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How senior managers can set the tone in a hybrid world

A hybrid working model won’t be a ‘nice to have’ for organisations once we start to live in a COVID-normal world, it will be an expectation that employees have of senior managers.

The pandemic has proven – once and for all – that the technology to enable a workforce in multiple locations works exactly as we were told it would. It’s just that management skills have yet to catch up and that will become a problem for organisations that are looking to retain their talent.

When the first lockdown occurred in early 2020, few organisations were ready for hybrid work, yet the ones that adapted the fastest were the ones whose senior managers recognised that they had to up their game.

They had to let go of the expectations they had of seeing people at their desk from 9-5 every day and of only thinking that productive work could happen when everyone was located in the same space and move to a model where trust was assumed, technology embraced and the focus was on outputs, not hours worked.

For many this was a tough move to make and entirely outside their comfort zone, yet make it they did and resulted in consistently vibrant cultures, where work got done, staff looked after each other’s mental health and celebrated the small wins along the way.

Employees have always looked to senior managers to set the tone. When they don’t do so, then good people leave. As the saying goes, ‘People don’t leave organisations, they leave their bosses.’ In a hybrid working world, talented people will be in demand from organisations around the world, so in order to not only keep these people but ensure that targets are met, senior managers need to up their game.

Senior managers need to up their people game

And at the heart of this improvement is the need to better connect with and understand employees. How to motivate and inspire them, create a culture where they can do their best work and how to spot when they’re struggling with their mental or physical health.

One study at the end of 2020 found that 83% of Gen Z employees (who make up over a third of the global workforce) would ‘choose an employer with a strong culture of empathy over an employer offering a slightly higher salary’. The same study also reported that employees cited empathy as creating an environment that led to increased outputs and reduced turnover.

For many managers, this is not the training they received. Billions of dollars are spent every year by companies on leadership development programs that fail to teach managers the basic (emotional) skills required to connect on a human level with staff and to set and hold them to performance and behavioural expectations.

Active listening, trust, empowerment, compassion, expectation setting, courageous conversations, decision-making and strategic thinking are all critical skills that senior managers need to learn and practice to ensure that productive work is maintained, regardless of where employees are based.

High performing cultures don’t create themselves

And employees will always be happiest when they work for a senior manager that not only understands who they are, can communicate with them in a way that they appreciate but who builds a psychologically safe team environment where they can do their best work.

Perhaps the biggest challenge for managers in a hybrid world is to build and maintain a vibrant culture without ever having everyone in the same space. However, this is exactly what the managers at remote-only organisations (such as Zapier) have been doing successfully for years.

They recognise that high performing team cultures don’t create themselves and put regular time and effort into defining the conditions for people to work together and that these principles are upheld. They need to ensure that people aren’t discriminated against based on their location (or any other reason for that matter) and that language is inclusive at all times.

Many managers already do this and are able to maintain productivity and employee happiness regardless of whether they are in a crisis situation or not. This has to be the goal for all senior managers who wish to set the tone in a hybrid working world.

Organisations need to stop being lazy about leadership development and create bespoke programs to help their managers to become role models for others to follow. Anything less will likely lead to the loss of the very people they need to maintain success.


Written by Colin D Ellis.

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Colin D. Ellis
Colin D. Ellis is a culture change expert, and an award-winning author and international speaker. Based in Australia, Colin is the author of four books, including his most recent, Culture Hacks: 26 Ideas to Transform the Way You Work (Major Street $29.95) and Culture Fix: How to Create a Great Place to Work (Wiley, Nov. 4, 2019). Colin D Ellis is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or connect on LinkedIn.