The world changed in early 2020; for better or worse, who knows for sure. For business leaders, COVID was just another challenge in a never ending list of challenges to overcome, risks to manage and opportunities to leverage. For employees who were able to work from home (WFH), the first year was a difficult time adjusting to the new world of work. Thank goodness for the technology that enabled WFH and for the people who set up literally millions of home offices across the globe.
In hindsight, it’s fair to say that, for employees, COVID’s silver lining was the advent of hybrid working; less travel time, more time with family and greater flexibility around when and where work is completed. For people leaders and managers, however, hybrid working creates a conundrum. How do they ensure that all of these positives for employees translate into positives for the business – or at least not negatives such a less peer to peer collaboration, reduced trust with managers or customers or declining revenue and profit?
Perhaps the novelty will wear off for employees and they will return to the office soon. Maybe a lack of productivity while working from home will create a situation where WFH is seen as unviable for certain roles, companies or industries. Or perhaps managers and people leaders will encourage or direct employees to return to the office because culture/business indicators are dropping. Only time will tell.
Whatever legacy COVID and hybrid working leaves on the world of work, the exact context and the ultimate outcome is sure to be different by industry, by business, by role and by individual. The question is, what is your context? And what are you going to do to manage it?
A recent article by Gartner Research is instructive on the development of a 1 year plan to understand the context of hybrid working and to develop a plan to ensure that leadership and culture remains in-tact or flourishes in a hybrid working world. The following borrows from this article to provide a step by step plan for leadership in a hybrid digital world. https://www.gartner.com/en/human-resources
A Step by Step Plan
Well before the pandemic, famous management consultant and writer Peter Drucker coined the phrase “culture eats strategy for breakfast”! For clarity, he did not mean that strategy is unimportant – rather that an empowered organisational culture is a better path to achieving an organisations objectives. Drucker’s words remain true today, and are perhaps even more important in a world were once solid strategic plans have been rendered useless by the breakdown of supply chains and other contingencies that could not have been planned for.
So, yes, by all means, create a strategic plan! But reinforce it through a solid culture that can be leveraged when things go wrong. Here is a simple 3 step plan.
- Adjust your culture to support a hybrid workforce
- Leverage new technology to enable people to be successful in a hybrid environment
- Upskill managers and leaders
Each step is explained below for clarity and to support implementation…
Step 1: Adjust your culture to support a hybrid workforce
“As the world changes, stay true to your path and don’t change a thing,” said NO successful leader ever…… In business, staying still or failing to adjust as the context changes is suicide. In industries and departments where working from home is technologically and practically possible, you can fight against hybrid working and lose your best people to more flexible organisations, or go with it, leveraging the benefits and mitigating the risks as best you can. We recommend the latter.
If you are not clear on the profile of your existing culture, you have work to do. Sack your HR person, run a culture survey and get your head around the importance of culture in a successful business.
If you are clear on where your business is at, culturally, and where you want to go, start by running a workshop with leaders and managers to identify both the risks and the benefits of hybrid working for their department and the broader business. Develop initiatives to mitigate the risks and leverage the benefits. For example, if relationships and trust between departments and individuals is critical to flow of information and the creation of value, ensure that the relevant teams and individuals have sufficient time in the office, especially early in their service, to get to know other key stakeholders. Create ‘crossover days’ between departments and individuals, organise multi-team lunches and quarterly culture building events or implement a simple, digital peer to peer reward and recognition system, such as Bonusly.
Work with your teams to clarify which of the tasks they do on a day-to-day basis are best done from home; focussed, in-depth thinking, analysis etc. – work best done alone. Contrast this with work that is best completed in a collaborative environment; idea generation, process improvements, relationship building etc.
Whatever actions you take, engage deeply and openly with your people, communicate, communicate, communicate and act on feedback swiftly and transparently. You can be sure that this approach is better than doing nothing. For culture to succeed in a hybrid world, leaders must work intentionally to align and connect their people.
Step 2: Leverage new technology to enable people to be successful in a hybrid environment
“They’ve got an App for that.” Ever heard this term? New technologies are being developed and released every day. If you have a business problem or opportunity for improvement, chances are someone else has tried to solve it with a technology solution.
The first challenge is that sometimes the people in your team don’t have the knowledge of what technology is on offer in the market or the expertise to manage the wide array of technology challenges that can present themselves in your IT environment. Partnership with an MSP can fill such a knowledge/skills gap ensuring you have the best fit between your problems and the tech solutions on offer. MSP’s like Atlantic Digital employ very experienced, trusted IT practitioners who provide insight and continuity during the implementation of medium to long term IT Roadmaps.
MS Teams, Trello, Team viewer, Zoom, Envoy, IdeaFlip… these are merely a handful of the hundreds of apps that support and leverage hybrid working environments. Remember Skype….kinda hit and miss for connecting with remote locations. Remember getting in the lift and walking over to a stakeholder’s workspace on another floor….just to find that they are out to lunch. By implementing best of breed systems and tools, your teams can be in a position to save heaps of time, connecting and collaborating, literally at the press of a button!
Step 3: Upskill managers and leaders
Gartner’s research supports the position that effective hybrid leaders are human leaders who are authentic, empathetic and adaptive to individual employees. This research also suggests that culture connectedness is in crisis and must be accounted for in a hybrid workplace. Firstly let’s take a closer look at the concept of culture connectedness. Then we can consider the kind of upskilling managers need to make a positive impact in this space.
Gartner states that alignment and connectedness operate like the left and right sides of your brain — rational and emotional. Both contribute to a culture’s impact on business outcomes, such as performance and retention. The challenge is that “connectedness’ suffers in a hybrid world, however, without intentional efforts to cultivate it. The informal coffee conversations become less frequent, people’s days in the office fail to cross over and people stop dropping by others offices because they are not sure if they will be there or not. Add to this the increased turnover of staff (in some industries like technology) and you can see why some people’s paths may not cross for weeks or months, leading to an increasingly disconnected workforce.
And guess what? The bad news does not end there, without the informal connecting interactions and conversations, alignment suffers! This can lead to business and relationship problems between key stakeholders. Not a path that you want to be on as a manager of leader…..
The upskilling solution, according to Gartner is to:
- Diffuse the culture through the actual work that people do:
- Make people aware of the value their role provides the business and reinforce that this value is not tied to a location, but to an outcome.
- Ensure people are getting personal value through their work – such as career development
- Map and align the content and process of the work against the organisational values; we do this to achieve a “trusted relationship with customers”, we do that to ensure “our products are high quality” etc.
- Connect with individuals and teams through emotional proximity, when physical proximity cannot occur:
- Create empathy, not just interest, for the mission of the organization by making its impact tangible to the individual. Help people to understand and articulate their “why” for working in your business.
- Identify the “moments that matter” when employees are most likely to feel seen by others in the organization, and create these more intentionally. Understand how people want to be recognised and rewarded and give them just that.
- Optimize micro- (small-group) experiences
- Recognise and accept that there will be sub-cultures within your broader organisational culture. The subcultures will be more adaptable to diversified work contexts. Team leaders and managers will need to be trained and supported in moulding these sub-cultures
- Equip managers and leaders to develop their own sub-cultures by introducing a culture mapping and development tool that gives them regular insights into employee sentiments as they change over time. Some good examples are Peakon/Workday, Lattice, Fifteen5 and CultureAmp. On-point, in-time data on culture trends can create fantastic culture improvements and lead to significant increases in productivity and profitability.
So the above is not the three simple steps you were hoping for? You are right; it’s not simple at all. But you have to start adjusting your leadership and your culture to support a hybrid workforce, lest you’ll be lost in the dark ages of business. You will need to leverage some of the new technology that is hitting the market to enable your people to be successful in a hybrid environment. Upskilling managers and leaders is a great first step. There is lots of literature out there. All you really need is some direction and a little motivation to set you and your business on a path to success in this hybrid digital world.