The Hybrid Work Transformation — PART II: Tips for Leaders

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NOTE: This is PART II of a three-part series where I explore the implications of hybrid work on three key stakeholder groups — Human Resources practitioners, leaders, and employees.

According to Microsoft’s 2021 Work Trends Index released this March which is based on insights gleaned from 30,000 people in 31 countries, 73 percent of workers surveyed want flexible remote work options to continue, while at the same time, 67 percent are craving more in-person time with their teams.

Hybrid is the name of the game for the foreseeable work future.

Not quite convinced of the business case? According to research firm Gartner, benefits of working in a hybrid model can include: improved performance and engagement, increased effort and productivity, expanded and more diverse talent pools, greater emotional well-being, Employee Value Proposition (EVP) fulfillment and alignment, reduced commuting costs and carbon footprint, and reduced facility and operating costs.

What is the opportunity of this moment for leaders?

London Business School Professor Lynda Gratton states in her analysis How to Do Hybrid Right that for a hybrid transformation to succeed, organizations need to “design hybrid work arrangements with individual human concerns in mind, not just institutional ones.”

Never has there been such a profound opportunity to apply human-centered design principles to the world of work.

As a leader you are the designer of your hybrid team environment. And your employees are hybrid work co-creators. The phenomenon of employees quitting by the thousands which started in May 2021 is now coined “the great resignation”. Reasons for this are myriad but one might be that employees feel as though their current employer does not involve them in co-creating how work might look in a post-pandemic world.

How to get started?

I partner with organizations currently navigating their hybrid transformations and have frequent conversations with their leaders. The following are three pain points I hear most, along with a few design thinking inspired thought starters for how to tackle them.

Pain Point #1: How will hybrid work impact productivity?

Myth: We cannot be productive working in a hybrid environment. Fact: Companies and scholars have been studying the efficacy of distributed work for nearly three decades. Case in point: In 2003, Cisco reported $195 million in savings due to increased worker productivity as a result of flexible working arrangements.

Research by Harvard professor Tsedal Neeley suggests that there are three key drivers of productivity: 1) delivering results 2) facilitating individual growth 3) building team cohesion.

Delivering results is probably the one you primarily associate with assessing productivity. It’s likely the one you are most concerned about when it comes to working in a hybrid context.

If you are not able to see your employees in action all the time, you may worry about worst-case scenarios and revert to micro-managing. This causes stress for yourself as well as your team. Instead, assume that most of your employees will want to do their job well. They have shown this during the pandemic and should have earned your trust. Build on this. Remember, even co-located teams sometimes did not meet their goals.

As a hybrid leader, you want to shift your mindset from leading through process to managing by outcomes. You can take a page from companies like authentication platform provider Auth0 who uses the Objectives and Key Results (OKR) framework.

If transitioning from process to outcomes is a big shift from the way you used to manage, give yourself some grace. Reflect on what differences in personality styles between you and your employee might cause conflict in how things get done. Which biases might you hold that get in the way? What additional clarity might you need to provide, e.g., check points to ask for understanding: “What questions might you have? What’s not clear?”

The second driver of productivity is facilitating individual growth. Individual growth affords the opportunity to expand knowledge, acquire new skills, and be exposed to new perspectives. Individual growth leads to increased job satisfaction that in turn enhances team productivity.

The concept of individual growth extends to employees’ need to choose where, when, and how they work. Professor Neeley cites a study that realized a 4.4 percent increase in output from workers who were given the freedom to choose where to spend their workday.

“Going into the office to work now just seems like driving 30 minutes to sit at a different computer all day,”Karen Benjamin Guzzo, Professor of Sociology at Bowling Green State University

As a leader, you might need to challenge your own habits and way of thinking about how and where work gets done. You might prefer to go to the office five days a week. That does not mean your employees want to do so as well. That also doesn’t mean you should. It creates inequity and shifts the power center to the office — hurting distributed workers and undermining the acceptability of working virtually.

When thinking about what work needs to get done in the office versus from home, follow the data. I recently spoke to a call center leader. Her entire team moved to taking calls virtually last year. Her plan was to bring everyone back to the office because she felt they benefited from turning around in their chairs and asking their teammate a question on the fly. I asked her about productivity in 2020 and she replied that the team saw a fifty percent increase in productivity — while working entirely virtually. I encouraged her to dig deeper and find out what made the team successful last year and then co-create with her employees an approach for when, how, and where work should get done in the future.

The third driver of productivity is building team cohesion. Team cohesion means learning how to work together as a group, rather than individuals working in silos. The productivity result is enhanced coordination, development of collective skills, and maximized team efficiency.

How to maintain cohesion on a hybrid team?

First, let’s challenge our assumption that productive and satisfying working relationships are dependent on physical proximity. Researchers have found that workers can collaborate productively on a distributed team with as little as ten percent of their time spent in face-to-face interaction. More important than colocation is whether team members feel included in the group. On distributed teams, members of minority subgroups as well as team members working from home or single members at a location tend to feel most excluded from the main group. As a leader, be aware of these dynamics and foster equity and inclusion by stressing one group-level identity, reminding team members that they each represent the team, and emphasizing the common purpose team members are trying to achieve for the organization. Research also suggests that providing more opportunities for colleagues to check in with one another can drastically increase team members’ sense of belonging.

Looking for ways to get started? Check out software provider Atlassian’s free team playbooks around distributed teamwork, aligning on project goals, and becoming an agile team.

Pain Point #2: How might we establish new work habits?

Recent research by the University of Chicago suggests productivity gains might not be sustainable in a hybrid work environment if we can’t figure out how to create better hybrid work habits.

Here is where you as a leader can deeply lean into design thinking. Forget the playbook for how work used to get done. You have been given an opportunity to re-imagine and co-create with your team how you will work together in this hybrid world.

Let’s begin with what behavioral scientist and Wharton professor Katy Milkman calls fresh start moments: The first day back at the office marks a fresh start on how we work differently at the company in a hybrid environment. Make it a celebration!

After nudging the team into new habits by celebrating a fresh start, jointly assess and prioritize practices and tasks. First, identify which new practices were successful, why they were successful, and under which circumstances they’re expected to continue to succeed. Second, analyze whether old practices still serve. Third, openly discuss and resolve disagreements and misconceptions about the new procedures. Finally, turn the new practices into habits.

London Business School Professor Lynda Gratton summarizes this approach in her analysis How to Do Hybrid Right:

“New hybrid arrangements should never replicate existing bad practices — as was the case when companies began automating work processes, decades ago. Instead of redesigning their workflows to take advantage of what the new technologies made possible, many companies simply layered them onto existing processes, inadvertently replicating their flaws, idiosyncrasies, and workarounds. It often was only years later, after many painful rounds of reengineering, that companies really began making the most of those new technologies…. Are any team tasks redundant? Can any tasks be automated or reassigned to people outside the team?

One of our most common business practices, the meeting, has come under scrutiny during the last year with many questioning its universal efficacy, or worse, as contributing to collective fatigue:

“The digital intensity of workers’ days has increased substantially, with the average number of meetings and chats steadily rising since last year…This barrage of communications is unstructured and mostly unplanned, with 62 percent of Teams calls and meetings unscheduled or conducted ad hoc.” (Microsoft’s 2021 Work Trends Index)

This is an opportunity to co-create new ways of working with your team members.

To jump start your ideation, here are a few practices I have seen clients experiment with:

Co-create hybrid work guiding principles and rituals (e.g., around decision making, inclusion, alignment, connection, and collaboration).

Design a good mix of synchronous and asynchronous communication channels — establish norms for each.

Dedicate space for uninterrupted, individual work time (e.g., no meetings every Tuesday and Thursday morning).

Keep your one-on-ones frequent and consistent. Start the conversation with a check in by asking your team member “How are you feeling? What is distracting you?”

Reduce the number of meetings by asking: “Is there another way I can achieve my outcome?”

Experiment with audio only meetings to combat Zoom fatigue.

Cut meetings off at 20/50 minutes to allow for a break in between calls.

Role model calling in to meetings from home at least one day a week to normalize distributed work.

Create an environment of psychological safety by presenting the change as an experiment. Share that you will try an initial prototype of a hybrid work setup and then iterate based on the team’s feedback.

As a team, reflect monthly on how new work practices need to be adjusted. Alexandra Lung, Head of Product at Aircall, summarizes her lessons learned from leading a distributed team in this article.

Pain Point #3: How might we continue to nurture our culture?

Many leaders I talk to are worried about how to build trust and maintain culture when some people are in the office and others are not.

Cultivating a culture of kindness, fun, and cooperative collaboration is just as important to the bottom line as your daily to-do list. Ask yourself: What are ways you can design moments of connection, use storytelling to remain in tune with customer needs, and help your team members align their purpose to the organization?

For your inspiration: Design thinking firm IDEO crowdsourced ideas from their community on how to maintain culture in a hybrid environment and structured them around these four key themes:

1. Connect with your purpose

2. Celebrate your team

3. Build trust through openness

4. Embrace camaraderie

How do you foster a culture of innovation in a hybrid environment?

The long held belief that chance meetings in the office spark creativity has recently been dispelled.

But as companies balance a mix of in-person and virtual teams, it will be important to remember that distributed work makes for more siloed teams. For leaders it becomes even more important to foster the social capital, cross-team collaboration, and spontaneous idea sharing that has driven workplace innovation for decades.

Design thinking is a method for complex problem solving and surfacing innovation. If you are not familiar with the method, now might be the time to experiment. Start by honing agile habits first and then applying some part of the method (e.g., brainstorming) to your next team meeting.

Another tactic to actively encourage differences of opinion is to ask: “Can someone articulate an alternate point of view?” Ask this question three times early in the meeting and you will start to create an environment where everyone feels safe to voice their perspective thus increasing the potential for innovative thinking.

Above all: Take comfort in the fact that this is a huge, collective experiment. Acknowledge this, show your vulnerability, and invite your team members for the ride. You might end up with something far better than what you had before…

Key takeaways:

· “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” — Theodore Roosevelt

· Don’t underestimate the role modeling function you have as a leader.

· Embrace an agile mindset — run experiments and test assumptions around productivity, culture, wellbeing, and new work habits.

· Leverage the safe space of your peers to test experiments and practice empathy conversations.

· Block time and space for reflection on lessons learned.

[Author’s Note: Since I published this article, I received additional comments and questions which I themed into additional pain points and addressed each in a separate LinkedIn post]:

How might I ensure the (mental) health and safety of my employees?

How will I need to lead differently?

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Nicole Dessain is the Founder and Chief Talent Experience Designer at talent.imperative inc, an employee experience design consultancy.

Nicole’s creative superpower is “connecting the dots” which she applies to her passion of bringing design thinking to the world of Human Resources through the HR.Hackathon Alliance.

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I am leading a movement that aims to make organizations more people-centric through the power of design thinking via hrhackathonalliance.com

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Nicole Dessain

Nicole Dessain

I am leading a movement that aims to make organizations more people-centric through the power of design thinking via hrhackathonalliance.com

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