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You Need New Skills for Managing a Hybrid Workforce — Here Are Some Tips

An interview with
Woman working remotely

After a surge of returning to the office, many companies now find themselves in the awkward situation of having some staff in the office and others working remotely from home. This hybrid working requires new management skills.

BRINK spoke to Jo Owen, the author of the newly released Smart Work: The Ultimate Handbook for Remote and Hybrid Teams, a practical guide to how to manage dispersed teams.

OWEN: Companies are experimenting like crazy at the moment, because the old certainties have been completely thrown up in the air by the pandemic. People have realized work is not a place, it is what you do, and a lot of firms are struggling with that. 

But it’s also very exciting because we are in the process of discovering a whole new way of working. 

A Permanent Shift

What is evident is that the world of hybrid working is not a temporary shift. Around the world, employees are saying consistently that they want to have some days in the office and at least some days out of the office. 

There are outliers at both ends — about 10% want to be in the office all the time, and 10% want to be out of the office the whole time, and those outliers have quite distinctive characteristics in their different populations.

BRINK: Do those characteristics vary according to whether you’re talking about low-paid or high-paid jobs?

OWEN: We’ve discovered there is a COVID aristocracy and a COVID proletariat. The COVID aristocracy has people who are pretty well-established at work. They’ve got their networks of influence and trust, so they know how to make things happen through other people. They have a nice place to work at home and they avoid the commute, and they basically don’t want to go back to the office.

The COVID proletariat tends to be the people who are newer to the firm, newer to the world of work. They may well be sharing a flat with people they’ve suddenly discovered they don’t really like. They’re having to work from the end of their bed. Critically, they do not have networks of trust and influence at work, so they don’t know how to make things happen. They don’t know how things get done. They don’t know who they should be working with, who they should be avoiding. They really want to get into the office to soak up the culture, build those networks of influence and trust, and build their social networks.

The office has been a very forgiving place of mediocre management and a very good place for control-freak management. The world of hybrid work makes all of that much harder, so management has to raise their game.

BRINK: You say in the book that hybrid working may be causing a gender bias in which women are more likely to do the childcare and are, therefore, more likely to stay at home, and men more likely to be able to return to the office. Do you have any research backing that up?

OWEN: There is some limited research that is already showing that men are more likely to go back to work than women, and that is storing up trouble for the future. 

The lesson here is that if you are a generous employer, you’re going to be in trouble because the generous employer will probably allow staff to decide when they want to come in. That sounds democratic and nice, but it is a disaster. 

What happens is that those who come back into the office will be the ones who progress their careers faster. When you’re in the office, you’re visible, you’re able to pitch your case. You’re able to build your networks of trust and influence. You’re in the information flow that tells you about the good projects that are coming along, and the death star projects you need to avoid. You can bump into the influence-makers to push your agenda and resolve conflicts. And you can have all those informal conversations that make life a lot easier.

If you’re out of the office, that’s much harder to do. If you then overlay a gender bias on that as well, suddenly you’re going to find all the men getting promoted faster than women, and you’re open to a whole slew of sex discrimination lawsuits.

Management Is Being Forced to Raise Its Game

BRINK: So how does management adapt to this new hybrid environment in your view? 

OWEN: I think we’ve discovered three things in this pandemic. One is that we can change further and faster than we thought. So there’s a challenge of change there.

The second big thing we’ve discovered is that managing a remote team or a hybrid team is far harder than managing a team in the office. And that is exceptionally good news because it’s forcing managers to raise their game and be far more purposeful and deliberate in everything they do. And the reality is some managers will rise to the challenge, others won’t. 

How Do You Set Goals Remotely?

In the office, when you set a goal, it’s not just a one-off conversation where you say, “Do this, do that,” unless it’s a very simple task. If it’s a more ambitious goal, what you find is that the goal ends up getting discussed. That reveals the important context and the “why” of the goal.

If you’re setting a goal remotely, you can convey the “what” very easily. Anyone can do that. But conveying the why and the context, which is vital, is much, much, much harder to do because trying to set all of that very ambiguous information down in a piece of paper is close to impossible. There has to be this process of discovery to find out what that goal is really all about.

So managers have to be much more deliberate. To do it well remotely, you have to go the extra yard, in fact, several yards, to make sure that the goal is really understood and there is real commitment to the goal, as opposed to just sort of passive acceptance of a goal that is maybe not fully understood. 

The office has been a very forgiving place of mediocre management and a very good place for control-freak management. The world of hybrid work makes all of that much harder, so management has to raise their game.

BRINK: Are there any things that managers might not have thought of that you have found helps to strengthen the running of hybrid teams?

OWEN: There is one trend that is absolutely essential in terms of technology. When working remotely, you can’t have everyone on private technology. It’s got to be shared. By that I mean, if everyone’s working on their own Word document or PowerPoint presentation or whatever it is, that is very unhelpful. 

Increasingly, what we’re seeing is people need much more open access technology, like the Google Docs of this world, where it’s open to everyone and your calendars are open to everyone — like Calendly — so that everyone can see where everyone else is. That is vital.

The YTH Meeting

To ensure that openness and understanding of where everyone is, a lot of teams hold what I call a YTH meeting at the start of every day on Zoom or its equivalent.

Y, this is what I did yesterday. T, this is what I’m doing today. H, this is where I’m facing some blockers and need some help. So, immediately, everyone knows what everyone else is doing. 

YTH is not just a sharing platform, it’s a very good control and accountability platform as well. And it actually removes the need for a lot of that noisy communication that happens during the rest of the day. It is a very simple way to get the day started.

Jo Owen

Author of Smart Work: The Ultimate Handbook for Remote and Hybrid Teams @joleadguru

Jo Owen is the author of Smart Work, published by Bloomsbury. He is the founder of eight NGOs, including Teach First which is the UK’s largest graduate recruiter. He can be reached at jo@ilead.guru

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