Smarter Hybrid – why it is tough for senior leaders

A couple of weeks ago I posted some thoughts about what smarter hybrid could look like.  I want to build on that by looking at some of the barriers and opportunities ahead of us.  

I’m going to start with the challenges for senior leaders.   We often hear statements like “all of this needs to start with leaders”, “leaders need to role model this”, “culture starts at the top”, or the more toxic “a fish rots from its head”.  In writing this I’m trying to avoid ranting about how wrong I think these are (I’ve hit the delete key an awful lot in typing this paragraph).  Instead, I want to concentrate on the landscape for leaders, set out the forces that make it hard for them to engage in new ways of working.  By understanding this, we can start to change that landscape.  

The prize of smarter hybrid

As a quick reminder, there is a big prize – smarter hybrid delivers higher organisational productivity, stronger culture and happier and healthier individuals.  

Tweaking where, when and how we work can drive 10-15% performance gain just by managing meetings and distractions.   Building psychological safety can increase productivity by 50% (Accenture).  Gartner research demonstrates remote working can support stronger culture.  The PrOPEL Hub of nine UK Business Schools have demonstrated productivity benefits of better working practice and the CIPD Good Work Survey has identified that hybrid working correlates with better job quality.

The challenges for leaders

The challenges below won’t apply to all leaders, but you’re likely to find examples across your top two layers of the organisation.  And if you’ve got leaders that don’t think any of these apply to them, it might be worth exploring the zone of delusion…

1.  Head space

The demands on leaders are huge.  There are challenges including inflation, recession, industrial relations, political uncertainty, supply chain disruption, digitisation, changing customer behaviour.  These are all disrupting established ways of running a business and are accentuated with new challenges such as covid (personal and work impact), net zero and new ways of working.  

These create chronic stress, which reduces imagination and the ability to solve problems.  (Dr Wendy Suzuki).  New challenges feel like a threat, triggering the “fight or flight” response (Harvard).  Leaders can be drawn to simplistic solutions to kick problems down the road (hence why 3-day-a-week hybrid is appealing).

2.  More economics than psychology

Chartered accountancy, MBA and consultancy are proven routes to leadership.  In past talent roles I tracked this data to identify good leadership candidates – it is a great basis for understanding the drivers of business success, shapes how leaders solve problems, gives confidence to investors and other stakeholders.  

However, they don’t really focus on how to get humans to perform better.  I looked at the ACCA syllabus, some MBA curricula – even now, there’s little connecting psychology and managing people with better productivity and performance.

3. Poor data

In a world where leaders are data driven, people data is often infrequent, low quality, not adaptable or simply answering the wrong questions.  

As a quick example:  Western European engagement is at 72% (Culture Amp).  Organisations measure it once or twice a year.  Targets in business plans and bonus schemes will compare to the norm, and success based on benchmarking.   All of this even though 1 in 4 people are not engaged, with consequent cultural, performance and turnover issues (how can we be surprised by quiet quitting and the great resignation?)

For other people data, it is often focused on what is easily measured rather than what aids performance. There is more focus on reducing absence than reducing distractions, despite the latter offering 10x the productivity gain (my calculations, based on data from UCI).

4. “When I were a lad…”

We are all influenced by our experiences.  Senior leaders started their careers between the late eighties and early noughties. They built careers in an environment which was office-based, hierarchical, long-hours, more focused on fitting in than welcoming diversity.  If you couldn’t put the hours in, you were lightweight.  Working remotely or flexing start times?  Part-timer.  

That is broadly a senior leaders frame of reference for career success.  They’ve not got the experience of completely virtual teams that might be found in tech, and they’re unlikely to have engaged with a new employer through primarily digital means.  In contrast – all new workers from 2020 join the workforce with experience of remote work. 

5.  The system of work

The system of work is largely designed for face-to-face, full-time work.  The Outlook calendar based on Monday to Friday 9-5, management by observation and floorwalking, structuring employment around Full Time Equivalents, learning in classrooms, brainstorming around a whiteboard, watercooler conversations, meeting around a table all push people to the office environment.  Even video conference facilities are typically a meeting room table with chairs facing each other, and a screen at the end of the table.

This creates a series of defaults, and all can provide barriers to new approaches to work.

6. Omniscience

Put all of this together and it starts to get tough.  Leaders don’t have the capacity, frame of reference or insight to solve these problems.  However, they’ve also grown with the expectation that leaders solve problems.   There is a sort of expectation of omniscience.  

So, when presented with everything we’ve described above, a solution of “three days in the office and two at home” starts to feel very appealing – it feels like a neat solution, even if it is ill-fitting for pretty much every employee.

But wait, we can do better…

Despite these forces of inertia, the opportunity for smarter hybrid is huge, so how to help leaders with these challenges?

I’d suggest four things:

1.  Engage them in the challenge – leaders will know that certain trends have massively been accelerated by covid, including digitisation and changing customer behaviour.  They might not have thought the same about work, but flexible working, remote working, focus on wellbeing, focus on equity were all emerging pre-covid and have massively accelerated. Emphasise that those companies grasping the changed reality are benefiting with talent attraction, productivity, and reputation.

2. Frame the problem – move from a set of barriers to a set of questions to work through.   E.g. How do we deal with performance paranoia (microsoft)?  How do we mitigate the risks of burnout (BBC)?  How broadly do we want to attract talent?  How do we build culture?  How are we equitable when some roles are more flexible than others?  How do we onboard and build careers?  Ask leaders to share their problems and dilemmas and build a hopper of issues to solve.  

3. Shape an approach – frame this as a series of sprints of experiments.  Tackle different issues in different areas.  As a company, set your ambition to refine ways of working, and ask for colleagues to participate.  Set this in the context of your purpose, values or culture – i.e. what kind of company do you aim to be?   Involving colleagues creates ownership, taps into their creativity, strengthens alignment, and also buys time to work through issues.

4. Focus on line managers – more than ever, good line managers are critical.  They’re critical to alignment, engagement, management of work, building culture.  In addition to any previous priorities, they have to invest more in wellbeing and in managing ways of working.   Invest any discretionary capacity in helping this group to manage their people well.  

This isn’t exhaustive by any means – after all, it is a set of challenges to work through.  Next time I’ll try and share why I think it is tough for HR.  Leaders and HR are critical stakeholders in creating some momentum.  After that, I’ll try and cover more on the business case, how hybrid can support inclusion and belonging and then get into specific challenges.  

As ever, I’d love to hear your thoughts, reflections and experience. If you’d like to discuss, give me a yell. And please do reach out if you’re wrestling with some of these challenges.