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Hybrid working requires a new approach to leadership

The discussion about hybrid working became increasingly voluble in 2023. This discussion has focused on the conflict between "workers" who want to work from home and organizations that prefer their staff to interact, develop, and be supervised in the office. Much less has been written about hybrid workings implications for leadership.

Hybrid working requires new ways of working for individuals in leadership roles. You need new tools to create accountability and autonomy in your team or business. Managers need different approaches to allow for varied working styles, and organizations must find new ways to allow people to assume leadership responsibilities at different times. As a result, "many managers feel stuck between leadership and new employee expectations, and they feel powerless to drive change for their team", according to Microsoft's Making Hybrid Work report.

Addressing this challenge requires shifting how individuals, businesses, and public-sector organizations approach work and leadership. We must develop leadership skills based on asynchronous communication tools such as e-mail, Slack, and Teams. Expecting leadership to happen through meetings and in-person communication is no longer realistic. There is growing evidence that we don't need to meet to reach a consensus or manage day-to-day tasks. Instead, we're better off using meetings to brainstorm and ideate. Developing written communication abilities (and I don't mean long e-mails - a leadership failing of mine) is undeniably a key leadership tool. Effective leadership is about leveraging communication tools and techniques to persuade others to take action, and increasingly verbal communication is only one of these tools.

Hybrid working necessitates a shift in how we think about tasks and organizational networks. Adam Grant has discussed how "during the pandemic, when over 60,000 Microsoft employees were forced into remote work, their professional networks became more static and siloed. They had fewer new connections between people and fewer new bridges between teams. That's a problem because we get more creative ideas from our weak ties than from our strong ties. Weak ties bring us fresh perspectives."

The challenge for businesses and individuals in leadership positions is adapting to our new, hybrid world. With all its benefits and drawbacks, the trend is here to stay, so what will we do about it?

To begin, we must discover strategies to overcome the additional barriers that hybrid working produces while maximizing its benefits, such as increasing opportunities for underrepresented groups and recognizing the change in power dynamics that come from hybrid working. We don't need to reinvent the wheel to do this; instead, we need to step back and take a more purposeful approach to team formation and our meeting culture. Microsoft has found that only "27% of organizations have established new hybrid work meeting etiquette". Asynchronous working is here to stay, and we need to break tasks down to encourage collaboration without encroaching into individuals' deep and focused work. Building this environment means specifying meeting times and 'online' periods while keeping most of the working day for productive activities.

By ensuring that we form teams for the right purposes, we can get away from everyone in every meeting culture that organizations seem to have been moving towards and that the ease of getting people involved virtually accelerated. This doesn't need some fancy new idea, just a focus on the basics of team formation: Be clear about the team purpose and if a team or an individual best does that purpose. Follow the two-pizza rule – every team should be able to be fed by two pizzas. Make sure you coach the team through their journey to achieve the best outcomes.

Second, we must divide and delegate leadership and management responsibilities throughout the organization, fostering the conditions of trust and empowerment that individuals crave and which were valued during the pandemic. We must get back to fundamentals and focus on explicitly allocating responsibility for choices to the person most suited to make and implement the decision. Successful leadership in a hybrid environment will require you to break tasks down and then communicate and delegate leadership to the individual best suited to complete these tasks.

For many people in leadership roles, this requires a shift in thinking, not to a world with no meetings or in-person communication but to a world with a mix of approaches. How do you assess the health of your team and organization? Can you use your web resources to conduct more anonymous surveys to understand people's emotions better? What do you notice in the random and general talks on Teams and Slack? Can you experiment with video messages? What about scheduled coffee breaks or open slots in your calendar for anyone to come and meet you?

There is a lot of potential, but for many of us, it takes an effort, and we need to be careful not to slip back into the office world at the exclusion of staff and colleagues who may have found different ways of working better, more engaging and empowering. When considering how to make hybrid work for your organization or team, keep in mind that a survey of 5,000 workers in a variety of sectors conducted by Harvard Business Review in 2022 discovered that 59% preferred greater flexibility at work over a pay raise - this isn't just flexibility of when and where to work, but also flexibility to think and develop.


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