W Power 2024

Hybrid leadership: Lessons from a crisis

Like it or not, remote and hybrid work environments are here to stay. Three powerful principles will enable successful hybrid leadership

Published: Apr 2, 2024 11:03:19 AM IST
Updated: Apr 2, 2024 11:16:12 AM IST

Hybrid leadership: Lessons from a crisis Working remotely often entails a blending of work and non-work life, without the constraints of arrival and departure times. Image: Shutterstock

Historically speaking, working together in the same space—what is known as ‘co-located’ work—has been fundamental to maintaining managerial authority and control. The manager’s physical presence, the thinking went, helps to ensure that work is completed and meets standards. Take away co-location, and leaders lose much of their influence.

The COVID-19 pandemic challenged this assumption head-on. Organizations the world over turned to remote work out of necessity; and for many, it went remarkably well. So well, in fact, that we now find ourselves in an era of hybrid work, where the majority of office workers split their time between the workplace and their home office.

Although on paper, it might seem challenging to lead remotely, managers can do so effectively by following a few key principles.  In this article I will present three tactics for driving effective management and employee thriving in a hybrid work environment.

TACTIC 1: Give Employees Greater Autonomy to Do their Work

Office work provides a ‘boundedness’ that remote work does not: there is a time and place for work and the required tools are readily available. But working remotely often entails a blending of work and non-work life, without the constraints of arrival and departure times. With this blending can come divided attention from moment to moment. The solution, then, is to free employees to do their work with fewer requirements to impede them. To that end, here are three recommendations.

Embrace asynchronous work.
Work is often, but not always, interdependent, requiring input from multiple coworkers to achieve a goal. When this is the case, such work has rested on ‘synchronous communication’, which entails real-time communication between two or more people. This also requires that people find a common time in their schedules, complicating accessibility, especially for remote workers, who no longer benefit from the ‘boundedness’ provided by an office.  

One solution is to define, partition or structure work — or a greater portion of it — so that it reduces the dependency on immediate responses from colleagues. Managers can increase employee autonomy by making work more ‘asynchronous’ in two ways. First, they can define precise goals.

The pioneering research of Edwin Locke and Rotman Professor Emeritus Gary Latham shows the benefits of precise (but challenging) goals: They motivate employees to work independently, because they know exactly what is expected of them. George Doran proposed that precise goals can be defined as SMART: specific, measurable, assignable to someone, realistic and time bounded. Goal precision and openness to asynchronous schedules will go a long way in lending greater autonomy to the remote workforce.

Empower remote work. It sounds obvious, but it is necessary for managers to ensure the work in question is remote-friendly. As a starting point, identify whether your employees have the technology required to communicate with coworkers and complete their work; and if not, see what the company can do to make that possible. This is not only about providing equipment (e.g. cameras, headphones, virtual meeting platforms); it is also about ensuring familiarity and comfort with using the technology.

Only selectively call for team meetings.
Team meetings are sometimes a necessity—but not all of them. Prior to the forced shift to remote work, professionals reported spending 31 hours per month in unnecessary meetings, estimated to cost companies about $37 billion. Heavy reliance on in-person meetings and the abysmal value they have in the eyes of many employees suggest they were already used too much prior to the pandemic—perhaps more for management’s reassurance than for any real value to the employees.

Three criteria can be used to identify when to call a team meeting. First, such meetings can be helpful for establishing common ground and ensuring team members view goals in the same way. Whenever a new initiative begins, start with a meeting to clarify what exactly needs to be done, who is responsible for doing it, and by what date. Then, to the extent possible, allow employees to freely do their work with only occasional team check-ins.

Second, consider the complexity of the work involved. The more complex it is, the more benefit people will receive from input from others, and the more teams will require a certain degree of synchronous communication. Consider deliberative bodies such as governance boards, investigative committees or cross-functional teams. Their discussions of strategy, process or discovery often necessitate real-time communication. Reserve team meetings for work that is truly teamwork; and move the rest to subgroups or asynchronous communication.

Finally, consider ‘fluid’ group membership. People often think of teams as unitary constructs composed of specific people, but team membership should actually be defined by what the work requires. For example, virtual meetings should only require attendance from those doing the work being discussed. Managers might be tempted to invite other staff as a way to maintain team morale or keep people in-the-know—but the former can be remedied with optional attendance (or better yet, maintaining morale in other ways) and the latter can be more easily communicated with a group e-mail.

Also read: Remote work and inequality: Lessons for leaders

TACTIC 2: Build Honest Intergroup Relationships

The research on authentic leadership looks at how leaders can create honest relationships with employees that create psychological safety and allow a true expression of the individual. When leading a remote workforce, restricted communication reduces spontaneous opportunities for building honest intergroup relationships. But there are behaviours managers can implement. Here are three principles to embrace.

Address difficult topics directly.
When dealing with difficult issues, meetings serve an important purpose. Acknowledging the event, its consequences for the organization and what leaders are doing about it, can be very reassuring to employees. Silence can indeed be threatening, and with a remote workforce, isolating. Even a remote acknowledgment of the difficult issue is an acknowledgment of reality that makes the communication more authentic.

In the experiences reported to me by interviewees, the COVID-19 crisis necessitated regular meetings. Executives at a popular fast-food chain held weekly meetings with franchisees. With a great deal of uncertainty around whether franchises would remain open, executives found it necessary to communicate with franchisees regularly about changes in strategy and what head office could do to accommodate and support all operations as the business adjusted.
What was striking is how they accomplished this with remote technology: Company executives kept their video cameras on while allowing franchisees to remain on audio only. Under such circumstances, video served not only to control the narrative, but also added a layer of transparency, ultimately strengthening trust in leadership. It could also have had the added benefit, as some research suggests, of encouraging a greater sense of security and commitment to the organization.

Create opportunities for professional growth.
In 2012—well before the pandemic changed everything—a poll conducted with over 11,000 employees in 24 countries showed many believed remote work to be professionally isolating. Fifty per cent felt it could harm their chances of promotion—and some evidence from the era supports this notion, perhaps partly explained by having less face time with the boss.

These issues are enhanced by the growing presence of Millennials in the workforce (people born between 1979 and 1994). Multiple studies show Millennials expect close relationships and frequent feedback from their superiors. As such, a remote Millennial workforce is likely to be particularly concerned with professional growth. Training opportunities are a key opportunity for building relationships with these employees, especially under remote work conditions.

Remote training tools are widely available, and educational institutions that have historically focused on in-person learning experiences have adapted to accommodate remote learning. Educators the world over have expanded their footprint with online learning opportunities for a remote workforce. Organizations and HR executives have long realized the importance of training opportunities, and many already have remote training opportunities in place. What is often missing is how leaders can capitalize on these resources to increase honest intergroup relationships with their workforces.

Leaders will benefit by doing three things. First, make the remote workforce aware of available training opportunities. Second, communicate support for employees to undertake the training. And third, if remote training was not previously available but the leader worked to make it so, communicate what he or she has done.

Express vulnerability. Remote communication, by its very nature, removes much of the human expression that naturally occurs in co-located communication. Leaders can help to personalize their communication by disclosing their personal feelings about significant events. Over the last year or so, reports indicate that leaders in the U.S. have been crying more: In response to recent deaths of others, Democratic and Republican Governors have either cried or acknowledged doing so in public. Although crying has historically been associated with weakness, it appears to create a different tone when it is crying on behalf of others than when crying about a personal outcome, such as losing an election.

A little levity can also help. Accidental appearances or sounds by pets can also humanize a leader. On at least four instances I witnessed during the pandemic, weather forecasters reporting on air from home had their pets appear in their broadcasts, much to the audience’s delight. In two of them, the pets became regular fixtures. Finally, it helps for leaders to allow themselves to make mistakes. It’s okay to leave the microphone muted when you begin to speak; it happens to everyone. At this point, it could be thought of as a moment of entertainment — ‘Count how many times the boss leaves their mic muted!’ — a way your employees can connect and bond with each other.

Also read: Virtual and hybrid teams with shared values perform better

TACTIC 3: Become a Champion of ‘Us’

Remote work can be an isolating experience while simultaneously weakening the primary method by which an organization’s culture is passed on—namely by learning from observing others in the workplace. The study I referred to earlier showed that while 50 per cent found fully remote work to be professionally isolating, it was even worse when it came to social isolation: 62 per cent of respondents indicated they felt socially isolated. This is perhaps especially so for newcomers, interns, foreign nationals and others entering an unfamiliar landscape.

As a result, the remote environment requires leaders to act as cultural champions, not only by defining what culture means to the organization, but also by making it feel real to employees and helping them feel connected to it.

My own research shows that when people feel like they belong, they begin to spontaneously adopt the group’s characteristics and norms. Leaders should therefore give some serious thought as to what characteristics and norms they want employees to adopt. Research shows that intergroup differences such as those between leaders and workers are best managed by having a shared ‘superordinate identity’ to which both belong. Such nested or ‘dual’ identities can help to provide a framework for building morale and socialization. Here are a few recommendations.

Create opportunities for shared identity. Some of what creates a social connection entails employees’ collective impression of the organization—what they define as a sense of ‘us’. Creating that sense of belonging occurs in part by acknowledging the group to which employees belong and labelling it for what it is, creating an ‘ingroup’.

It also helps to occasionally refer to ‘we’ or ‘us’ in group communication settings. The more people focus on ‘us’, the more they will think about the similarities they share with others. It has even been argued that the experience of online work makes people more receptive to the group identities leaders put forth. Such ‘ingroup labelling’ can be complemented by social contact among remote employees.

Put simply, the more support we can signal to each other, by using multiple channels of information, the more connected people will feel. Social connection has a powerful effect on morale and the combination of technology and a promotion of a group identity can facilitate those experiences with a remote workforce.

Encourage an inclusive workforce. Over the last decade, organizations have placed an emphasis on creating diverse workplaces by increasingly focusing on creating inclusion. People sometimes conflate shared membership and social experience with inclusion, but they are different. Whereas shared membership and social experiences can create a sense of belonging and connection to the organization, inclusion refers to broadening that sense of belonging, so that it isn’t limited to certain segments of the population—usually those that have been historically advantaged.

In this regard, remote work allows the leader’s efforts as cultural champion to reach a wider audience. Working remotely empowers employees with some disabilities to work free from the physical constraints of the workplace; and it has the potential to provide those living in remote communities to join organizations they otherwise might not have been able to access, or for those in urban settings to work for companies in more suburban or rural locations while staying close to their local communities.

It is also important for leaders to attend to differences that might reduce feelings of inclusion. For example, in meetings, men speak more often than women and interrupt women more than they do men. Although this research has focused on in-person groups, recent reports suggest that it is also likely to manifest in remote teamwork. Setting expectations of equal talk time, or calling out interruptions when they occur, can help to create a sense of inclusion.
Allow for employee self-expression. For the deepest sense of shared identity—that sense of ‘us’—it helps to establish a context where employees have a chance to personally express themselves. This is especially important in an online environment, which anonymizes people to some degree and reduces expressiveness. As a result, it helps for leaders to actively encourage expressiveness. For example, when meeting with employees, it may help to encourage disclosure, to ask them about their lives and listen to what they have to say.

Consider the case of a lawyer, who after repeatedly receiving no response from a co-worker, found out that the coworker, who had been hired three months before the start of the pandemic, not only had to contend with a new workplace, but now a newly remote one, as well as challenges at home. In my contact’s recounting of his personally checking in with the co-worker, in the moment, you could hear the frustration vanish.

Such check-ins can help leaders better understand their employee and give that employee voice. If employees appear reticent to open up, it can help to share a little about how the leader’s own adjustment is going in order to get them to share in return. Such personal disclosure can license people to share their personal thoughts, feelings and concerns.

Finally, there are many ways to be creatively expressive in remote work. Emojis, or other kinds of built-in expressions in the conferencing technology, tell a visual story and can be used to create a more impactful expression of emotion rather than one that would otherwise resort to text-based expressions of ‘I’m happy’. Personalized emojis, such as Apple’s Animoji or Bitmoji, take it one step further, embedding self-defined likenesses of the sender into those images. It may not be appropriate to engage in such communication with strangers, but among teammates, it can create a sense of levity and shared connection.

In closing

Remote work environments are giving leaders an opportunity to think about more effective ways to lead. As indicated herein, providing employees with greater autonomy, building authentic intergroup relationships and harnessing the power of shared group identity are three powerful means by which ‘voluntary compliance’—which will always be required of employees, whether they are co-located or remote—can be enhanced.

Geoffrey Leonardelli is an Associate Professor of Organizational Behaviour at the Rotman School of Management. This is an excerpt from his paper, “Lessons from a Crisis: Identity as a Means of Leading Remote Workforces Effectively”, which was published in the journal Organizational Dynamics.

[This article has been reprinted, with permission, from Rotman Management, the magazine of the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management]