As we pass the two-year anniversary of the COVID workplace shutdown, it seems safe to assume that learning professionals have been given an adequate amount of time to adjust their organizations’ leadership development programs to address the new reality of leading in today’s hybrid work environment. Yet, many training and development teams, and the leaders they work for, may be stuck in pre-pandemic thinking, hesitating to alter or update long-standing talent management programs. “What worked before, will work now,” they tell themselves, “We will be back to normal soon.”

To a degree, they are right. Leaders have always needed to learn and adopt the fundamental practices that are the foundation of well-functioning leadership programs.

However, the new hybrid workplace has brought unforeseen challenges unlike any experienced since the modern workplace emerged. Leaders are also adjusting to a hybrid workforce that is brimming with a newfound zeal for flexibility, well-being, socially responsible practices and aligning to a strong corporate mission.

Inherent in the complexity of today’s hybrid workplace are five paradoxes. Understanding these paradoxes will provide training and development professionals new insight into the valuable unintended consequences — or opportunities — resulting from the pandemic. These perspectives will provide a new base of knowledge from which training and development staff can engage with leaders in meaningful conversations about the differences between leading in the past and leading in the “new normal” work environment.

It is time to let go, embrace a new talent management framework, and optimize all that a hybrid organization, powered by new technology, management frameworks and interpersonal expectations can offer.

Paradox 1: People skills become even more important when in-person connection is less frequent.

Rare are the opportunities for a leader to close their office door, look an employee in the eye and have a conversation. The non-verbal cues that were easy to spot in an office environment are much harder to surface during a phone call or video conference. Leading in the virtual environment requires more focused attention on reading employees’ moods and picking up clues that may indicate a looming problem. Leaders need to proactively create opportunities for meaningful interactions. No matter where they work, people still want and need connection, and even more so when they are engaging with colleagues who are not in the same physical location. Figuring out how to replace the casual “water cooler talk,” motivate an employee, sense when something is amiss and show the caring and compassion today’s workforce expects — all from a distance — requires significant upskilling.

To embrace this paradox, consider teaching the following leadership skills: emotional intelligence, communication, and listening.

Paradox 2: The less you see your employees, the more you can trust them.

While there may be familiar comfort in the buzz of a busy office, it’s a false comfort. Even when everyone is present and accounted for, leaders can’t really know what their people are doing all day. When their teams work alternative schedules or from remote locations, leaders are forced to transition their productivity measure from the physical indicators of “busy-ness” to work output.

When a baseline of agreed-upon productivity indicators is in place, leaders can trust the employees that consistently deliver without the need to constantly watch over them. Once trust is extended, leaders can easily test that trust by extending more autonomy. Keeping an eye on output will quickly show leaders if the trust is warranted. As trust is given, empowerment and engagement typically follow.

Leaders who grew up with the paradigm that seeing someone at their desk is the only way to know work is being done may find this challenging to accept. It is liberating and empowering for both the person receiving trust and the one giving it. Focusing on results (and allowing for flexibility in how an employee achieved them) will create stronger and more productive organizations.

To embrace this paradox, consider teaching the following leadership skills:

    • Goal setting.
    • Accountability.
    • Performance management.
    • Trust-based leadership.

Paradox 3: The more flexible work schedules become, the more leaders need to provide structure.

Alternative schedules and work-anywhere policies can result in a chaotic dynamic. When people work at different times in different places with different time zones, the procedures and systems that were once relied upon to aid productivity, such as a metrics bulletin board or daily stand-up meeting, break down.

To combat this disorder, leaders need to create clear connection points, systems and pathways for people to collaborate, solve problems and get work done. With practice, leaders can effectively use virtual meetings to build relationships, share and process information and make decisions. They can do project planning, provide clarity around deadlines, and ensure resource and contingency plans are in place.

The range of collaborative technology tools keep teams connected while allowing individuals to work in a way that is productive for them. When the right underlying systems are in place and expectations for their utilization are clearly communicated, employees will thrive in the new, soon-to-be-familiar structure.

To embrace this paradox, consider teaching the following leadership skills:

    • Feedback.
    • Execution.
    • Courageous leadership.

Paradox 4: The more we are separated by physical distance, the more we’re inclined to create closer connections that are far away.

Necessity has flipped the use of virtual meetings from an infrequent occurrence used to report out on activities in a loose committee format to the primary vehicle to work with your core team to problem-solve, action-plan, provide feedback and make important business decisions. Expanding the paradigm that meetings don’t have to be confined to a physical conference room made it easier to involve colleagues in different geographies in real-time.

More sophisticated conferencing, communication and collaboration systems make the world smaller. Through video-on meeting etiquette, employees can see non-verbal behavior, stay engaged and help people feel more closely connected than our past phone conference line would allow. It’s possible to have the same level of connection and frequency of communication with a worker halfway around the world as with the co-worker that previously shared a cubical wall. We can equally spend time with anyone, anywhere — avoiding the trap of gravitating to others like us or near us.

To embrace this paradox, consider teaching the following leadership skills:

    • Understanding unconscious bias.
    • Motivation and personality styles.
    • Inclusion and influence.

Paradox 5: The more employees work from home to manage work-life stress, the more they may work and the more stressed they can become.

While many workers expected that working from home would provide a much-needed relief from work-life conflict, the exact opposite proved to be true for some. Setting boundaries for working is harder when your living space is also your office. Home schooling children, uncertainty about health risks, learning new work skills and other life stressors have accelerated in the last 24 months.

Employee burnout has reached unprecedented levels. Isolation, overwork and other personal stresses can sideline employees at all levels as well as senior leaders. Creating a safe space and time for surfacing well-being issues is key. Managers need to be equipped to assess an employee’s level of work stress and engagement and have more personal coaching conversations to help an employee find work-life alignment. The days of managers sending someone to human resources so they can avoid a delicate “personal conversation,” have passed. If organizations want to attract and retain top talent, their employees need to feel cared for and supported in all aspects of their life.

To embrace this paradox, consider teaching the following leadership skills:

    • Mindfulness.
    • Resilience.
    • Managing burnout.

Moving Forward

These paradoxes highlight the natural tensions that exist in our new ways of working and offers a fresh perspective for thinking about what’s needed from leaders to make the hybrid workplace successful. Choose the paradox that describes your organizational situation and use it to gain some inertia and buy-in for change. Once understood in the context of their organization, learning and development professionals can modify existing leadership development programs or create new ones that help leaders manage these dualities and develop the skills and behaviors that are now required.

The workplace has changed. Leadership development programs must respond accordingly.