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ANALYSIS: Leaders, are you ready for the shift to a hybrid workforce? Probably not, research says.

That’s worrisome because after the pandemic-spurred shift to remote work in the past year, most employees and employers expect staff will transition to working partially at home and partially in the office.

Research on Australian employees by Redback Connect found that after social restrictions lift, 28 percent of respondents want to work from home full time, 39 percent seek to work from home one to two days a week and 20 percent expect to be remote three to four days a week.

The leadership challenge

Regardless of what the hybrid team will look like, leadership is facing a challenge like never before, because employees are waking up to the reality that work is what we do, not where we go.

While leaders of multinational organizations may have been leading hybrid teams for many years, most leaders have never done this before.

This is a new challenge facing many business managers, and the reality is that most are not equipped to deal with it.

Research by Terminal, an online platform that helps companies build remote technology teams, shows that most leaders are tackling the challenges of remote work for the first time, with 77 percent reporting that they’ve never managed a fully remote team and 89 percent having never managed a partially remote team.

It’s clear from those statistics that many managers will struggle to lead a team with whom they may not have direct, in-person contact. Many managers still measure performance by the hours a person spends in the office, as opposed to delivery of outcomes.

Micromanagement, employee monitoring

Micromanagement also continues to be pervasive, even though it’s more difficult to conduct in a virtual environment — and even more ill advised.

This is just Orwellian behavior by managers who aren’t trained to lead in such environments.

The magnitude of the situation is evident from global research by TOP10VPN, an online provider of reviews of virtual private networks. The increase in demand for employee-surveillance software highlights many leaders’ inability to operate in this new territory.

Global demand for employee monitoring software increased 87 percent in April 2020 compared with the monthly average prior to the pandemic. In May 2020, it increased by 71 percent versus pre-pandemic levels.

Employers are now using software to record every keystroke made on a computer, track the location of mobile employees, take screenshots of employees’ screens and make video recordings, monitor internet usage and spy on mobile devices. The list goes on.

While the status display on most communication and collaboration platforms was used in the past to provide contacts with more detail about the whereabouts and availability of the user, it is now being used as an activity-monitoring tool.

Rather than informing a manager that you are in a meeting, at lunch or away from your desk — and allowing them decide how best to contact you — it now implicitly raises the question, “Why are you not at your desk?”

Some employees, angered by these attempts at micromanagement, are striking back by gaming the system with such strategies as placing weights and vibrating toys on keyboards to simulate activity.

Apart from security reasons, I can’t think of one reason remote employees need to be monitored. I even tapped Google search to see if others found any reasonable justification for it. The overwhelming search result cited “improving employee productivity” as the main reason for surveilling remote staff.

Seriously? How do continuous keystrokes for eight hours indicate any level of productivity?

Let’s call this out for what it is: leadership failure.

While there are many factors that will have to be dealt with in our hybrid world such as reimagining office space, policies, logistics, security and technology, all these factors make it clear that a new style of leadership is paramount.

Much guidance is incomplete

To be sure, there is a plethora of guidance out there on leading remote, hybrid, distributed or virtual teams.

Unfortunately, much, if not most of it, does not encompass all that is needed for leaders to be effective and to lead hybrid teams that are healthy, engaged, motivated and high performers.

What is really frustrating is the number of articles and blogs being written now that talk about the “new” leadership traits needed to lead the hybrid team.

The fact is that they are not new, but contributors feel that because of the pandemic, we can take the old and package it as something new. These are two real examples.

When leading a remote team, leaders should say:
“What do you think?”
“Thank you”

How to maintain employee motivation when they are remote:
Set clear goals
Provide feedback
Celebrate and recognize
Foster connection

Guess what — these are things leaders should be doing anyway.

While there are important aspects of leadership, such as communication and listening, that should always have been in place, they are elevated to a different level when teams are working from different locations. Still, the commentary I see  fails to help leaders do those things more effectively with a remote or hybrid workforce.

Modeling skills and competencies

To increase the awareness of the need for different leadership, I have created the model below for leading hybrid teams, and I will be exploring this in more detail in coming articles.

All these skills, traits, capabilities and competencies are needed to lead hybrid teams and ensure they are happy and productive.

Leadership competencies that should already be in place, such as communication and collaboration, are included in the model, as they need to undergo fundamental change to be effective in a hybrid environment.

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The bottom line is that managers who do not recognize that they do not currently have the skills to lead hybrid teams are putting their team and the organization at risk.

The leaders of the future are those who embrace the future of work, recognize the new challenges it brings and are prepared to bridge the gap between where they are today to where they need to be — however far that may be.

Organizational survival is dependent upon leaders who have the competencies to navigate the hybrid model of work, and the current imperative is equipping them to meet the challenge.

Karen Ferris is an organizational change-management consultant based in Melbourne, Australia. Her opinions are her own.

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