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A Year Of Remote Work: Leadership Lessons For The Shift To Hybrid

By Holger Reisinger

Date Published: Jun 7, 2021

Good leadership has always been a moving target. Whether in business, athletics or politics, leaders must constantly respond to the changing conditions around them with attentiveness and purpose. But during the Covid-19 pandemic, colossal changes were flying at leaders from all angles, impacting them just as acutely as those they lead. Naturally, they responded by implementing a patchwork of reactive remote working strategies to ensure business continuity and minimize disturbances.

Now, with vaccine rollouts either underway or on the horizon in many parts of the world, businesses are beginning to reevaluate their strategies, with many planning a return to the office. As they do this, they are exploring the pros and cons of permanent hybrid working arrangements – that is, where employees work flexibly, from home, the office or co-located. As leaders evaluate their options for the road ahead, it can help to take stock of the past year and map out what lessons we have learned about remote working.

A Year Of Remote Work: Leadership Lessons For The Shift To Hybrid

Knowledge workers can be just as productive from home, but only for some tasks.

When workers were forced to work from home in an almost overnight transition, leaders worried about the potential impacts on productivity. But research has shown (paywall) that knowledge workers have actually been more productive at home during the pandemic. The change in work environment essentially allowed workers to focus on the individual work that really mattered, spend more time interacting with clients and business partners and get drawn into fewer large meetings.

But during this time, we also realized some of the downsides of remote working and the experiences that were trickier to replicate virtually. The development of personal connections – one of the core foundations of trust-building (paywall) in organizations – is more natural in a physical office setting: small talk and interactions give us context about a colleague’s behavior – which helps to foster empathy in the workplace. Moreover, at the outset of the pandemic, the office space typically had a wider array of technologies and tools to enable effective teamwork. Moving forward, to map out the best hybrid set up for their organizations, leaders will need to weigh the pros and cons of office and remote working styles against the various activities undertaken by their workforce and the spaces in which those activities are best executed.

Presence does not equal performance.

One study from 2015 showed that in-office employees are more likely to receive a promotion than remote employees. This is partly because when employees are in the office, it is easy for managers to observe their engagement in work and culture – engagement which often informs, whether intentionally or unintentionally, an employee’s performance evaluation. But the remote work experiment of the pandemic has forced us to rethink these types of biases. As we move into a hybrid future, it is critical that leaders decouple performance from presence to ensure fair opportunities for all employees, based solely on their performance and work outputs. They must find strategies to ensure fair evaluation and recognition, regardless of location.

Inclusive virtual collaboration can be a catalyst for innovation.

Similar to trust, innovation is born out of interpersonal connection and serendipitous encounters; indeed, whiteboard scribblings and marathon brainstorming sessions have long been the birthplace of industry-altering ideas. However, most of these interactions were done away with during remote work, with innovation taking a blow in many companies.

As we transition into a new normal, one of the most pressing questions for leaders will be how to re-create these spaces and encounters in the virtual world – and to do so in a way that equally values the ideas of remote and office workers. For leaders of hybrid organizations and teams, it will be imperative to establish methods and tools that allow for a more natural flow to hybrid meetings. These could include digital white