Are Hybrid Environments the Future? Wrong Question.

Lately, there’s been a lot of debate about hybrid work models that blend time at the office with remote work. Which is better: the hybrid approach or a more traditional model, where the entire team is in the same place most of the time?

I think that’s asking the wrong question. The right question is: how do you, as a leader, set up your organization to succeed?

You shouldn’t rush to embrace a work model just because everyone else is doing it, and you shouldn’t reject a particular model out of hand. You adopt a model if—and only if—it enables your team and the company to reach their goals. A leader’s job is to create an effective work environment, and that includes the conditions that allow the company to compete and win.

Team together, team apart

Last month, I talked about my formula for creating a growth culture. In a nutshell: invest in your team and the company’s success will follow. Hybrid work models can support this formula by offering employees the “pros” of remote work, while minimizing the “cons.”

For employees who really need to focus to do certain tasks, working offsite may be a blessing. Less commuting saves time, which can promote a better work-life balance. It also saves money on fuel (which is no small consideration these days!), dry cleaning, meals purchased on the fly, and more. All of this can make for happier workers, which is critical to employee retention.

There are downsides to working remotely, too. Being offsite reduces the number of opportunities to learn from co-workers and mentors by simply being around them and watching what they do and say. There are times when it’s easier, more efficient, and even more fun to collaborate in the same physical space. I’ve also seen evidence that employees work longer and harder at home, setting them up for burnout.

Personally, I miss the human contact when my team isn’t together. I’m a people person, so I’d rather be in a room with others where I can observe the nuances of their behaviour—noticing their posture, facial expressions, and how they interact with each other. I like being able to pull someone aside to ask them a question.

But as a leader, you can’t use being apart as an excuse for a lack of interaction. For example, I’ve heard managers complain that it’s harder to read body language and keep track of who’s paying attention during video meetings. As the person in charge, you’ve got to find ways to remove the screen as a barrier between team members. Go around the Zoom windows and ask people direct questions. Make sure you compel everyone to participate, even if you have to drag it out of them!

The fact is, you can’t let a screen get in the way of being a great leader. Whatever the environment, you still need to rally your team around a shared goal or common purpose. You still need to apply discipline and processes that ensure operations run smoothly and to recognize your employees’ achievements. And you need to be prepared to adapt if necessary.

The competitive edge

Assessing the effectiveness of your work model means taking a hard look at the competition: what other companies are doing, what your peers are doing, and who is winning.

If the competition is doing better with their model—if they’re winning—and that model is the secret to their success, you may have to rethink your setup. To put it bluntly, if your company is getting its butt kicked, it’s up to you to make a change!

The same is true for people. Some team members may thrive within your work model and others may not. If you find an employee can’t adapt—even after reasonable time and accommodation—they may need to move on to another work environment that suits them better.

Before you throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater, though, consider another possibility: the problem might not be the model but how it was implemented.

I recently spoke to the CEO of a big company who said he’d asked his employees to start going into the office just two days per week. Only half his workforce turned up as requested! If that were me, I would have been specific about which days employees were to be onsite and made clear that I expect 100% attendance. Sorry—no floating in and out as suits your mood. After all, what’s the point of commuting to work only to wander around empty hallways?

You can’t blame your team if you’ve haven’t established clear expectations and enforced them. You also can’t blame a work model for poor results if it was badly executed, especially if you didn’t engage employees in its design.

On a recent How Leaders Lead podcast episode, I spoke to the delightful Juliet Funt, CEO of the Juliet Funt Group, a consultant for Fortune 500 companies, and author of A Minute to Think. Among the wisdom she shared is that a hybrid design should be driven, at least in part, by input from employees. You could start by asking what’s working and what’s not. Of course, this doesn’t mean your team can do whatever they want, whenever they want, regardless of outcome. It’s about offering—and receiving—constructive feedback, and making adjustments as necessary.

A chance to grow

Another cold, hard truth is that a hybrid work model can amplify a leader’s weaknesses. If you’re a micromanager who’s always looking over everyone’s shoulders, you’ll never trust the job is getting done when people are offsite. If you’re the consummate pushover who doesn’t keep your team accountable, all that coming and going from the office may cause you to completely lose your grip. In both cases, a hybrid model can make a bad situation worse, but these kinds of leaders will struggle in any environment.

It’s still early days in this shift towards hybrid work models, and we don’t know how things are going to shake out. If I can leave you one with last piece of advice, it’s to view this period as an opportunity to grow as a leader. Will you be buried by practical questions, such as the best days to be in the office or getting the most out of virtual meetings? Or will you be a beacon and guide as your team navigates the path towards a flexible, productive, and winning environment?