How can leaders keep their workplace culture thriving while managing displaced teams? Three experts share practical tips to help hybrid leaders flourish.
Employers often try to lure their people back to the workplace with flashy office perks and sentiments about a new and improved company culture. Some espouse the benefits of their in-house chef, others put their innovative new hotdesking setup in the spotlight.
However, often the thing that can make or break someone’s hybrid work experience is the quality of leadership they receive.
In a work environment split between the home and workspace, it can be easy for basic leadership skills to slip through the cracks. It’s on HR to help foster strong hybrid leaders who create equitable and enjoyable experiences for all employees – no matter where they’re logging in from.
HRM asked three academics for their advice on fostering stronger hybrid leaders in the modern workplace.
1. Practice effective leadership skills
“We all think we’re good listeners,” says Dr Be Pannell, course leader, MBA and Applied Coaching at the Australian College of Applied Professions (ACAP). But how many of us put this into action?
Effective listening is just one of the qualities Pannell identifies as being essential for leaders when responding to the considerations of employees in a hybrid environment.
“When we’re under pressure. Our brains are designed to narrow down and only look at things from one point of view,” she says. “We become convinced we’re right.”
Demonstrating effective listening, she says, means conveying to the other person that you understand what they have said – and responding empathetically rather than rushing to judgement.
Another essential skill that too often gets thrown to the wayside in a hybrid work environment is emotional intelligence.
“We’ve been talking about this in leadership development and coaching circles for 20 years now,” she says. “Emotional intelligence is about being aware of what you’re feeling, articulating that and then tuning into how others are going.”
Fostering leadership skills such as effective listening and empathy might sound like broad advice, but it proves essential in acknowledging the shift required of employees when adjusting to the new world of work.
2. Resist the urge to micromanage
At the same time as encouraging workers to return to work certain days of the week, it’s important to grant them some autonomy.
According to Professor Karin Sanders, Professor in the School of Management and Governance at UNSW Business School, resisting the urge to micromanage can do a world of good on both sides of the fence.
She says when COVID hit, managers wanted to remain aware of what their workers were doing which led to micromanaging tendencies.
“If managers are eager to have all their employees back into the office, most of the time there’s an idea of control,” she told HRM. “If an employee comes in at eight or nine and leaves at five, managers have a good idea of what they’re doing.”
But as COVID’s impact on systems and workplaces in Australia has receded, she believes that many managers have actually learned to trust their employees.
“The message I give to managers in these situations is that you don’t have to have the answers. You don’t have to be a mental health professional to ask someone if they’re OK.” – Dr Be Pannell, Australian College of Applied Professions
With many workers now logging on remotely, managers have needed to learn how to trust the productivity of their employees, which is an essential trait for leaders looking to boost their effectiveness in a hybrid working environment.
“If you are a manager who feels you cannot trust your employees, and prefer to have all employees in the office five days a week from 8am to 5pm, that management style is just not sustainable,” says Sanders in a media release announcing the UNSW Business School’s Hybrid Work Research Leadership Lab, which she co-founded.
“Many managers with micromanagement tendencies who did not trust their employees had to change through COVID, as they found their employees could still do the work; maybe it’s not 8am to 5pm but at other times in the evening and sometimes on the weekend.”
3. Create a dialogue
Many managers are keen to get their team back to the office as much as possible, but establishing return-to-work policies should not be done from the top-down.
Instead, a two-way dialogue between managers and employees is needed. This means helping your workforce to realise the benefits of a mixture of working from home and coming into the office.
“Structure face-to-face workdays in a way that rebuilds trust [between employee and employer],” says Pannell. “Create times for people to come together, share their lunch around the meeting table, and talk about how they’re going or the different projects they’re working on. Build that into the face-to-face working environment.”
This structuring of the hybrid environment could involve communicating your expectations around the activities better suited to occurring in-person – such as team meetings – as opposed to individual work that can be completed at home.
At the same time, stay conscious of what your workers want. The wellbeing of individual employees, many of whom have done it tough either for work or personal reasons, should be front of mind.
“Managers are often afraid of having conversations with their staff about their mental health, because they don’t know how to respond to the answers,” says Pannell. “The message I give to managers in these situations is that you don’t have to have the answers. You don’t have to be a mental health professional to ask someone if they’re OK.”
Mental health, she believes, should be “treated with the same neutrality as having a broken arm”. This can open up a safe space for workers to voice their own mental health challenges.
“Face-to-face interactions can create a safer work environment where we catch the mental health issues that might be disguised when people [work from home and] feel like they have to keep their act together,” she says.
4. Consider the employee’s preferences
So what does all this talk of open communication, effective leadership skills and mental health considerations boil down to?
“You need to ask what the preferences of your employees are, without making assumptions based on anecdotal information,” says Sanders.
“One of the objectives of the UNSW research lab is to help organisations find out what the preferences of their employees are, and monitor them – because their preferences can change depending on what your colleagues are doing. The more information managers have about their employees, the better they can manage them.”
Sanders’ colleague Dr Andrew Dhaenens, a lecturer in the School of Management and Governance at UNSW Business School and co-founder of the research lab, believes an external observer can provide a clarifying perspective on how an organisation can improve its hybrid work culture.
“Having an outside group come in, run surveys and develop a partnership [with the employer] signals to employees that the company cares about their culture and what they have to say,” he says.
Dhaenens says leaders should be wary about making assumptions about the work preferences of their employees.
As an example, caring responsibilities is often quoted as something that is difficult to manage from a hybrid work perspective – under the assumption that a carer might be reluctant to return to the workplace. But Dhaenens says that “some employees with care responsibilities wanted to come into the office more, because that’s what provided more flexibility” in their situation.
5. Foster a safer workplace
For Pannell, it all comes down to encouraging belonging for employees amid an uncertain new hybrid work environment, and helping employees feel comfortable to raise sensitive issues.
“We all need a safe place to vent,” she says. “It’s about finding people they can talk to about the challenges [they’re experiencing] in a way that’s not going to negatively impact on others.”
She suggests leaders regularly check if they are embodying the values they espouse. Did you show up today with a sufficient level of empathy and curiosity?
“HR leaders and managers need to be consistent,” she says. “We can read an article like this or go to a workshop or try a new technique – but then we revert back [to old behaviours].
“Leaders have to be more agile in their thinking and more curious about different perspectives.”
Looking to keep up to date with developments in HR and hybrid work? The AHRI National Convention, held in August, will feature some of the world’s most influential speakers and thought leaders paving the way for the HR of the future. Book your place today.