Embrace Hybrid & Flexible Work For Good

Remember earlier this summer when we all thought COVID was just about beat, and we were headed back to a version of our old, in-person, in-the-office version of normal? Those seem like innocent days as successive waves of outbreaks keep happening. But in truth, regardless of what happens pandemic-wise, there was no going back. In a recent post, I wrote about how leaders can respond to the “next normal.” And yet, I see too many companies trying to force a return to the old ways, despite the lessons of COVID. Today’s savvy leader understands that instead of trying to enforce old ways, we should embrace what we’ve learned under tough circumstances and move forward with a flexible, adaptable approach. Because change and unpredictability are not limited to the pandemic–they are our true new normal. Our world moves too fast and changes too quickly for rigidity.

Let Your People Go (Home)

The biggest lesson? Your team can work remotely.

Except for some jobs that are in-person by nature, such as servers, frontline healthcare professionals, or factory workers, most people just need a good internet connection to work from home–or anywhere.

Remote work isn’t only possible–for many, it’s preferable. They don’t miss the commute, the dress policy, the small-p politics of the office. They are happier and even more productive from home.

And yet, I keep talking to leaders eager to get everyone back to the office ASAP. Why the big push to revert to our old habits? Why the need to mandate where people work? Often, it doesn’t matter where somebody sits. What matters is engaging your team in delivering results. That's the benchmark.

And we need to go beyond simply leading a remote or hybrid work arrangement: today, it’s the combination of hybridity plus flexibility. While we can't predict the next significant upheaval or shift, we know it’s coming. And fast.

Challenge Your Thinking

Great leaders are willing to challenge their assumptions and beliefs. This trait is especially valuable now when so many of our old systems, business models and go-to strategies have been upended.

It makes many leaders uncomfortable. They’re tired of the uncertainties of COVID and eager for a return to more structure and order. But the most successful companies will be those that recognize that you're going to have to be different post-pandemic. And whether it's COVID, or the financial meltdown of 2008, or some new competitor, you’ve got to be willing to change to stay competitive and attract and retain top talent. If your team can work for anyone, anywhere, and you’re unwilling to budge on location, you’re at a disadvantage against other employers.

Ask yourself: what can't you lead through for people working from home or remotely? As a leader, why do you feel compelled to dictate that people come back to the office? The answer is likely much more about control than the best way to get the work done.

All About Engagement

Less than 30% of people report being actively engaged in their work. If we want to boost engagement, we need to respond and adapt to the needs of our team members. That comes down to building relationships with our team and recognizing that each will have different needs. Can you flex your leadership style to meet them rather than be a stickler for in-person?

Probably the biggest challenge in this new hybrid/flexible situation is how to connect and community with a team that may be wholly or partly remote. How do you build trust and rapport with the individuals and teams that report to you? How do you create a supportive work culture without in-person events? How do you ensure there aren’t relationship haves and have-nots because some people will opt to go into the office, and others won’t? How do you simulate those chance encounters in the hallway or the break room, where many meaningful conversations take place. When I was on the executive team at Perrier, a group of us worked out together in the company gym. We made most of the critical decisions in our 6 am workouts.

You need to be more proactive to create opportunities for both structured and organic opportunities to get people involved and engaged.

As Seth Godin, the master marketer, wrote in a recent post, “As social creatures, many people very much need a place to go, a community to be part of, a sense of belonging and meaning. But it’s not at all clear that the 1957 office building is the best way to solve those problems.”

Be Clear

For some leaders, hybridity feels like an undefined grey zone where expectations are hazy. But letting go of the rigid outlines of 9-to-5 office face-time doesn’t need to be a free-for-all. The key is to be clear about your expectations. What platforms and processes will you use to connect and collaborate most effectively? What expectations do you have around availability?

Maybe instead of incidental encounters, you arrange a big offsite with everyone once or twice a year. Or you hold casual Friday afternoon catchups to create rapport, connection and engagement. And, yes, there are times when people need to be face-to-face. As a leader, you need to identify when being in the same room is still more productive and collaborative. And the rest? You need to be willing to let that go, to make hybrid and flexible work arrangements your new normal for a more productive, cohesive and engaged team.