As I write this blog, it’s late May 2022 and two things feel really stuck in my world right now. First, we feel stuck in bad weather here in Vancouver and the May flowers (and my veggie garden) need some warmth and sun for a change.
Second, it feels like many organizations are stuck in their transition to the inevitable reality of a hybrid workplace in the future. The stack of questions seems taller than the answers. The ground that looked like it might be firming up is now squishy and shifting. The clarity we thought we had as leaders is maybe feeling foggier.
Whereas the start of the pandemic was like a lightning storm with a violent and immediate impact on the workplace and leadership, the move to the hybrid future is more like one of those tropical storms that moves slowly at 5 mph as it heads inland and seems like it will never end.
The rub is that remote leadership was hard…but leading in the hybrid world is even harder.
So, what’s driving this challenge? What are the problems we’re trying to solve here?
- The employees are in charge. Full stop. The Great Resignation was the flashpoint of this continued reality. The unmatched requirement that employees have for autonomy and self-direction in their work is still hard for many leaders to embrace and accept. We must tread carefully when thinking about the purpose behind our hybrid workplace.
- Most leaders would have said they had a great understanding of their organization’s culture in 2020. Today, many literally have no idea what their culture is, and the processing of the impacts from the changing workplace is still sinking in. If we think about an organization’s culture as being represented by how people talk to and interact with each other, then we realize that profound change has taken place.
- The relational deficit within teams and organizations is massive. It’s THE most common organizational symptom that we’re observing in the teams we’re working with. The good news is that proactive and thoughtful teams are taking action in several ways (such as Fluency’s Building Trusting Relationships workshop) but it’s a big hole to climb out of.
- The hybrid workplace is an uneven playing field where not all meetings are created equally. With some people working at the office and others working remotely, we are open to proximity bias, which according to the BBC is “an unconscious – and unwise — tendency to give preferential treatment to those in our immediate vicinity.”
In a previous blog, we defined the future of the office as “the place where we go to work together.” It’s becoming more resonant and important than ever.
Taking a Remote First Mindset
There’s been a lot of study into what the future of work looks like and what’s the optimal practice for leaders. That all leads us to taking this Remote First Mindset as a leader. Think of Remote First as being your default setting. It will help guide you to making better decisions as a leader. As you start to spend more time in the workplace and working in real life with people, it will help you avoid several of the pitfalls that are out there.
So, what does Remote First look like in leadership? Here are five starting points for you to consider:
- Be Wary of Isolationism – Every day you need to be thinking about everyone on the team. Who’s included in the meetings? Who’s in the conversation? Think not just about who you’re hearing from, but those you’re not hearing from. Inclusion and fairness are fundamental imperatives for the future.
- Be Inclusive – Be aware of that proximity bias. You can’t just make decisions and key declarations based on who’s in the room in each live meeting. It might require further communication and engagement to ensure everyone who needs to be involved is involved. Keep an eye out for “offline decisions” and ensure there is an electronic recap (email, Slack, etc.) to ensure that the information is fully available.
- Provide Context – It’s always been a leadership imperative but never more than now. As a leader, you need to provide lots of WHY and not just the WHAT. What’s the why behind your hybrid model? Why is in-person engagement important for the culture and organization? Expecting people to come into the work because that’s the way we used to do it isn’t going to fly. Disengagement is the fastest path towards retention challenges, and the lack of context can be a big accelerant towards that.
- Structure Your Workdays for Hybrid – If the purpose of being in the office is to connect, build relationships and collaborate, you’ll want to maximize those in-person days. When in the office, batch meetings and conversations in real life to amplify engagement. That might mean structuring your day to be just about meetings, 1:1s, creativity brainstorms, and things of that nature. Build time for “white space” creativity and collaboration. And because our relational muscles are so atrophied from the past two years, we need to make the space and time to relearn ourselves…as a team and as colleagues.
- Examine Synchronous vs Asynchronous Work – We generally have two kinds of work – synchronous (where all work happens together at the same time) and asynchronous (where work happens on individual timelines and schedules). As leaders, now is the time to be intentional about how you craft the work and how it gets done. You can audit your existing practices/meetings/workflows and build alignment with the team on what needs to adapt for the future. Those are important team conversations that will set you up for success.
The leadership challenges are never-ending and leading in the hybrid world is just one of the latest we need to tackle. By being aware, thoughtful, human-centric, and relational, we can make this transition to the future of work and have the clarity we need to move forward.
How much of the “why” have you been communicating as people return to a hybrid workplace?
What would a Remote First mindset shift for you as a leader?
Where does proximity bias show up in your hybrid model?