Until recently, companies were discussing a return to the workplace. That conversation didn’t last long. Quickly, the question became: What does your hybrid work model look like?
During the height of COVID-19, our research identified that both leaders and employees embraced new work models: 70% of survey participants reported that both leadership and employees would adopt working from anywhere all or most of the time. But the jury is still out on the hybrid model. And nothing will kill the promise of work-from-anywhere faster than the failure of individuals and teams to maintain productivity.
To make hybrid work, you must manage performance effectively. Proactive learning organizations should prioritize three skills that support managers to maintain engaged, productive employees who deliver outstanding performance from anywhere:
1. Creating psychological safety;
2. Giving accurate, developmental feedback; and
3. Managing biases.
Creating Psychological Safety
Before talking about coaching or development, there must exist a conducive environment for performance and growth.
Managing performance, giving feedback, and supporting a team member’s development through coaching requires a good relationship. When there isn’t proximity, managers need to take additional efforts to create personal connections that make people feel safe to voice opinions and bring their best selves to work. Managers who want team members to grow will intentionally build relationships of trust.
A phenomenon of the pandemic was that people maintained productivity — without fatigue and burnout. If hybrid is to work as a long-term solution, leaders will need to create environments where employees can be honest about their boundaries. It takes trust to speak up and say enough.
Giving Accurate Feedback
During COVID, there was empathy if things slipped between the cracks. Outside of the pandemic, past performance expectations will return. Ensuring the performance of hybrid workers requires re-thinking how to deliver feedback.
First, leaders need to recognize that there will be fewer random feedback moments. Feedback must be more intentional. Leaders must schedule structured, purposeful feedback sessions. Further, while feedback is typically encouraged in the moment, in the case of a hybrid worker, leaders need a framework for deciding whether to give virtual feedback immediately or withhold feedback until the next in-person meeting.
Second, diagnosing a performance issue (a prerequisite to feedback) is a greater challenge in a virtual environment because there are fewer opportunities to observe employees. Managers must work harder to understand what’s getting in the way of high performance. The best learning organizations teach performance assessment in (or before) feedback and coaching skills training.
Next, the use of feedback models must increase. There are many models that leaders can use to practice articulating performance issues. A simple model helps overcome the risk of leaders, giving less feedback because of remote working. Feedback is always difficult, and leaders often shy away from it. But they are likely to be even more reluctant if they feel more likely to get it wrong because they are virtual. A reliable model can build competence and confidence.
Finally, leaders need to learn the importance of feedback follow-up — and have a process for it. Previously, after feedback, things may have felt awkward, but leaders and employees would run into each other in the corridor, at a meeting, in the cafe. Things would normalize. That won’t happen with the same frequency. So even when giving feedback in person, leaders should think: How am I going to follow up?
Managing Biases Better
In the context of COVID-19, amidst school closures, working from the kitchen table, health challenges and more, leaders rose to the occasion, finding empathy and bringing humanity to their leadership.
But the future will be different. Hybrid is a choice. A lifestyle. And that fact creates a challenge, if it bumps against a leader’s performance mindset. But without specific training and intention, it will be easy in the virtual or hybrid environment for leaders to bring their biases about how work should be done. Maybe a leader assumes that if they can’t see the employees, they’re not working. Perhaps they believe that a team member who opts for hybrid is less committed or ambitious. Maybe it’s a bias around the fact that children will return from school during the workday. Your training approach must ensure leaders make a conscious effort to check their biases for a fair assessment, feedback and subsequent coaching.
Train. And Re-train
The hybrid environment may prove to be trickier than leaders think. It will have many of the disadvantages of the past year — without the compassion and understanding that existed during the pandemic.
And yet, overwhelmingly, employees want this flexibility. If hybrid is to work in the long term, leaders will need to manage performance. In a hybrid world, creating psychological safety, providing developmental feedback under complex circumstances and doubling down on bias must be both parts of the curriculum and integrated daily via performance support systems.
The following best practices are emerging across companies and industries to build these three capabilities:
- (Re-)train leaders at all levels. Some training, for example, on how to give feedback or unconscious bias, often coincides with leaders being first-time managers. Today, there are new rules and a context that is changing rapidly. So, training — or re-training — is necessary at all levels.
- Teach performance. Training must include helping leaders understand what contributes to performance and how to diagnose issues, including the skills to collect performance data points from multiple sources. Coach leaders to focus on what matters and not on points of marginal relevance.
- Cultivate the right mindset. Train managers to understand that their perspectives start from assumptions and help them “de-bias,” having them examine their assumptions and focus on performance. Leaders will glimpse into the lifestyle of employees, and that must be judgement-free.
- New habits for the new work context. Managers need to appreciate that being remote can be more challenging, but simple practices can help. For example, leveraging technology to show when you are available or inviting reactions in harder-to-read remote environments are simple strategies leaders can adopt to build the right environment.
- Lean into complexity. Leaders don’t build psychological safety with one offsite. They don’t guarantee the accuracy of performance assessment with one unconscious bias training. Some feedback is likely to fall flat, even if you have taught the model well, especially working remotely. So, be honest with leaders about the complexity of hybrid and the need to continuously build these skills.
- Beware the double-edged sword of technology. Training must cover the opportunities and risks of technology. Leaders can now send team members into breakouts at the click of a button. They can practice inclusive leadership with an instant message in the chat when a team member demonstrates behavior they want to encourage. But technology can also be limiting. The idea is to understand the employee experience with myriad technology solutions available and monitor the effectiveness of different approaches.
Workers have a huge potential to increase their job satisfaction by being hybrid: time saved, costs avoided, flexibility enhanced. And it offers organizational benefits like access to talent and reduced overhead costs. But if productivity falls, through a failure to maintain performance, employee burnout or suspicions and misconceptions about worker commitment, the hybrid experiment — which offers so much potential — will fail. Make sure it doesn’t. Equip leaders to lead in a hybrid world.