The necessity of intentional leadership in the hybrid workplace
16th March 2021
It is largely agreed throughout the industry that working from home is a part of the workplace that cannot be peeled back and that a hybrid workplace is here to stay.
Organisations that had not already put flexible work choices in place before the last year have been forced to experiment with the practice, and it has generally worked. Early in the pandemic, collaboration and innovation were smoothly gaining momentum with a deep sense of shared purpose to continue growth and achievement throughout organisations.
However, now more than a year into the ‘great experiment’, some of that collective purpose is starting to wane.
Knowledge workers are telling us that they want to go back into the office, but not full time.
“1 in 2 people won’t return to jobs that don’t offer remote work after COVID-19.”
— Owl Labs
They enjoy the extra personal time that was taken up by a commute; they like going for a run at lunch, taking a walk outside, or sitting down to help kids with their homework.
So, what does this mean for leaders?
The days of dropping in to give your team an inspirational chat or a have a quick conversation near the water cooler may be over. Serendipitous collaboration and idea sharing may be more challenging as the hybrid workplace becomes common place. Social capital that leaders and managers have spent time building will soon run out as natural attrition occurs throughout different organisations. Mentoring of younger staff members will be more challenging as opportunities to engage them in the hallway are reduced. The leaders of tomorrow are going to need to perform differently as will our workplaces.
Consider the virtual world and why it was generally successful this past year. Collaboration and interaction can happen virtually; however it is scientifically proven that people need to see and interact with people face to face. The current corporate climate is running on banked social capital that has been stored over years of working with people face to face.
This social capital is running out while the knowledge worker continues to be shuttered in their homes.
Certain aspects of human interaction cannot be replicated virtually, as it requires a physical connection.
“When people connect - through a handshake or a pat on the back - oxytocin is released, promoting feelings of trust and facilitating greater collaboration… Increased social contact at work not only gives our mood a boost; but our productivity.”
— Lisa Evans, Fast Company
The hybrid workplace is here to stay, but how then will serendipitous collaboration and innovation thrive when everyone is designing their own day?
In comes the rise of the intentional leader. The hybrid workplace needs a new type of leader who has manager esc qualities, all the previous leadership qualities, and new skills that were previously not required. There is a myriad of additional skills that intentional leaders will need to excel at, but here are the top three:
1 Create opportunities for serendipitous interaction
Previously when kicking off a new initiative for the organization, leaders would work with others leaders who had necessary resources, then they would call a cross-functional meeting to introduce the initiative. People would meet, follow the agenda, agree timelines and as the meeting ended, the real connecting would begin. People naturally strike up a conversation about themselves and their lives, creating connections and finding common ground to build a relationship outside of the business objectives. We have lost this in the virtual world because people cannot have an “after” conversation or feel the connection that is created in person. The intentional leader needs to find ways to create this opportunity.
Intentional leaders will be responsible for thinking about who is in the office and when at a macro level. It isn’t just about their internal team, but also about other departments where innovation depends on cross collaborative interaction. Leaders will need to engage each other even more than before. Agreement will be necessary across different departments to ensure that serendipitous interaction can happen between knowledge workers in different sections of the organisation. The open office brought about knowledge sharing between unlikely counterparts and sped up innovation. Balance needs to be found between the new hybrid workplace and the need for innovation. Some of it can be created through organisations’ social channels and virtual events, but it cannot be relied on as the sole solution. Leaders will need to create the opportunities.
Intentional leaders will need to be mindful of schedules; who is in the office when; and choosing which interactions can be done via teams, slack, virtual meetings or in person meetings, etc. Now that employees will have more choice, intentional leaders will need to help employees understand when it is appropriate to dial in and when it is not. We might think that this is self-evident, and people can make those judgements for themselves, but there will need to be intentional thought from leadership about setting these norms, the working protocols that go with it and the overall culture. Is it developed at an organisational level? Department level? Sub-committee level? Organisations need to set time aside to think about how their culture will change and then be intentional about seeing it manifest.
2 Accept that change is constant and we will continue to experience it at a rapid rate
Change is here to stay. Some of the changes we experience will be small. Others will be enormous like changes experienced at the start of the pandemic. Either way the intentional leader needs to be prepared for frequent change. They need a solid approach to managing change within their organisation. They need to understand and support employees as they move through the change curve, no matter how big or small the changes are. Leaders need to consider what is changing in the organisation and how their employees are impacted by those changes to positively support engagement. Leaders should recognise whether change engagement is progressing in the right way for their knowledge workers and not negatively impacting the organisational culture and morale. They will need support to be inspired with fresh ideas for managing the change. They need assistance in managing change much like other organisational projects are managed. Change management needs to become integral to everyday management of business objectives, initiatives, projects, meetings and one-to-one interaction.
All leaders will need to adapt and change their leadership style. It is a tall order and one that must be addressed quickly to stay ahead of the game. Leaders will need to look internally and ask themselves if they have the capacity and skills to promote change from within or if the change ahead needs external support. Additionally, leaders may need training on how to be an effective change agent within their circle of influence. This will be critical to the growth of organisations, individual leaders and employees.
3 Be mindful about cultivating new talent within the organisation
This may seem overly obvious. An inherent part of being a leader in cultivating the talent that works for you. However, in the hybrid workplace the newer talent may lose the chance to learn from leaders across the organisation through osmosis because those leaders are working from home more. It is easy to forget about inviting the new talent to certain meetings where they don’t play a role in the outcome. It is the “Out of Sight Out of Mind” syndrome. Leaders may also lose insight into amazing new talent in other parts of the organisation simply because their schedules are different. Younger generations or new talent with outside perspectives are often at the heart of innovation.
The intentional leader will need to be mindful about how and when they connect with new talent. They will need to work with their direct reports to ensure they have access to the new and upcoming leaders throughout the organisation. Opportunities will need to be created with this diverse set of knowledge workers for leaders to understand where strength and opportunities lie. The virtual meeting cannot be relied upon to create these opportunities in the same way face to face meetings did in the past. Everyone will need to help create these opportunities within their departments and across the organisation. Leaders need to ensure they are seeking to learn about the new talent in the organisation versus waiting to happen upon them in the hallways of the office or in a face-to-face meeting.
The hybrid workplace is here to stay. Leaders need a new skill set to continue to be effective and it has become evident that change is coming fast and consistently. We need to ask ourselves if the leaders of today and tomorrow have the right skillset to manage in the new environment where we cannot rely on serendipity, but must mindfully create opportunity for learning, growth, and innovation. Employee engagement needs to be mindful and at the forefront of our minds as we plan our days and the interaction protocols of our organisation in the new hybrid workplace.