In early 2022, a Google search for the query “gaps in management skills + hybrid work” produced a whopping 48,000,000 responses. What’s more, worldwide interest in that same query increased by four times between the announcement of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020 and early 2022 — more than two years later — and is now at peak popularity based on Google Trends (Figure 1).
To be sure, finding answers for how to close the remote and hybrid work management skills gaps is a topic of the highest interest — an enduring challenge born of the pandemic and its distancing restrictions.
It’s becoming clear that remote and hybrid work is here to stay. McLean & Company’s 2022 HR Trends report found that 87 percent of organizations planned for some type of hybrid work in 2021 and anticipated benefits of continuing remote work (Figure 2).
There are many implications associated with this new world of work — for the geography of labor, the work itself, real estate and how people managers lead. A recent article in The Atlantic noted that the remote and hybrid work revolution is “akin to a cannonball dropped in a lake — an acute phenomenon whose ripples can warp every corner of the labor force.” For the minority of employees who can accomplish some or all work from a distance, the number of days spent in the office will not go back to the pre-pandemic average, according to Kastle Systems study on workplace trends and how workers are returning to the office.
Being a successful people manager looks different in a remote or hybrid environment, and requires different skills and approaches than managing people in person. However, the two years since the start of the pandemic suggest people managers have not made the shift, and skills gaps are significant. McLean & Company’s 2022 HR Trends Report revealed that 90 percent of respondents (n= 337) report gaps in management capabilities in their organization.
The rate and scale of changes to work are resulting in rapid changes to what is considered essential skills and making change-supportive competencies such as resilience, change management and design thinking more important than ever. Remote work has also uncovered significant gaps in managers’ skills (Figure 3).
The most common action organizations are taking to close this skills gap is helping new and existing managers develop through training (Figure 4). HR departments that are highly effective at developing organizational leaders are less likely to report having a gap in manager capabilities.
Why is the conundrum of leading remote and hybrid teams so difficult to solve? How is being a people leader in a remote or hybrid environment different from being a people leader in a non-remote or non-hybrid environment?
People leaders have always been responsible for actively supporting and managing direct reports, managing day-to-day work within teams and creating a great employee experience. The difference is remote work and onsite work provide two different employee experiences. Hybrid work is more than just a blend of the two and requires thoughtful and purposeful people leadership to create a cohesive and inclusive employee experience. Effective hybrid work requires strong people leadership with some significant benefits (Figure 5).
McLean & Company explored remote and hybrid work issues in our most recent research, “Prepare People Leaders for the Hybrid Work Environment.” We found that, much like trying to find a job without experience, people managers are faced with adjusting and dealing with complex change without the benefit of learning by experience. The skills it takes to have an effective performance conversation that includes a drop-in eight-month-old or a curious cat are new. The skills needed to keep everyone on the team engaged when some are off video, some are on video and some are together in a meeting room or alone in a cloffice (a closet that doubles as an office, also born of the pandemic) are new forms of working. Successful remote and hybrid work requires people leaders to change their behavior in a way that is conducive to remote and hybrid work, mitigates challenges, exemplifies cultural values and drives results.
While everyone has a role to play in making hybrid work successful, the role of people leaders is particularly important. That’s because today’s workforce expects (and in some cases, demands) more flexibility. How work gets done has fundamentally changed, especially for organizations where some or all its workforce can work from anywhere there is a reliable Internet connection. Remote and hybrid work at scale is still new to many organizations and rife with experimentation.
Here are several HR tactics can use in preparing people leaders to lead effectively, promote teamwork and foster connection in a hybrid environment:
- Start by getting a snapshot of your current state. Analyze available data to identify people-leadership pain points within your organization. Look for information that provides insights into areas such as communication, collaboration, trust, autonomy, accountability, adaptability, equity, empathy, support and relationship building. Sources may include engagement surveys, new hire and exit surveys, focus groups and people leaders’ feedback.
- Next, define goals and metrics for people leaders so they understand what is expected in a hybrid environment. For example, one goal could be increasing communication with hybrid employees to keep them informed about organizational decisions. Metrics to evaluate could include the number of weekly check-ins, feedback from direct reports and engagement scores.
- Then, compile resources such as job aides, reference sheets and identify learning opportunities that address the pain points that were identified in the analysis of data. Rather than leaving people leaders to improvise, prepare them with the tools and resources needed to succeed across three success factors: teamwork, leadership and connection.
- With people working across multiple locations, it is extremely important to ensure that daily collaboration, communication and work practices are effective and inclusive regardless of where someone is working from. No one should feel left out or uninformed due to their working location. Curate work checklists, meeting decision flowcharts, team communication templates and microlearning on topics such as how to run effective virtual meetings.
- Providing direct reports with the support and guidance they need without physically seeing them every day can seem daunting at first to people leaders. Ensure they are leading with inclusivity, trust and empathy at the front of their mind while continuing to hold their direct reports and themselves accountable for results. Mitigating biases and assumptions and avoiding micromanagement are critical to enabling the success of direct reports. Provide manager guides such as how to manage poor performance while working from home, tips sheets for virtual onboarding, and training or other learning opportunities on topics such as trust, resolving conflicts and emotional intelligence.
- Physical distance and the potential for subgroups to form (eg, employees who are onsite vs. working from home) make it difficult to foster team cohesion and a sense of belonging. Furthermore, networks and cross-functional collaboration require purposeful cultivation and support as teams or individuals may not be in the same location at the same time or in the same time zone. Rather than relying on spontaneous meetings in person, people leaders must help develop intentional and meaningful connections. Provide resources on how to use team traditions to reinforce connection in a hybrid environment. Provide best practices, guides and coaching.
- Finally, ensure customs and activities that exemplify culture are not left behind in the shift to hybrid work by identifying existing team traditions. Also known as team rituals, team traditions include interactions, events, activities or behaviors that are regularly repeated by the team and exhibit an aspect of the organizational or team culture. These can be as small and informal as a weekly team lunch or as large and formal as a quarterly volunteer outing. Their main purpose is to reinforce values and connections rather than produce a specific tangible output.
- Does it exhibit a specific team value (eg, respect and openness)?
- Is it highly valued by the team?
- Does it facilitate team bonding and meaningful connection?
- Does it have a deeper meaning or symbolism?
- Did it develop organically?
Only keep the team traditions that meet most (if not all) of the criteria above. Keep in mind that many of these traditions will become virtual to some extent, so it’s important to limit the number of traditions where possible to minimize the burden of additional screen time and meetings for hybrid employees. Traditions should engage and excite workers. If traditions begin to feel like another expectation for workers, cutting into their work or personal time, they will do more harm than good.
Closing the remote and hybrid work management skills gap shines a spotlight on the importance of leadership competencies. Leading remote staff requires strong management skills and even new skills that may not have been required when working in person. Effective learning and development opportunities are key to closing the gap.
Images and figures courtesy of McLean & Company.