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Hybrid Management is the New Curriculum

Hybrid Work Endures…

It was not that long ago when employees across industries were working in offices during standard hours of the day, and yet our lives have fundamentally changed over the span of a few years. The Covid-19 pandemic disrupted our relationship with work in many ways, but seemingly overnight, many companies pivoted to a fully remote working model and the defined hours of the workday became gradually less rigid. As we begin to look ahead beyond the pandemic, many have settled into an awkward middle ground: hybrid work.

If pre-pandemic office life and fully remote Covid-19 sheltering reflected “black and white” frameworks, we are now attempting to navigate seemingly infinite shades of gray through various hybrid arrangements. Some employees work in the office on some days. “Work hours” are unclear. For many, uncertainty is the only constant. While some CEOs are pushing for a full return to the office, recent data suggests we are reaching an impasse. Although the exact details are hard to predict, it appears that some degree of hybrid work is here to stay.

The Added Complexity for Managers…

While some enterprise leaders and the broader workforce engage in an implicit negotiation, managers are dealing with the reality day-to-day. As usual, drastic changes in the workplace translate to a new curriculum for leaders, with glaring skills gaps revealed overnight. Managers historically led their direct reports with a simple focus on WHAT needed to be done to achieve results. In recent decades, a more servant and humanistic style of leadership became the expected norm; leaders had to calibrate WHAT needed to be done with a distinct sense of WHO was doing it. Management now requires an intentional focus on each employee, and the best leaders tailor their style to support individuals in a manner that leverages their unique capabilities. Naturally, this was a more complex ask of leaders versus the prior “one-size-fits-all” model, yet many have answered the call.

Now enter hybrid work, a “new normal” essentially demanding that managers earn their “Ph.D. in Leadership.” Hybrid management further amplifies the nuance and details required to comprehend individual employees, layering in complex decisions around both WHERE and WHEN work gets done. In a hybrid world, what once were static fundamentals of the workplace are now choices with significant implications.

Imagine leading a 29-year-old software engineer who you know is deeply introverted but motivated by external validation. Their job requires equal parts “focus time” and connectivity with other developers. They have an effective home office but are relatively junior in their career and lack exposure to other leaders who will ultimately impact their advancement. Now consider this is but one of ten direct reports, spanning several different roles, and each reflecting a different combination of these variables. What is the best policy to achieve success for this team? To what degree does a single policy even address this challenge? And how does a leader unearth these details for each direct report to make informed decisions? Hybrid work has exponentially increased the complexity for managers. This “Leadership Doctorate” mandates a triangulation of the WHO, WHERE, and WHEN to best achieve the WHAT across an entire team, and the comprehensive exam is happening in real time.

“As their leaders grow more comfortable with [hybrid work] and are supported to succeed, companies will gain competitive advantage…”

Temporary Pain or New Curriculum?

Simply put, this is hard. Many CEOs will continue to advocate for a more “black and white” arrangement that resembles the office of the past. They may be seeking more control or simply to relieve their managers of this emergent complexity. However, a surprisingly resilient economy, robust job market, and widespread employee preferences will continue to create headwinds. We are at a crossroads where senior executives are faced with a choice. On one hand, some will view hybrid work as a trend and work to influence a policy shift toward simpler models. On the other hand, some leaders will view hybrid management as a new competency to master. As their leaders grow more comfortable with this arrangement and are appropriately supported to succeed, they will gain a competitive advantage (e.g., increased performance, engagement, and retention). In this scenario, hybrid work will simply become “work,” and managers will continue to evolve to meet new expectations. For those either struggling through the current challenge or betting on their managers adapting to the future of work, we recommend these three tips to better lead hybrid teams:

1. Think critically about each role and what is required for success. Identifying the relative need for focus time, productivity, connectivity, and innovation can best predict working arrangements that optimize results.

2. Use behavioral science diagnostics to understand employee styles and preferences. Specific working arrangements may enhance or disengage your team depending on their personality, but this is all guesswork without feedback through data-driven insights. In this complex reality, success will not occur randomly.

3. Whether in the office or virtually, apply a consistent cadence of check-ins to uncover the dynamic needs of your teams. Use these quick 1:1 conversations to explore contextual information such as home office barriers (e.g., technology gaps), commuting issues, and networking needs within the organization. These details will better inform the support managers must provide in hybrid arrangements.

Jacob is an industrial-organizational psychologist specializing in talent advisory at the senior executive level. Throughout his career, he has partnered closely with clients of high-performing organizations in executive assessment, leadership development, team effectiveness, organizational culture transformation, and diversity, equity, inclusion,…

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