Leading in a Hybrid Work Environment

Over the last few years, the world of work has undergone significant change. Remote and flexible work models continue to gain popularity over traditional in-office work, and – despite the growing movement to return to the office – many organizations have embraced a hybrid work model as the best of both worlds. Instead of being fully remote or fully in the office, hybrid work presents a win-win scenario for both employees and leadership.

According to a 2022 Gallup survey, 59% of employees prefer a hybrid work model, citing that it helps reduce commute time, increases flexibility and improves their overall sense of wellbeing – while still helping them feel “connected” to their organization. For leaders, hybrid work presents the opportunity to meet employees’ desire for flexibility without sacrificing the benefits of in-person collaboration. Despite the benefits of hybrid work, however, it isn’t without its challenges. This is why it’s important for hybrid CEOs to take a mindful approach to leading in a hybrid work environment.

The 3 Main Challenges Associated with Hybrid Work

While hybrid work solves many of the problems presented by a fully remote work model, it presents several unique challenges. For virtual leaders looking to navigate these issues, here are three main points to keep in mind:

1. Clarity

With any type of remote work – whether that’s fully remote or a hybrid schedule – clarity, or a lack thereof, is a common obstacle that many virtual leaders face. Without proper safeguards in place, it can be hard to develop a clear understanding of what work is being completed and when – which can make cultivating an environment of trust difficult.

Flexible work models can make it challenging to set clear expectations for what, when and how work is completed, which can impact employees’ overall job satisfaction. According to Microsoft’s 2022 Work Trend Index Special Report, employees who feel they have clarity around their priorities at work are 4.5 times more likely to say they’re happy at their current company and nearly four times more likely to stay at their job for at least two years.

2. Communication

Communication issues are one of the most common challenges associated with remote work. Virtual leaders often struggle to establish appropriate channels of feedback for online work, which can make it difficult to maintain open communication for hybrid teams.

While communication is often easier in person, switching between remote and in-office work can create a “feast or famine” situation. Teams might go radio silent during remote days and squeeze everything into in-person days, which can make office days dominated by meetings with little to no productive work time.

There are also generational differences that can make communication difficult for hybrid teams, as some generations might prefer online collaboration tools like Microsoft Teams or Slack while others prefer email, phone calls or face-to-face collaboration.

3. Culture

A healthy work culture involves more than touting a mission statement or core values, and protecting your company culture in a remote environment can be a struggle – especially if you’re leading distributed teams across multiple locations. Face-to-face communication is often easier, whereas virtual connectivity requires more intention to be successful. And, as MIT Sloan Management Review reports, these so-called “impoverished” virtual interactions can lead to employees feeling isolated and disconnected from their organizations.

4 Practical Leadership Strategies for Hybrid Workplaces

When it comes to leading in a hybrid work environment, it’s important for virtual leaders to focus on cultivating a healthy and safe organizational culture where everyone can thrive. It can be tempting to push people back to the office with the assumption that it’s “better” for productivity and culture, but research shows the opposite is true. According to Gallup, 23% of hybrid employees in the U.S. report feeling connected to their organization, compared to 20% of employees overall, which demonstrates that – done right – hybrid work can help organizations thrive.

1. Hire with intention.

When it comes to building strong, innovative and successful organizations, the importance of finding the right talent cannot be understated. As leaders, it can be tempting to bring in people who look like you, sound like you and act like you, but this bias – unconscious as it often is – can leave organizations stagnant. Done right, hybrid work models can help foster diversity and inclusion efforts in the workplace, but it requires a thoughtful approach. Hybrid work can often benefit working parents, for example, but it can also lead to blurring lines between work and personal lives – which can increase stress and burnout. While hiring flexible employees and leaders is important, it’s also critical to hire those who are respectful of boundaries, demonstrate strong communication skills and know how to prioritize.

2. Create an environment of trust.

Research shows that employees working hybrid schedules report higher levels of psychological safety and autonomy at work, but they also report higher levels of unachievable job demands. This is often due to what Microsoft calls “productivity paranoia,” where 85% of leaders report that hybrid work makes it difficult to feel confident that employees are actually being productive – despite overwhelming evidence that activity metrics, including hours worked and total number of meetings, continue to increase in hybrid work environments.

Instead of pushing for more, this is where trust is key. Empower your team members to do great work by establishing clear priorities, performance benchmarks and channels of communication – and resist the urge to micromanage.

3. Make sure employees feel seen.

When it comes to leading virtual teams, remember that there’s a difference between employees feeling happy and feeling engaged. Take the time to connect with your team members, especially during on-boarding, and make sure they feel seen. Not only does this help foster a sense of belonging, but research demonstrates that employees who report feeling “seen” are often more engaged and more productive at work.

This is particularly important when it comes to supporting Generation Z in the workplace, as a 2022 Gallup survey reports that 54% of Gen Z and younger Millennials don’t feel engaged at work, and 68% report high levels of stress – more than any other generation.

4. Lean into differences.

 Organizations thrive when diversity is embraced, but this process is often uncomfortable. Avoiding discomfort is human nature, but – when it comes to leading teams, it’s essential to increase the capacity for discomfort in the pursuit of improving. Different cultures, different generations and different voices all have unique and valuable experiences. It’s essential to create space for those to be heard.

When organizations develop the habit of ignoring or stamping down discomfort, this can cause problems to get brushed away instead of resolved. For virtual leaders, this is even more important as virtual communication is arguably even harder to ‘get right’ and it can be easier to ignore conflict when people are working remotely.

This is why it’s important to embrace differences within the workplace; something being different doesn’t mean it’s wrong, it just means it’s different. A Gen-Z coworker might use frequent emojis, for example, but one survey found that things like paragraph spacing, correct spelling, subject lines and email signatures were all rated as more important than the use of emojis when it comes to writing professional emails. Bottom line, good, clear communication is important – in all formats. Good communication bridges differences and unites people in meaningful and engaging ways and inspires people to do good work.

Closing Thoughts

While things like where we do work and how we communicate have changed significantly over the last few years, it’s essential to recognize that the foundations of excellent leadership with meaningful connection have not. Whether you are leading in a hybrid work environment or returning to the office, cultivating healthy, psychologically safe workplaces should remain a top priority to help both organizations and their employees thrive.

By Michele Rau, Director of HR at Vaco Holdings