Insights – How to Lead a Hybrid Work Team Effectively?

The challenge for leaders navigating the hybrid work culture is to understand work-life balance and create the optimal conditions for employees to thrive and produce their best work. What is the real impact of having hybrid teams on leadership practice and opportunities? What is the biggest challenge that leaders face when they lead hybrid teams? What are the opportunities in leading hybrid teams?

The Business Innovators Committee at Capital Club Dubai held a panel discussion on the topic with guest experts Sherif Selim (SS), Execution Regional Practice Leader, FranklinCovey Middle East, Ramy Fares (RF), Head of Retail & Travel Industries for MEA, Microsoft and Matthew Lewis (ML), Managing Director, Russell Reynolds Associates. The conversation was moderated by Jawdat Akid (JA), Managing Client Partner, FranklinCovey Middle East.

JA: The pandemic has pushed the concept of working from home as acceptable. How is the corporate culture changing and what are leaders doing to adapt?

 ML: Early findings of a survey of 12,000 leaders conducted in the last three months globally revealed that the

need of the hour is ‘BRAVE’ leadership, i.e., bold, resilient, agile, vulnerable and empathetic.

Leaders need to make bold decisions about when employees should return to the office, even if sometimes, the decision has proved to be wrong temporarily, and everyone were sent back home (due to the uncertainty of the various covid variants). In uncertain times, the clarion call is for bold and decisive leadership.

Resilient leadership is the characteristic around helping people to get through this elongated periods and detrimental effects of the pandemic and uncertainty. Building resilience in your teams is critical. Being agile and adaptable is seen as an important requirement in leaders, who are able to embrace new ways to do business, evolve digital platforms and expand into e-commerce.

The final two attributes are related to emotionally intelligence. Leaders need to learn to be more vulnerable, share their struggles and being more authentic to their teams because this helps build trust. And being empathetic towards the different personalities in their team has become an important soft skill that leaders need to understand and exhibit. For example, introverts are happier to work from home, whilst many salespeople are extroverts and crave human contact.

SS: A survey conducted in early 2021 asked if you prefer to work from home or office, and it revealed that an overwhelming majority of employees chose home, while the leaders wanted their teams to come back to office. They said that brainstorming and innovating as a team is much more effective in person, as is the importance of enforcing organizational culture and human contact with clients. But when the same survey asked about hybrid work, there was an equal majority response from both leaders and employees aligned towards this model.

There are three principles that leaders will need to practice in this hybrid work model context: engagement, communication and accountability. An organization where the culture of engagement is high, people say, “I feel like a valued member in a winning team doing meaningful work in an environment of trust.”

Leaders of hybrid work teams need to communicate with more empathy, take time to ask meaningful questions about employees’ family and show interest in their challenges, interests and get to know the people beyond the tasks and KPIs.

And accountability involves setting clear expectations, outcomes, deliverables; aligning on goals and making sure the all the required resources and tools are available for employees to get the job done remotely. It is important to have more processes in place for regular meetings and outcome measurements.

The dilemma about when to work from home and when to go into office is real and a struggle… it is still evolving. Leaders are going to acquire the ability to juggle the variables and not drop any of the balls. Yet, they should be honest and vulnerable. And its ok to admit we are human and make mistakes. It is challenging. And trust is critical. This is one of the most important aspects that has impacted my thinking as a leader. To ask myself, “What is my intent? What is my credibility? What is my capability to lead this team remotely?”

There has been a shift of ‘power’ from employer to employee, and there is no longer any certainty in people staying in one organization for a long time if leaders don’t provide the right culture and resources. Technology has freed people more, made more choices available and the pandemic has accelerated a trend that was already on its way.

RF: Today’s good leaders are beginning to realize the need to become more ‘self-aware,’ of who they are and who they are not. And then to create the notion of ‘self-regulate’ to grow and become a better version of yourself. Leaders can then inspire and propagate these learnings to others on their team, helping them to overcome issues and grow together. These are from the leadership principles at Microsoft – ‘model, coach, care.’

Workplace analytics available through technology, give good insights on how employees working remotely are spending their time. But we are losing the ‘water cooler’ connections that are available in the office. Technology will, in time, replicate this by analyzing online profiles and ‘nudging’ people to connect. It can also play a role in enhancing inclusivity in the work environment and giving more space for people with diverse mindsets to express themselves.

ML: Technology is a great enabler. For example, we use ‘Microsoft Dynamics’ that show how long teams are online, and when they might be burning out; we also have email blockers that prevent managers from sending emails to their team after 7pm, and instead they get stored to be viewed the following morning. We can see employees’ networks.

Office premises will also evolve and become places for team building, growth, mentoring, fun… and less for work. Already, offices are being remodeled to become more like co-working spaces, with addition of social spaces to entertain clients, etc. The work cubicle is obsolete because that is your home now. Another consequence will be less overseas travels for meetings, which will not only save costs but also boost productivity.

At the start of the year, our company started a concept, globally, called ‘Work Out Wednesday’ (WOW) which is a way for employees to meet and connect in person. The aim was to get together, voluntarily, for an hour or more, at a different restaurant each week. We are finding that more people want to come, and it’s a creative session, and each team takes turns to choose the venue. In fact, more people are turning up for the WOW meetings than Monday morning meetings, which is going to force leaders to be more creative about how they get teams together and be productive.

RF: We are experimenting with Ideas such as ‘Storytelling Fridays’ and ‘Gratitude Mondays’… and these will be adopted as part of the hybrid work model, with the view to connect and build relationships that help retention too. The Metaverse will also help create a continuum and inclusive experience.

ML: Communication is particularly important for leaders to understand. Even if you don’t have definitive answers, leaders need to not be silent but give their teams certain degrees of insights into plans. Regular communication like “We hope you are well. Please reach out to me if you need anything,” helps bridge this transition to not being at the office.

SS: Communication strategies need to be purposeful and not perceived as micromanagement. It is a skill that leaders with hybrid work teams need to learn even more now to succeed.

JA: Is efficiency and productivity compromised in a hybrid model?

 ML: The balance is between productivity and presenteeism. Leaders will need to redefine how and why they need people to come to office, and what are the benefits? They will need to care about more than productivity, and also be concerned about employees’ mental and physical well-being, purpose, etc. You’re going to have to ask your employees some basic questions: “What do you want? Why would you come to the office?” There is an increased democratization of work.

However, leaders need to ask it this model sustainable, or will it cause burnout? Do you want high performance, or do you want to optimize performance? Will people actually be more productive with a four-day work week, as experimented by Microsoft in Japan? The challenge is the increasing lack of connection between colleagues and what will be the long-term impact?

SS: One of the things that leaders need to reconsider is how they operate the business. It’s not only about democratization, but also localization. Every organization and every team within an organization needs to rethink their business model, their processes, what works and what doesn’t. We need to identify the desired acceptable results and work towards these in more unconventional ways.