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How to lead in a hybrid environment

Work has changed—and so must leaders. These four management shifts are making the biggest impact in today’s hybrid work environment.
Sandra Scharf

Advises organizations with particular focus on change management; diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I); and leadership development

Kirsten Weerda

Helps clients in multiple industries pursue enterprise agility and flexible organization models; establishes breakthrough accountability to reduce complexity and applies change management approaches to mobilize organization-wide transformation

As the COVID-19 pandemic ebbs and flows, its impact on the working world appears permanent. Our research suggests that expectations around in-office work have changed. While 99 percent of executives expected employees to spend more than 80 percent of their time in the physical office before COVID-19, that perspective is now shared by a mere 10 percent. Simultaneously, an April 2021 survey found that 29 percent of employees would consider switching employers if their company went back to a fully on-site model.

But leaders face an atmosphere of ambiguity while managing in a hybrid environment. They have limited visibility into workloads and processes. They have fewer opportunities for impromptu two-way conversations. They fight the feeling of losing control as they track progress toward goals. They struggle to recreate the cohesiveness, collaboration, and comradery of the office as they encourage the freedom and flexibility of remote work. As a result, their leadership effectiveness is at risk.

Leaders must learn to effectively manage in a hybrid environment, and successful companies are taking action. In working with such companies, we’ve found that four management shifts are proving helpful for both leaders and employees amid flexible work:

  1. Managing performance through outcomes, impact, and ownership. In successful hybrid environments, we’ve seen managers move to a stronger outcome and impact orientation, while empowering employees to determine how they get to and take full ownership of outcomes. Prerequisites include setting clear roles and tangible goals and milestones, then checking in weekly or even daily to hear about roadblocks, offer support to clear them, and ensure that workloads are manageable. Also, they hold their employees accountable to achieve outcomes.
  2. Doing more to build trust and togetherness. Trust and togetherness are imperative to support employee innovation and creativity. However, traditional methods like walking the company floor, chatting at the coffee machine, or taking employees to lunch are less readily available. Moreover, insecurity can lead some to micromanage and exhibit controlling behaviors. Managers should proactively establish trust by role modeling and encouraging the following characteristics:
    • Reliability: “You can count on me to meet my commitments.”
      E.g., sticking to regular check-ins, removing roadblocks, ending virtual meetings five minutes before the next one to ensure punctuality throughout the day
    • Acceptance: “I accept who you are and respect your perspective.” E.g., deliberately inviting all meeting participants to speak up, even those with divergent opinions; establishing rules for participative decision making; having familiarity with and recognizing the traditions and habits of a diverse set of employees
    • Openness: “I share what I think, do, and feel, and I am open to feedback.”
      E.g., starting every morning with a team check-in, holding a monthly team lunch to ask genuine questions
    • Authenticity: “I walk my talk.”
      E.g., sharing professional backgrounds, creating team rituals that encourage personal expression
  3. Facilitating and engaging with teams. A variety of behaviors can erode team engagement in hybrid settings, such as failing to be mentally or emotionally present at meetings, turning the camera off, or checking emails. Beyond avoiding these pitfalls, managers should keep meetings short and use interactive tools, such as chat, polls, and informal competitions. More broadly, managers should delegate decision making and empower teams to develop a common vision and goals.
  4. Encouraging team problem solving. Traditional managers may prioritize meeting their own deliverables over providing frequent team support. Successful hybrid managers adopt team problem solving as a mindset. To tackle hard problems, they engage personally, mobilize resources, and link teams up. Involving people in finding a solution creates buy-in and encourages ownership of outcomes.

In this new working world, successful organizations deliberately create a flexible culture by developing leaders who foster outcome-oriented performance, trust and togetherness, and team engagement and problem solving.

Learn more about our People & Organizational Performance Practice