Holding the line in the world of hybrid work

The role of line managers is evolving and changing as the shift towards hybrid working increases, and it would appear the secret to success in a hybrid context is to treat all staff members as if they were working remotely, even if they are based in the office

As every business knows, the pandemic has basically changed everything, from the almost overnight pivot to remote working to the partial return to work and the establishment of hybrid working as the de-facto norm for virtually all knowledge workers.

And this change has encompassed not only how and where we work, but also the way in which work itself is managed. Hybrid work has led to a shift in the roles and responsibilities of line managers.

This shift may still be in its early days and very much in the “model and test phase”, says Lynda Gratton, professor of management practice at the London Business School and founder and chief executive of research advisory firm HSM Advisory, but it is already having an impact on how line managers are required to operate, including how they interact with their teams.

One of the critical elements here is that line managers are now progressively expected to “make sense of change to their teams in more detail than senior leaders”, says Gratton. In other words, a key role of today’s managers is to act as a “change agent”.

Managers used to be called “the frozen middle”, but now they are described as “pivotal”, she says. “This is because they are carriers of culture, the glue, drivers of performance and engagement connectors.”

The idea here, says Alex Fahey, associate director at HSM Advisory, is that managers are “critical to getting things done as they’re the ‘golden thread’ between the leadership vision and ensuring it is embedded within teams”.

In other words, to be a good manager these days, it is no longer simply enough to demonstrate sound technical skills and ensure people get the work done. Instead, it is more and more vital to develop “performance-focused leadership” and “human-centric” skills too, says Fahey.

This is at least partially because the unpredictability of hybrid working makes the traditional managerial focus on “resource allocation and ensuring people do the work required to meet strategic goals” much trickier to achieve, says Nick Gallimore, director of innovation at software and services provider Advanced.

As a result, it is vital that employees are empowered to take responsibility for specific project outcomes themselves, which means having a clear idea of what they need to achieve and how best to achieve it.

A change of management style

In practice, this requires a very different management style to the traditional, more directive stance. Today, the focus needs to be on coaching individuals to develop and grow. A change in performance management tack is also imperative, with a clear focus on providing clear goals, sharing desired outcomes and enabling access to appropriate managerial support.

Equally important, though, is that managers recognise the vital role that a positive employee experience – which includes mental and physical wellbeing – plays in creating high-performance, sustainable teams.

Vital people management skills in this context include motivating and engaging staff and managing them empathetically. It also includes crafting narratives that encourage buy-in to company values and purpose.

But even these strategic skillsets are not enough in themselves, says Gratton. A further important, but to date poorly understood, piece of the puzzle comes in the form of “hybrid-enabled practical skills”.

Key activities here include introducing automated workflows to help colleagues navigate their interactions more effectively, no matter where they are based or at what time they are working. Useful software in this context includes scheduling and workflow management tools.

But Gallimore believes that into the future, having a “virtual desk” to help users manage their day-to-day tasks and activities from a single location would also be of real value.

“There are examples of organisations starting to think about it, but the practicality of it is a long way off due to the number and volume of systems involved,” he says. “A portal approach works if you buy everything from the same vendor, but most companies don’t do that, so the question is, how do you bring everything together with a front layer that enables all of your applications to talk to each other?”

More than just hygiene

Another hybrid-enabled practical approach, meanwhile, is to encourage the creation of team agreements. The aim of these documents is to lay out how people intend to work together and what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable behaviour in order to avoid later misunderstandings and conflict.

“Although it may feel like hygiene, these are the areas where we’ll see real progress in enabling hybrid working to happen,” says Gratton. “In fact, the highly valued people experience element will only occur if you get these hybrid-enabled practical skills right.”

Their importance, says Fahey, is based on the fact that they act as the “conduit” between performance-focused leadership and human-centric skills. “You need to master hybrid-enabled skills to get to sustainable high performance and create a positive people experience,” he adds.

Eduardo Plastino, a director at Cognizant Research, agrees. “Enabling a clear flow of work and having clearly defined roles and approaches for people is important, but I believe managers also have to be much more hands-on too,” he says. “This means ensuring clear communication so that everyone knows how to do things and understands the outputs required.”

A Harvard Business Review article entitled What great hybrid cultures do differently likewise emphasises the vital role of effective communication. It says the secret to success in a hybrid context is to treat all staff members as if they were working remotely, even if they are based in the office.

But doing so, the article says, is “simple but not straightforward” because it requires “consistent action from leadership” on five key fronts, which are as follows:

1. Embracing asynchronous communication

The key here is to ensure that all team members, no matter what their location, have an equal chance of participating in the conversation. Options include asking employees in different time zones to adopt written or recorded communications as the default.

If a real-time meeting is required to discuss complex or urgent matters, such interactions should be recorded, automatic transcripts generated or minutes collaboratively edited in a system such as Google Docs.

2. Ensuring clear communication boundaries

If colleagues are all in different locations, it is often hard to tell whether they are available to interact, concentrating on a given task or taking time out for themselves. Although this is not a new problem, it is even more problematic in a hybrid world.

As a result, the Harvard Business Review article recommends setting rules of engagement for each communication platform that staff use, including email, chat messages or video calls, with each being assigned its own level of priority and urgency. This means, for instance, laying out whether or not direct messages and emails should be responded to on the same day.

The piece also suggests employees set clear boundaries around their working day. This involves explicitly recording their working hours on their calendars to make it easy for others to see, and blocking out time for deep thinking and time off.

As Angela Ashenden, principal analyst for workplace transformation at technology analyst firm CCS Insight, points out: “It’s about people being considerate and thoughtful of other team members, and everyone has a responsibility for that, not just managers – although they do need to lead by example. It all really helps to improve team cohesiveness.”

3. Championing documentation creation

Making it the norm to create company-wide, archived and searchable documentation for important information is a valuable way of creating a knowledge bank to support effective decision-making for individuals, teams and departments.

Also, encouraging a culture of writing proposals and designs with which others can collaborate, and comment on, enables them to understand, and contribute to, the overall direction of the company, which boosts feelings of ownership.

4. Broadcasting information

Leaders should get into the habit of coming up with regular written or recorded messages to share the “heartbeat” of the company. Individual teams can also experiment with broadcasting their achievements, initially among their own members to summarise what they have each been working on, but over time among other teams, too. The idea behind this approach is that a culture of sharing encourages more sharing.

5. Employing suitable software tools

If staff are to work together effectively, it is important they all use the same tools. This includes collaboration software, such as Google Docs, and whiteboard tools, such as Miro.

In other words, says Gratton, for hybrid working to be successful, it is imperative that managers be much “more intentional and deliberate” in how they operate. But they cannot effect this kind of change alone. As a result, putting a concerted effort behind upskilling them will be vital.

Traditional management training routes, which include classroom and online learning, are being updated all the time to take account of the lessons learned along the way as hybrid working becomes more commonplace.

But Fahey also recommends that managers consider taking advantage of their own, or their organisation’s, peer-to-peer networks. In his experience, those that have done so “really value a place to experiment and learn from each other, as it gives them an opportunity to share and grow”.

He adds: “We can equip managers with guides and toolkits, and many organisations have done so, but the most successful ones have also given managers the opportunity to share and experiment with social learning. People have the chance to practise conversations and see how they land, and they also get tips on things like how to run meetings – it’s a very helpful, non-threatening way to learn.”

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