IAS’ Jessica Miles On Leadership In A Hybrid Workplace

IAS’ Jessica Miles On Leadership In A Hybrid Workplace

It is 2019, the year before the world changed. I’m a good number of years into my career, and I finally feel I’ve found the right fit. I work for a great company surrounded by excellent team members and feel supported by IAS leadership in my life and career decisions. Some would say that I am feeling pretty chuffed.

On a particular morning (one of the five mornings I religiously head into the city), I walk into my swanky office building with its shiny floors and more than ten lifts. I select my level, and I’m directed to lift “E”. Eventually (and it did take some time, but don’t all lifts in important buildings take time?), I get into the lift, shuffle to the back so that every possible person can cram into the elevator (what did they say the max number of people was for this lift?) and then we’re off.

Once I reach my level, I squeeze my way out with a few “sorry!” along the way and exit onto my corporate floor. Buzzing my access pass, I enter the glass door of my office, with a kitchenette in the corner, a bunch of desks and a few meeting rooms and take my place at my desk. A couple of plants sit near my desk, adding colour to the corporate feel. Soon, my colleague rushes in, slightly dishevelled. She mumbles something about her baby being sick and her being caught in traffic. Then with a big sigh, she collapses in her seat, takes her laptop out and tiredly starts flicking through her emails. I shake my head. I don’t know how I’ll do it when I’m a mum.

Fast forward to today. Over two years of lockdowns and a pandemic have resulted in new challenges and a new appreciation for the workplace. Now in a leadership role, it falls on me to shape the working environment that drives employee engagement and builds an ‘optimised’ work and hybrid culture.

Hybrid work environments provide new ways for employees to collaborate productively, but leaders must intentionally create those opportunities. Recent Gartner research found that 71 per cent of HR leaders are more concerned about employee collaboration this year than before the COVID-19 pandemic. How valid are these concerns, and what needs to be done to protect and drive collaboration and innovation in today’s remote and hybrid working environments?

It’s true that when employees aren’t physically colocated, their interactions are more scheduled than spontaneous — and interactions commonly occur through screens. Employees don’t experience the interactions that might happen in an office. Even a simple social conversation with a co-worker can take effort.

Leaders must empower employees to collaborate more intentionally to unleash innovation in this context. Gartner research shows that teams of knowledge workers who collaborate intentionally are nearly three times more likely to achieve high team innovation than teams that do not use an intentional approach.

Transitioning to the New Normal of the Hybrid Workforce

While the emergency work-from-home measures may have precipitated the shift to virtual work in 2020, plans for the new hybrid workforce are becoming less reactionary and more deliberate now. According to a McKinsey survey, nine in ten organisations plan to combine remote and on-site work going forward. While there’s no one-size-fits-all model for a hybrid workforce or team, the term usually refers to a setting where some employees work remotely, some work on-site, and others work a combination of both.

Leaders must balance differing employee preferences with a desire for continued productivity and collaboration. Some team members may be clamouring to return to the office, but many others want to continue working from home.

That’s why hybrid workforce policies and how effectively managers can lead hybrid and virtual teams will be vital for attracting and retaining talent in many industries.

Here are my top four considerations in leading a Hybrid Workforce:

Leading a hybrid team requires adaptability to change and an openness to experimentation. I believe leaders will be most successful when they take these steps:

1. Acknowledge what’s new and different about the hybrid workforce.

Leaders should start by acknowledging that this environment is new and different and that what works for one person will not work for everyone. Leaders must reassure people that whether they’re working in person, remotely, or a combination of those, their choice is not career-limiting, and their contributions are valued. They must also set the stage for effective team collaboration.

Work to create a psychologically safe work environment where people can be open about their uncertainties and frustrations. Ensure team members have the skills to hold candid conversations with one another, no matter where they are.

The office environment must support the business’s and the employee’s needs. A space to be social, collaborative and creative. A room for flexibility and freedom to grow. Every part of the office needs to be structured to support agile working structures and facilitate increased efficiency and better communication than what employees can achieve at home.

2. Foster inclusion in your hybrid workforce.

Work to maintain or establish inclusive practices for team huddles or group calls. In 2020, when everyone worked from home, many experienced firsthand the challenges of contributing in virtual meetings — something already-remote workers knew all too well.

As companies adapt to hybrid workforce, ensure meetings remain inclusive. Without intentionality and clearly defined processes, it could be easy for those returning to work in person to fall back into old habits, unintentionally excluding or overlooking colleagues working offsite.

Also, help your new hybrid workforce develop an identity by crafting a set of shared team norms and expectations. Everyone should understand the team’s purpose and goals, work processes, meeting frequency, and how decisions will be made.

This approach should also be extended to the office, establishing an environment that considers different life stages and requirements and accounting for different beliefs and cultures.

3. Cultivate the mindsets of agility and resilience.

In the same McKinsey study mentioned above, researchers also found that organisations willing to take a “test-and-learn” approach to design — and redesign — their processes for a more remote workforce realise higher productivity levels.

Learning agility, or adapting and thriving in new situations, is crucial to your organisation’s hybrid workforce success. Leaders should schedule time every couple weeks to talk with their team members about what’s working and what isn’t. In addition, they should connect with other leaders of hybrid teams throughout the organisation.

4. Pay close attention to alignment

When you look around, do you see a strong direction? In other words, do team members agree on the group’s overall goals? Ask yourself whether your group is aligned — whether members with different tasks and roles coordinate their work.

When teams have strong alignment and commitment, they feel responsible for the success and well-being of the group. There’s a high level of trust and psychological safety.

While a more hybrid team may present new challenges to collaborate and navigate across boundaries, the solutions to today’s most pressing business challenges are often found at the intersection of multiple boundaries. When members of your hybrid workforce see leaders recalibrate, adapt, and embrace the future with an agile and collaborative mindset, they’ll likely do the same.

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IAS integral ad science Jessica Miles

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