US historian and founder of the field of Leadership Studies, James Macgregor, identified two distinct types of leaders: the first, which he called transactional leaders, are those who keep a close eye on the performance of their team members, and who seek to dole out rewards and punishments according to the extent to which their expectations are met. More often referred to as “micro-managers”.
The other type of leader – and the type to which much of this blog will be dedicated – are referred to as transformational leaders (or “macro managers”). Leaders of this type articulate a clear, shared vision for their team; they lead by example; and much of their emphasis is on the development and transformation of their team members.
There might once have been a debate to be had about the various merits of each of these leadership types. Now, though, with the advent and widespread acceptance of hybrid working models, transformational leadership has shown itself to be the far superior option of the two. In a world where knowledge worker autonomy is at an all-time high, transactional leadership – a methodology built almost entirely on distrust – has become completely unworkable.
What is a hybrid leader?
Put simply, a Hybrid leader is a leader whose team operates within some form of hybrid working model.
This might mean, for example, that their team works from the office three days a week and from home the other two, in what we have termed the office centric model of hybrid working. Or else maybe their team works almost entirely from home, with the occasional trip into the office for team meetings and other such events – this we refer to as a home centric model.
Regardless of the specific implementation, hybrid working success will not come about by chance, as it sometimes will when teams are sharing a physical space; hybrid leaders will need to be intentional if they want their teams to be effective.
What can leaders do to adapt to the hybrid world?
We have identified four primary ways, based on our six factors research, that hybrid leaders can adapt their management styles if they wish to succeed in the hybrid workplace. There are, of course, other things they can be doing to increase their chances of hybrid working success, but we feel that these four are the most fundamental.
- Create a Trusting Environment
As much of our research surrounding knowledge worker productivity shows, trust is an absolute must for any team of knowledge workers. Team members need to feel secure in the belief that whatever they share with their colleagues will be used to further the team’s collective goals; and equally important, they need to be sure that this information will not be used against them personally.
This is true whether teams are working within a hybrid workplace or not, but when it comes to hybrid working, the need for trust is critical. Workers are given the autonomy to choose their place and time of work (often within specified boundaries). There will never be anybody looking over their shoulder – neither colleagues nor team leaders – and this means that there is never any definitive proof that they are actually doing what they say they are. As a leader, you will never see any member of your team bent over their computer working on a project; you will only see the finished piece of work.
In the absence of such proof, it can be tempting to assume the worst of certain team members in certain situations. Maybe, for example, one member of your team is never at their desk until ten o’clock in the morning, and because of this lateness, you assume them to be slacking. This kind of reaction is completely natural and something that we, in our practice, have seen repeatedly. But provided that team members are hitting their goals and following the rules set out by their hybrid working agreements, hybrid leaders should always default to trust.
As with transformational leaders, hybrid leaders need to role model the virtues they wish to see in their teams – first among these virtues has to be trust.
- Take time to get to know each individual within your team
In contrast with the old, office-based world of work, which provided leaders with plenty of opportunities to understand what was happening in the lives of their people, the hybrid world offers only snippets. If someone is feeling sad, stressed, overworked, or below par, this is far more visible in the office. You get a sense for people through their appearance and behaviour. It’s an always-on stream of information.
Compare this with the hybrid world, where all you might see of your people are snapshots, hour-long slots on Zoom or Teams calls. And if they choose to turn the video off, you get to see even less. This creates a need for leaders to proactively seek time to understand how people are faring both in work and life in general. Leaders need to be trusted in order that their co-workers are prepared to be open about their challenges. Similarly leaders need to create the moments where the individual can open up and share their challenges, and where they can expect sympathy and help.
- Provide the “right” support
We now know for an empirical fact that an employee’s perception of their supervisory support is strongly linked to their level of productivity and their perception of the organisation in general (their relationship with their supervisor being a proxy for their relationship with the organisation). But unlike in a physical office, where it can be easier to create this sense of supervisory support with little conscious effort, a virtual or hybrid workplace requires that supervisors go out of their way to provide their team members with the support they need.
There are numerous ways this can be achieved, varying according to the personality type of the leader and the needs of his or her team. Some may choose to engage in daily catch-ups via video call with each of their team members. Others may simply choose to make themselves available for large portions of the day via chat, much as they would be available were they in a physical office. The important thing is that employees feel that support is there and that it is easily accessible should they need it.
- Find Ways to Create Social Cohesion
When we work in teams, we need to be able to put our heads together, to discuss ideas, and to exchange opinions openly. But frank discussions can be difficult when we engage in them with people we don’t know. Lacking familiarity with our colleagues, we may doubt their motives or feel attacked when they present a view that runs counter to our own. The antidote to this very natural over-sensitivity is social cohesion.
Social cohesion, in short, occurs when team members know and like and are close with one another. When social cohesion has been achieved, team members are less sensitive, they are more likely to give their colleagues the benefit of the doubt, and they are more likely, ultimately, to express themselves openly.
But the issue is, or can be, that many of the ways social cohesion is typically formed do not occur organically in a hybrid working environment. We do not, for example, take five minutes off from work to grab a cup of coffee with a virtual co-worker. This means that social cohesion needs to be consciously cultivated, and the burden of this responsibility falls on team leaders.
There are numerous ways that hybrid leaders can create social cohesion – they need to create opportunities for their team members to socialise, and they need to make an effort to engage with each of their team members on a personal level. (You can find more ideas about how to create social cohesion in a hybrid workplace here). Should leaders manage this, they will find that opinions and ideas flow far more freely within their team, and that, what’s more, their team members are far happier.
Hybrid working has many benefits, but they don’t come for free. The transition from the office to the hybrid workplace needs to be accompanied by the equally important transition from transactional to transformational forms of leadership. If this transition is to be a success, organisations are going to have to provide their leaders with the support and training they need to become the hybrid leaders of tomorrow.
This will, of course, take time, care, and effort, but by implementing these measures, organisations will be laying the foundations for their long-term, hybrid working success.