cues that are exchanged when two people are present greatly improves the vibrancy of the rapport and therefore the effervescence of ideas and suggestions. Stimulating the energy, even when on transactional platforms like Zoom is the job of a leader. We recommend the leader commits to purpose and dials up the passion, to produce a hybrid environment in which people can collaborate.
To close, in order to meet the chaotic demands forced on us by this disruptive pandemic, accelerating de-integration and imposing hybrid flexibility, leaders will need to adapt their leadership approach to a ‘less controlling but still in control’ agile coaching style.