Managing the Hybrid

Managing the Hybrid

The hybrid work model requires that managers learn and re-learn to strike a balance. This is the best time to deconstruct and reformulate new processes and structures

As the world adjusts to a redefined understanding of the workplace, entirely new expectation matrices are emerging on both sides of the table. While employees are looking for greater empathy and work flexibility, employers are trying to formulatenew work-practices while retaining the advantages acquired from the work-from-home experience over the last two years. And both parties are finally realising that a hybrid work culture is what that might work best.

New dynamics for a new model

As such, protracted WFH has thrown up an entirely novel set of management challenges which have the potential to cause serious long-term HR disruptions. Organisations are learning that WFH can be a tricky issue, especially with regard to communication. This has led to HR looking for new kinds of attributes in the employees they are hiring during this period. Organisations are now putting greater emphasis on hiring employees having strong communication skills such as writing action-oriented emails, good presentation skills, and the ability to communicate in a virtual world.

Likewise, the emerging hybrid work model is demanding that the managers strike a new balance too. In any organisation, managers are instrumental in moving strategic initiatives forward and executing them successfully. Managers have the potential to make employees a little more optimistic about what it means to go to work. Giving them the right tools and defining the right processes is now crucial for organisations eager to implement the new work model, and should be part of their strategic plan. According to the Harvard Business Review, for any flexible model to work, “employers must get serious about adapting to employees’ needs by soliciting their input along the way”. It is only such a pro-employee approach that can ensure hiring and retaining the best talent.

Challenges and pitfalls

However, it is not going to be all smooth sailing for the hybrid work arrangement. While it may look like the perfect compromise that combines the best of both worlds, there could be inherent pitfalls. The basic challenges faced by a hybrid workplace are:

  • Communication: Perhaps the biggest challenge to the hybrid workforce model with dispersed teamsthat lack traditional workplace bonding.Not everyone is a good online communicator, although the same employee might be quite engaging in person. For leading large remote teams, managers who can handle the flow of communication effectively has become extremely critical. Research during these past WFH years reveals that communication in bursts are working most effectively. Harvard Business Review has found that concepts of burstiness, information diversity, and physiological synchrony, are fostering creativity, streamlining processes, reducing the stress of multi-tasking, and improving team performance.
  • Proximity bias: Another risk with having some team members outside office and some in the workplace is proximity bias. This could damage office dynamics asmanagers may give preferential treatment to employees present at the office, while ignoring remote workers. Often, this is a subconsciousbias without the manager even recognising its existence. But it is normal human tendency because people who are physically closer or immediately reachable usually remain on top of our minds – consequently receiving preferential advantages over employees who are less visible. These “at-hand” workers may get to handle the crucial projects or vital meetings.
  • Fear of missing out: This is in fact an offshoot of proximity bias – leading to new dimensions in office politics. As explained by Jack Wiley, author of The Employee-Centric Manager(2021): “Those who have more face-to-face interaction with their bosses may very well have more influence, regardless of the quality of their ideas or perspectives…. Employees may come to see themselves as either being in the manager’s ingroup or outgroup. And that could set the stage for conflict between internal camps.”
  • Performance management: While dealing with a hybrid workforce, managers may miss out onindividual achievements, not appreciate good contributions in time, or ignorekey areas of improvement as the employees are dispersed. Missing these interactions could impact motivation and perhaps trigger attrition because the workers feel disengaged.
  • Organizational culture: Remote employees may often get out of sync with their organizational culture, company values, and long-term visions.

Supporting the manager

The new approach would require managers to learn, unlearn or re-learn while manging hybrid teams. To begin with, both managers and employees must accept that so long as work gets done, the place does not matter. There should not be any scope for mistrust. As more millennials get elevated to managerial levels, the traditional “manager’s mindset” will definitely change, and mutual trust prevail. But certain areas would still require adapting new approaches. That said, nobody can do this without supportive leadership, and the best way to support middle managers right now is through well-structured processes.

Although the hybrid model appears to be more about dispersed locations, what counts at the end of the day is the processes that govern the work practices. Most experts agree that this is the best opportunity for organisations to deconstruct and then plan, execute, and reformulate new processes and structures.

Especially in companies that operate with a mix of blue- and white-collar workers, the balance is difficult to strike. Analysing every task and every role to determine the levels of remote working that can be achieved is a sensitive task. Some blue-caller roles are critically important and may not be performed remotely. Managers should think of including all employees in the decision-making exercise so that there is a common feeling of inclusion in the ranks and files. 

Managing hybrid work

In a recent Harvard Business Review article, Laszlo Bock, the CEO and co-founder of Humu, and former SVP of People Operations at Google identified the following five rules of hybrid work:

  1. Make work purpose driven – because people who don’t feel their work contributes to their company’s mission are 630% more likely to quit.
  2. Trust your people more.Managers should clearly outline the milestones they’d like their reports to hit — and then let them figure out how to get there.
  3. Learn in the small moments.Hybrid work may miss out on the small interactions that sparks innovation. Such interactions happen naturally at office but in a remote setting, they are ignored. Try to spark these moments in a hybrid environment.
  4. Provide clarity.Be more decisive than feels comfortable.While you should offer your people autonomy, being clear is necessary – even if your decision is unpopular. When people know what’s happening, they can make the best choices for themselves. It’s ambiguity that is more punishing.
  5. Include everyone. Part of the reason people don’t want to come back to offices is likely that they weren’t inclusive spaces to begin with, particularly for people from underrepresented backgrounds, introverts, and newly hired employees.Use the shift to hybrid as an opportunity to identify cultural gaps, and to set new norms to create a better, stronger culture.

Leading the transformation

Leaders and managers need to be aware of the negative aspects of a hybrid work arrangement, evaluate every situation case-by-case, and ensure that all communications and meetings create a level playing field. Workflow conversations must be a transparent flow of information. They also need to demonstrate empathy, have frank discussions and defuse any ambiguity arising due to teams being distributed. Workplaces are bound to have complications and conflicts. When the issue pertains to process, procedure or resources, the manager needs to collect appropriate inputs in the least possible time and offer a viable solution or guide the team to search for a solution. While this is routine for managers in any enterprise, time and clarity of instructions are crucial for dispersed teams. Be informed and act before others react based on assumptions and rumours.  

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