Service: Business strategy 

Topic: Coronavirus 

Leadership in the new hybrid working environment

By Richard Kleiner

15 Dec 2021

I recently attended a conference hosted by one of the larger recruitment consultants and a poll was taken to ascertain how many organisations in attendance at the conference had changed to a hybrid working model.

It is a fact that some companies, even before the pandemic and the consequential lockdowns that followed, already had a strategy that emphasised remote working. But based on the organisations in attendance at the conference, these firms only represented 5% of the total, while the majority of us, including my own firm, indicated that they are now embracing a hybrid model that mixes remote working with some in-person, office-based work. And this new hybrid way of working clearly creates a new challenge to leadership.

During lockdown, leaders relied on one set of skills to engage their teams equally and prioritised virtual communication as well as the use of many online collaboration tools. However, when some employees are in attendance at the office whilst others are working remotely it can create a new set of management challenges.

There's been quite a lot of press coverage about the lack of visibility of 'remote' employees. And indeed, this lack of visibility can make it difficult to determine which employees might be struggling, who is thriving, and who is ready for a new assignment. Consequently, in this new hybrid environment, leaders will need to find more flexible and adaptive ways to encourage effective communication and collaboration in the widest sense.

According to a survey in early 2021, conducted by the Big 4 accountancy firms, while more than half (55%) of employees said they preferred to work remotely at least three days a week, 68% of leaders said they wanted their employees in the office at least 3 days a week. Such a disconnect could put employers and organisations at risk of losing talent to companies that embrace a more flexible work arrangement. Many leaders find that the “trust gap” is difficult to bridge because they don’t know how to effectively monitor their people from afar, and equate an empty desk with the assumption that an employee isn't working.

The Harvard Business Review recently interviewed some leaders about their experiences in managing the recovery from the pandemic, and highlighted three themes that emerged from these discussions, as follows:

The unexpected high points brought on by the crisis are waning: Even though it is an overstretch to compare the emotions of the recovery phase to post-traumatic stress disorder there are similarities. One of the most common reactions from soldiers returning from battle is that everyday life seems absurdly inconsequential and insignificant compared to the combat situations they have left behind.
The unresolved tangle of emotions: Leaders reported that, during the crisis, they learned much about themselves and their closest colleagues. Who rises to the occasion, who loses faith, who supports, who snaps, who dares, who falls silent – and how these behaviours evolved as the crisis unfolded.

The burden of the work ahead: It is clearly dawning on leaders and their teams that the lockdown phase was in fact just the acute part of the crisis. There now is a need to engage with more profound and adaptive challenges in how businesses are led in the future.
 I believe that every organisation, whilst having a mission or vision, also needs to have a purpose. A purpose needs to fit in with the philosophies and values that the organisation should be embracing and should be relevant so that everybody within the business can feel that their work and interactions, both internally and externally, meet the purpose, almost on a daily basis.

Crisis leadership can be a double-edged sword. The same skills and reaction patterns that allow a leader to perform well in an emergency may become destructive when that same leader tries to return to a relatively normal existence. Constant watchfulness can generate tension and anxiety amongst team members and therefore there is a need for continued visibility, purposeful reorientation, and sustained attention to detail.

However, the leadership approach needs to change. Whilst in the emergency phase, leaders moved to the front line and fought the fires, now that we are beyond the emergency phase, leaders need to step back and contain the emotional issues of their teams. In the recovery phase, leaders must now strike a new balance between guiding a smooth return to some degree of normality whilst keeping up the pressure to renew and rethink the future.

In establishing new development routines, it is important that leaders and their teams make more efficient use of the interactions they have especially when in face-to-face situations. Before the pandemic, many meetings dragged on simply because the attendees did not have the communication tools to explain matters in brief. That behaviour is no longer acceptable, especially from leaders. Leaders and their teams now need to commit to a schedule to stay focused and recognise when it is time to move on.

I would like to conclude this article by setting out some traits that I believe leaders need to embrace for the post Covid-19 workplace and these are as follows:

1.  Candour (or Transparency)

Candour is often defined as honesty but it must be without ambiguity. Whilst honesty has always been an important leadership trait, at this time it requires another level and degree, which is where candour comes in. In the post Covid-19 workplace where a climate of anxiety and cynicism can exist, the best antidote is candour. People respond so much better to the known (certainty), even when it contains bad news, rather than the unknown which can lead to even more anxiety - and in worse-case scenarios can be downright irresponsible.

2.  Empathy

This is an essential trait in the post-Covid-19 workplace. For leaders who are not naturally empathetic, they need to surround themselves with others who can help fill that gap, especially as insensitive responses or decisions can have adverse (even tragic) consequences.

 3. Managing hybrid teams

One of the positive consequences of remote working is that for many organisations they have been able to become more flexible and, at the same time, reduce costs and create efficiencies by having a virtual working infrastructure. This includes many employees now being accustomed to reducing their commute expenditure and spending additional quality time with family. Managing a hybrid working practice requires a shift in mindset, and even in the approach to day-to-day operations. It still remains extremely important that leaders bring their virtual teams together regularly in order to ensure that workstreams remain focused and relevant.

 4. Flexibility and adaptability

Leaders need to continue with their flexible and adaptable approach that would have been evident during the early days of the pandemic. Those leaders who go back to their 'old ways' or delay changing their approach may experience adverse consequences for their respective businesses, which may include the health and wellbeing of their teams.

 5. Humility

Leaders unfortunately are often expected to know it all and make perfect decisions in every case. However, the truth is they are just as human and as fallible as anyone else and leaders need to ensure that they do not fall victim to making the mistake of pretending to know more than they do or making decisions that rely only on instinct. Humility is a huge asset in such circumstances as it takes a strong leader to respond to a difficult question with “I don’t know but I will find out” or “I know someone who does”.

As an experienced CEO and a non-executive director and strategic business and financial adviser for SMEs, I provide professional and visionary expertise to support and inspire my clients to reach their business goals and effectively manage any challenges they encounter on the way. If you would like to discuss how your business could benefit from my NED and/or financial advisory service please get in touch at rkleiner@geraldedelman.com.

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