IT leadership: 3 new rules for hybrid work

Today's hybrid workforce calls for a new, more relationship-focused workplace dynamic. Consider these strategies to foster an engaged, productive team, whether in the office or remote
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The pandemic will be the zeitgeist for the 21st century. It has shaped how we live, how our children are educated, and of course, how we work. It has also exposed what employees crave most. These wants and needs happen to be one of the driving factors for why employees leave their organizations, especially in today’s new hybrid workplace.

December 2020 SHRM article found that nearly 70 percent of remote workers say they work on the weekends, with 45 percent noting they work more hours weekly than they did prior to going remote. In the hybrid work environment, we are spending extraordinary amounts of time on the job. It can lead to feeling even more burned out and isolated than ever.

Couple those feelings with our intrinsic need for connection, belonging, and relationships, and it’s easy to understand why employees leave organizations where they feel disconnected and unappreciated. The hybrid workforce demands a different organization-employee dynamic.

Given how siloed we are, these desires for connection, belonging, and relationships are more important than ever. Employees want to feel valued, appreciated, and cared for by their managers and organizations. Today’s employees also want to trust their organizations and managers as well as feel trusted by them.

3 leadership rules for the hybrid workplace

With that in mind, here are three new rules for leading the hybrid workforce today:

1. Lose the contractual mentality

Traditionally, organizations have viewed their relationship with employees as purely contractual. The employee gets a salary and benefits based on what they can do for the company. All interactions and decisions are based on how the employee benefits the organization. Managers enforce this contractual arrangement through performance reviews. The organization wants to ensure that it’s getting its money’s worth from the employee. It unwittingly positions the employee as a commodity rather than a human being.

This approach isn’t conducive to a healthy, collaborative relationship.

Toss the idea that employees are a transactional component of your business. Instead, choose to align them to your overall business strategy. This will help you see them as important, contributing (valued) members of the team (a sense of belonging) who are celebrated as goals are achieved (appreciated).

[ Related read: Hybrid work: 5 tips for prioritizing the employee experience. ]

To do this, foster a culture of transparency. Regularly communicate the company’s values and how they support the culture you want to create. Solicit feedback from employees through anonymous surveys. Then incorporate the appropriate feedback into improving the company culture. Employees will feel less like a commodity and more like a valued contributor to the organization. Given how ubiquitous the remote work scenario is, such feedback and cultural transparency are critical to keeping employees engaged and invested.

Toss the idea that employees are a transactional component of your business. Instead, choose to align them to your overall business strategy.

2. View employees through a different lens

The traditional annual review evokes dread for both manager and employee. Typically, the manager reviews the employee’s goals for the year, along with areas for improvement. It sets up a scenario that is difficult to convey, manage, and achieve: It isn’t reasonable to expect an employee to course-correct on issues that occurred months ago.

The very nature of the annual review sets up a dynamic where the manager critiques and the employee is on the defensive. The employee often feels that the manager focuses solely on shortcomings and not on achievements. They may wonder, “Why didn’t my manager mention this issue when it actually happened?” or “Why won’t my manager recognize the things I’ve done right?”

The manager may be new to the position and not entirely familiar with the employee, their position, or work history, making a constructive review more challenging. In addition, many managers simply are not trained to communicate, coach, and lead effectively.

With higher numbers of employees working remotely, reviews have an added layer of difficulty especially if they aren’t done in person. Body language can be harder to read. Without seeing the employee in action day-to-day, the manager might not be aware of how productive they are. Zoom fatigue can also cause many employees to remain silent rather than actively participate.

To address these problems, think about how you would communicate similar feedback to someone in your personal life. If you had to deliver bad news or bring up a problem with a family member or friend, how would you approach it?

If you would be more sensitive to a loved one’s situation and more tactful in how you’d convey your feedback, why wouldn’t you do the same for an employee? If you wouldn’t take that approach with an employee, ask yourself why. It’s also helpful to solicit feedback on your approach from other colleagues so you can fine-tune it.

Prepare for a future conversation with an employee by asking yourself, “Will this help or hurt the relationship?” If it’s the latter, then ask yourself, “How can I approach it so that it is helpful, not hurtful?”

Prepare for a future conversation with an employee by asking yourself, "Will this help or hurt the relationship?"

Employees want to feel cared for and valued. They want to trust and be trusted. How you communicate with them, particularly when it comes to how they’re doing their job, can go a long way to engendering engaged, happy, and productive employees.

3. Treat the organization-employee interaction more like a real relationship

We all spend a large part of our lives in professional relationships. As employees, we want regular communication and check-ins just as a significant other would. Employees want to feel appreciated and heard just as a partner or family member would. It makes sense for organizations, and in particular, managers, to treat these relationships as more than just 9-to-5 relationships.

Work is an integral part of our lives, affecting our identity, sense of belonging, and well-being. Regular communication, connection, and alignment to an organization’s people and goals are crucial, particularly since many of us already feel isolated. A recent Gallup survey found that one of the things employees want most from their managers is the opportunity to learn and grow. Employees who feel that their organizations are invested in their learning and development are more likely to be happier, more motivated, and successful.

Employees who feel that their organizations are invested in their learning and development are more likely to be happier, more motivated, and successful.

It’s up to organizations and managers to create a blueprint that will ensure consistent communication, regular coaching and feedback, and learning and development opportunities. This can be achieved through performance management. Be “forward-focused” in your development feedback instead of providing traditional “backward-looking” feedback. This approach, along with more frequent check-ins, will keep your employees better engaged, more motivated, and far more likely to meet their goals.

However, don’t stop at giving forward-focused feedback. Ask for employees’ input, find out what’s important to them, and then work together to define and map out mutual, attainable goals. The more collaborative you are, the more the employee will feel heard, valued, and most importantly, empowered. Creating autonomy creates ownership.

The new hybrid workplace necessitates a new set of rules. When employees lack connection to what’s most important and don’t feel a collective sense of accountability toward ensuring the success of those most important things, your remote work strategy is less likely to succeed.

The most successful teams follow a mantra of “we win as a team, and we lose as a team.” When employees understand that their success is tied to the organization’s success, it’s much easier and more effective to ask them, “What do you need to accomplish those goals?” Managers are the conduit between the employees and the organization’s alignment of people and strategy to achieve its goals.

Organizations need to recognize and invest in fostering a workplace where employees feel heard, cared for, valued, and trusted, and where employees can trust as well. In today’s hybrid workplace, it’s essential for organizations to teach managers how to foster these relationships. Implement these new rules and you will build a solid culture with engaged, productive employees and strong managers to guide them, regardless of where they work.

[ Get exercises and approaches that make disparate teams stronger. Read the digital transformation ebook: Transformation Takes Practice. ]

Caitlin Collins is an Organizational Psychologist and Principal Implementation Consultant at Betterworks. Her career has been focused on building performance enablement programs for global organizations that drive individual and organizational performance.