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Leading in a Hybrid World – Harvard Business Publishing


As global organizations plan for a post-pandemic workplace, there are few issues more urgent for them to consider than leading effectively in a hybrid world. Hybrid—a mix of in-person and remote work arrangements—became a necessity in March 2020, and it is now a workplace norm. Various studies indicate that even as companies invite employees back to the office, most people prefer flexible work arrangements. For example, Microsoft’s 2021 Work Trend Index conducted a study of over 30,000 people across 31 countries and found that 73% of respondents desire remote work options.1

To stay competitive in today’s market, it is imperative that companies have a structure in place for employees to define where and when they work most productively. When hybrid work is not an option, organizations face more difficulty attracting talent, and current employees leave at a faster rate for other opportunities.2  However, despite the popularity of this workplace structure, companies are reporting higher instances of interpersonal conflict. Leaders and their teams must learn how to navigate these difficult interactions amid hybrid work environments, since, as many have observed, hybrid is here to stay.3

Hybrid Work Invites Unique Communication Challenges

Due to its flexibility, the hybrid model has allowed employers to access a more diverse group of candidates. This has “improved the work experience for their existing employees of color, enhancing retention and bolstering the leadership pipeline.”4 At the same time, organizations are contending with new and unique communication challenges. Leading in a hybrid world, then, must start with first understanding employees’ pain points.

   Lack of transparency

When companies promote “defining one’s own work environment,” conflict can arise when there is a lack of clarity in what this actually means. Is it one-size-fits-all or anything goes? More times than not, senior leaders have said they want to come into the office every day and expect their workers to do the same. There are often transparency and communication issues around who can take advantage of the hybrid work structure, and why.

   Equity issues

Working remotely raises equity issues around who can work from home and who cannot. It can be unevenly distributed or allowed among colleagues. Typically, in many industries, leaders and some office workers can work from home, while frontline managers and employees are required to go into the office. This inequity leads to difficult conversations among employees and their managers, as well as tension between colleagues if they feel they have different or limited access to this model of work.

   Power differentials

If the hybrid model is not properly managed, it runs the risk of creating a “dominant class” of people who feel that they are central to the organization and an “underclass” of employees who feel disconnected from work and from the social life that bonds employees to the organization.5 Even more damaging, these power differentials can weaken relationships, impact collaboration, and even reduce individual performance.

   Electronic miscommunications

A recent survey of 2,000 U.S workers indicated that their top source of tension at work was relationships with colleagues. 94% reported that they had worked with someone who was “toxic.”6 This problem is exacerbated when some people are not as comfortable, or adept at, communicating virtually than others. According to one expert in workplace conflict, “electronic communication can bring us together in remarkable ways, [but] it also liberates us to voice our frustrations, hurl insults, and take people down a notch from a safe distance.”7 Interpersonal conflict can escalate in these new mediums because colleagues are not communicating face-to-face.

Improve Communication in Hybrid Work Environments

To work productively in a remote work environment, all stakeholders must recognize and manage these potential interpersonal pitfalls. When leading in a hybrid world, leaders should consider the following communication best practices.

1. Demonstrate transparency

Organizational leaders must be transparent about their approach toward hybrid work, so that all employees understand their company’s intentions. While a remote work environment may enable more flexibility and work-life balance, sometimes employees can feel invaded upon by their employer. For example, research finds that “many Black employees have experienced virtual work as particularly invasive. While home was once a private space for authentic cultural expression, videoconferencing transformed this formerly safe space into focal points of public gaze.”8 Whether employees want to participate in the hybrid model, or are resistant to it, clear and transparent communication from leadership around hybrid work expectations are imperative. For example, leaders could clearly communicate that intermittently turning off one’s video in meetings is normal and acceptable behavior.

2. Identify guiding principles

Organizations must develop guiding principles for hybrid work and communicate a clear set of expectations. While recognizing that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution, centralized guidelines can help ensure equity and transparency. This may mean defining when in-office work is more beneficial (e.g., team-wide events) and how often to expect this type of collaboration. Leadership must ask for feedback so that employees can voice their opinions and understand that the hybrid environment is an evolving situation. Furthermore, equitable performance measures need to be clearly communicated. That way, employees understand how the hybrid work model impacts their performance reviews and opportunities for growth in the company.

3. Develop inclusion best practices

Clearly, there is a “hybrid paradox” at work here—while in-person contact decreases, the importance of strong interpersonal communication skills becomes more important, especially as organizations grow more diverse. When leading in a hybrid world, communication must be approached with an inclusive mindset. But without training or an understanding of best practices around diversity and inclusion, many struggle to do so. Someone who may be underrepresented at their organization might struggle to voice their opinions in a remote environment, which can negatively impact the quality of a team’s performance.

Companies should consider how everyone can feel included and listened to—even when they are behind a video screen—and develop a set of best practices accordingly. For example, team leaders can share how they view information through the eyes of the speaker, or HR leaders can distribute a list of questions employees can ask to understand a different viewpoint better (instead of making assumptions or jumping to an argument).

4. Avoid making conflict personal

In times of stress or conflict, individuals may resort to focusing on the person with whom they disagree rather than the situation itself. Studies have shown that zeroing in on just a few attributes of the person causing conflict is extremely tempting. However, this approach leads to miscommunication and escalates conflict.9  For example, consider a common hybrid work scenario:

  • A remote employee is aggravated that they haven’t heard back from a colleague after sending them multiple emails and Slack messages.
  • Frustrated with a lack of response and concerned about the status of the work, the employee sends an emotionally-charged follow-up email.
  • The colleague on the receiving end of the message replies a few days later that they were out of office last minute dealing with a family emergency.
  • The colleague admits that although they forgot to set an automatic reply indicating their absence, they would have appreciated more understanding.

What could have the frustrated employee done better here? Instead of thinking the worst of their colleague, they might have asked themselves a few questions: “Am I assuming positive intent?” “Have I sought guidance from my manager, who may help level set my frustrations?” “Am I considering my colleague’s circumstances?”

When conflict comes up amid hybrid work, it’s imperative that individuals learn to consider all facets of the situation, rather than making it personal.

5. Offer training

While organizations can set expectations and norms around how to best communicate in a hybrid work environment, conflict may still occur. To set leaders and employees up for success, companies should offer training on how to navigate conflict. In a 2022 study of individuals who participated in a leadership development program, 73% said it made them feel more confident engaging in difficult interactions, while 62% felt they were able to turn potentially destructive conflicts into productive ones.10

 

Looking Ahead

With interpersonal conflict is on the rise, people must be equipped to navigate these unique communication challenges amid hybrid work models. Professional development training and the establishment of clear and consistent communication norms are two solutions for successfully leading in a hybrid world. When people successfully navigate difficult interactions, more of their energy can be focused on working toward shared priorities and productively collaborating with others to turn opposing points of view into more innovative solutions. To learn more ways to effectively navigate and reap the benefits of healthy conflict, download the full paper: Why Conflict Is the Key to Unlocking Innovation.

 

Citations

[1] Neeley, Tsedal, “12 Questions About Hybrid Work, Answered,” HBR.org, September 28, 2021. https://hbr.org/2021/09/12-questions-about-hybrid-work-answered.

[2] Bobbi Thomason and Jennifer Franczak, “3 Tensions Leaders Need to Manage in the Hybrid Workplace,” HBR.org, February 3, 2022. https://hbr.org/2022/02/3-tensions-leaders-need-to-manage-in-the-hybrid-workplace.

[3] Min, Sarah, “Stanford University Economics Professor Stays Hybrid Work is Here to Stay,” CNBC.com, October 26, 2022.

[4] Mark Mortensen and Martine Haas, “Making the Hybrid Workplace Fair,” HBR.org, February 24, 2021. https://hbr.org/2021/02/making-the-hybrid-workplace-fair.

[5] Haas, Martine, “5 Challenges of Hybrid Work — and How to Overcome Them,” HBR.org, February 15, 2022. https://hbr.org/2022/02/5-challenges-of-hybrid-work-and-how-to-overcome-them.

[6] Gallo, Amy, “How to Navigate Conflict with a Coworker,” HBR.org, September-October 2022. https://hbr.org/2022/09/how-to-navigate-conflict-with-a-coworker.

[7] Porath, Christine, “Frontline Work When Everyone Is Angry,” HBR.org, November 9, 2022. https://hbr.org/2022/11/frontline-work-when-everyone-is-angry.

[8] Bobbi Thomason and Jennifer Franczak, “3 Tensions Leaders Need to Manage in the Hybrid Workplace,” HBR.org, February 3, 2022. https://hbr.org/2022/02/3-tensions-leaders-need-to-manage-in-the-hybrid-workplace.

[9] Dattner, Ben, “Most Work Conflicts Aren’t Due to Personality,” HBR.org, May 20, 2014. https://hbr.org/2014/05/most-work-conflicts-arent-due-to-personality.

[10] Julia A. Minson and Francesca Gina, “Managing a Polarized Workforce,” HBR.org, March-April 2022. https://hbr.org/2022/03/managing-a-polarized-workforce.

Rizwan Ahmed
Rizwan Ahmed
AuditStudent.com, founded by Rizwan Ahmed, is an educational platform dedicated to empowering students and professionals in the all fields of life. Discover comprehensive resources and expert guidance to excel in the dynamic education industry.
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