Good leadership has always been a moving target. Whether in business, athletics or politics, leaders must constantly respond to the changing conditions around them with attentiveness and purpose. But during the Covid-19 pandemic, colossal changes were flying at leaders from all angles, impacting them just as acutely as those they lead. Naturally, they responded by implementing a patchwork of reactive remote working strategies to ensure business continuity and minimize disturbances.
But now businesses are beginning to reevaluate their strategies, with many planning a return to the office. As they do this, they are exploring the pros and cons of permanent hybrid working arrangements – that is, where employees work flexibly, from home, the office or co-located. As leaders evaluate their options for the road ahead, it can help to take stock of the past year and map out what lessons we have learned about remote working.
Knowledge workers can be just as productive from home, but only for some tasks
When workers were forced to work from home in an almost overnight transition, leaders worried about the potential impacts on productivity. But research has shown that knowledge workers have actually been more productive at home during the pandemic. The change in work environment essentially allowed workers to focus on the individual work that really mattered, spend more time interacting with clients and business partners, and get drawn into fewer large meetings.
But during this time, we also realized some of the downsides of remote working and the experiences that were trickier to replicate virtually. The development of personal connections – one of the core foundations of trust-building in organizations – is more natural in a physical office setting: small talk and interactions give us context about a colleague’s behavior – which helps to foster empathy in the workplace. Moreover, at the outset of the pandemic, the office space typically had a wider array of technologies and tools to enable effective teamwork. Moving forward, to map out the best hybrid set up for their organizations, leaders will need to weigh the pros and cons of office and remote working styles against the various activities undertaken by their workforce and the spaces in which those activities are best executed.
Presence does not equal performance
One study from 2015 showed that in-office employees are more likely to receive a promotion than remote employees. This is partly because when employees are in the office, it is easy for managers to observe their engagement in work and culture – engagement which often informs, whether intentionally or unintentionally, an employee’s performance evaluation. But the remote work experiment of the pandemic has forced us to rethink these types of biases. As we move into a hybrid future, it is critical that leaders decouple performance from presence to ensure fair opportunities for all employees, based solely on their performance and work outputs. They must find strategies to ensure fair evaluation and recognition, regardless of location.
Inclusive virtual collaboration can be a catalyst for innovation
Similar to trust, innovation is born out of interpersonal connection and serendipitous encounters; indeed, whiteboard scribblings and marathon brainstorming sessions have long been the birthplace of industry-altering ideas. However, most of these interactions were done away with during remote work, with innovation taking a blow in many companies.
As we transition into a new normal, one of the most pressing questions for leaders will be how to re-create these spaces and encounters in the virtual world – and to do so in a way that equally values the ideas of remote and office workers. For leaders of hybrid organizations and teams, it will be imperative to establish methods and tools that allow for a more natural flow to hybrid meetings. These could include digital whiteboards and intelligent video systems, which help to stimulate the serendipity and spontaneous innovation of physical meetings in an inclusive manner.
Focus on mental health
The stresses of the pandemic – fear of job loss, balancing home and work life, and disruptions in regular daily routines – have put mental health front and center in organizations. Though many leaders say they have been thriving throughout the past year, their employees have reported higher rates of stress, burnout, and loneliness. So much so, in fact, that 80% of 1,000 U.S. workers surveyed would consider leaving their current position for one that focused more on employee mental health.
To create a sustainable hybrid arrangement, leaders need to be focusing on how they can provide sufficient and equitable mental health support for their employees, whether they are in the office, remote, or on the move. This might mean exploring alternative methods of support that can be accessed from anywhere, such as virtual mental health services. Regardless, an open dialogue on employee mental health should inform whichever route your organization takes. And based on a survey of more than 1,200 employees, 88% of respondents appreciate when their company’s leaders talk about their own mental health. This means leaders can start this dialogue by sharing some of their own struggles.
The future of work is promising for both businesses and workers. But to build resilient and inclusive hybrid organizations, leaders must grow from the challenges of the past year.