As offices re-open, how do organisations prepare for a hybrid workforce, with some employees remaining at home. Penny Pullan, an expert in virtual and hybrid working, provides some advice.
Build on what we’ve learned during lockdown
First, stop and look back. Throughout months of lockdown, we have carried on working, achieving remarkable things. Employees have coped with often cramped conditions at home and dealt with a range of distractions including: children, pets, sunny weather, fridges and broadband competition whether for streaming movies or doing schoolwork. While the effects of COVID-19 has been traumatic for many, it’s important to look out for the silver linings and build on them. Leaders, learn from all of this and, with your teams, carry the beneficial changes forward.
What might these changes include? As well as the sterling work done in difficult conditions, have you ever seen an IT infrastructure project go as fast as equipping people to work from home at the start of the lockdown? If the team have worked well remotely and productivity has been high in the middle of a global pandemic, then perhaps individuals should have the option of working from home in the long term? This could save the cost of office space, as well as the hassle and costs for the individual of commuting to work, plus the impact on climate change. People have been learning a lot about themselves and how to work in a different way, from this time of isolated working.
What are you going to drop? What do your team no longer care about or you have not needed during lockdown? Why not take the chance of this break in how things are done to change your culture? By building on what works and discarding what does not, you could nudge your organisation’s culture to become even more effective and innovative for the future.
Leadership has changed too, for the better. Those who prefer a directive (sometimes bordering on autocratic) style of leading have found that micromanaging is much harder when people are spaced out geographically. Instead, to lead what is now a spread-out network of people needs a facilitative approach. I call this virtual leadership. In this leadership style, leaders focus on making it easy (the root of the word facilitate) for each person to do the best job they can. This form of leadership focuses on the people aspects, in order to get the tasks done.
Beware of the biggest danger of hybrid working
There is a hidden danger that comes with hybrid working that is easy to overlook in all of the details to prepare a COVID-19 secure office space and bring people back. The danger lies in the fact that some people will be in the office, while others remain working from home. Pay careful attention to this disparity, as people working in the office will be at an advantage compared to those working at home.
They can glance over to see what others are doing and have conversations with the advantage of seeing body language, as well as hearing voice tone and the words spoken. This will build rapport and trust in a natural way that happens when people share the same space. Remote workers won’t have access to this and the difference can threaten the team trust that developed when everyone was facing the same challenges of virtual meetings.
The answer to this hidden danger is to create a level playing field. This means leaders ensuring that remote team members are not treated as second class or forgotten. Let’s consider team meetings. It makes sense to hold them just as you did during lockdown, with everyone on their laptops over video conference, rather than some in a room and the rest joining remotely. This creates what can be an elusive level playing field. Unfortunately it doesn’t come on its own.
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Remember virtual leadership, where the leader facilitates every member of the team to do their best? It becomes even more important in a hybrid situation. Leading in the hybrid context is not easy, in fact it is probably harder than when everyone was remote. But it is possible. Remember the level playing field and work hard to keep things fair and consistent between all members of your team.
In these hybrid times, it makes sense to develop your own virtual leadership and that of others in your business. I’ve worked to develop this with teams for more than a decade, during which I’ve found several aspects to focus on. These include:
- Yourself as leader, and your own skills, preferences, strengths and weaknesses;
- Others in your team and their own skills, preferences, strengths and weaknesses, creating ways that your team can work together effectively, building on each other’s skills, strengths and preferences and covering up for weaknesses;
- Technology: able to use the technologies effectively, and choosing an appropriate mix of live and different time (asynchronous) collaboration tools;
- Leading effective and engaging virtual meetings;
- Working effectively in between meetings, using asynchronous collaboration tools;
- Overcoming complications such as differences across generations, cultures and language.
As you approach the new’ hybrid working’ normal, build on everything you have learned together during lockdown, keep that playing field level and develop your virtual leadership. All the best!
For more information, consult Penny Pullan’s books about Virtual Leadership: Practical strategies for getting the best out of virtual work and virtual teams.