Even as companies around the world invest in the infrastructure, processes, and training to enable a distributed workforce, a curious gap remains. Surveys over the last two and a half years have consistently found that employees and organisational leaders have widely differing views as far as hybrid work – or remote, or flexible, depending on a company's approach – goes.
Part of the challenge is simply that in the short term, the benefit to employees is noticeably greater than the benefit to businesses and leaders. Employees are happier and more productive, but that productivity does not reflect in broader business performance – which is what leaders pay most attention to – for at least a quarter or longer. Meanwhile, HR teams pour time and resources into policies and processes to support hybrid work, while managers worry about the impact on collaboration. Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon might have called remote work an aberration last year, but the second part of his remark got a lot less attention – the fact that he had 3,000 new hires, most of them fresh graduates, incoming, and was worried about whether they could be remotely integrated into existing teams.
The easy way out is, of course, to put a stop to hybrid work. A considerable number of leaders have already tried that, with some even threatening to fire staff who work remotely, or demote them to contractor status. That harsh response clearly indicates that such leaders still struggle with the idea that hybrid work can be anything more than a drag on productivity and an obstacle to collaboration, even when faced with opposing research and real-life examples from their peers.
Is there a better way to close this gap? The best long-term solution might be to invest in helping leaders work through this cognitive dissonance – matching hybrid strategies with leadership development strategies that enable leaders to lead and manage effectively in this model. So, for an external perspective of what companies are doing in practice, People Matters asked several search experts what they have seen in terms of leader recruitment and succession planning.
Doubling down on experience and competencies
A number of the key skillsets involved in leading and managing distributed teams have already been on companies' wishlists since long before the pandemic, say the recruitment experts. Nick Chia, Managing Director for Russell Reynolds Associates (RRA) in Singapore, shared that with global or pan-Asia executive search assignments, the ability to manage distributed teams with diverse backgrounds is always a requirement. On top of this, more emphasis is now being added to certain skills including agility, adaptability, communication, delegation, and influencing skills. Companies are giving higher priority to candidates who demonstrate these abilities.
“We have seen these relevant criteria move up in our clients’ priority list,” observed Chia.
“These were always there, but the ‘louder’ competencies – leading from the front, driving hard on execution, for example – were more visible and rewarded, and now the ‘softer’ competencies are moving up in importance given the ambiguity and uncertainty that continue to characterise the world today.”
Agreeing, Alena Salakhova, Regional Director of SThree, said that the in-depth development of leadership competencies is key. “Your capacity to work should not be limited by the changes of the working environment,” she remarked. “Our customers on leadership levels also shared that the ability to be vocal, sincere and genuine will always remain essential.”
And unsurprisingly, there is a high demand for leadership candidates who have experience with managing in the hybrid model. This includes candidates who held leadership roles during the pandemic, when they had to manage without physical interaction.
“During interviews, I see questions being asked around how these leaders coped with hybrid working, what learnings they acquired, and what are some of the challenges they face in managing people,” said Jaya Dass, Managing Director at Randstad Singapore and Malaysia. “Organisations want to get a sense of the person's learning, agility, ability to flex, empathy for people, and whether they're willing and able to adapt – to change up policies and ways of working in response to adjustments and shifts in their environment.”
But has the underlying structure actually changed?
The search for hybrid-savvy leaders should, theoretically, be the first step in long-term strategic planning for leadership development and succession in the hybrid working model. But is that really the case? Dass doesn't think so.
“If you're asking whether leadership competencies, skill sets, job descriptions, KPIs, management values, and such have been adjusted, the answer simply is: not yet.”
One major challenge, she said, is that even now, there is no broad consensus or actual clarity on what capabilities leaders need to have for long term hybrid working. In theory, hybrid or remote working shifts the focus away from inputs and day to day operations, and toward outputs. But even under the hybrid model as it's currently understood, remote work remains regimented, adhering to the traditional 9-5 schedule, and collaboration between those at home and those physically in the office is still not factored in.
“The structure of hybrid working has been put in place, and therefore there are conversations around areas such as insurance coverage, benefits, how to measure an employee's output or manage poor performance,” she observed. “But I haven't seen too much policy change behind the scenes on what the leadership team needs to be like. The competencies being tested for in interviews? They haven't been worked into job descriptions, KPIs, or management structure, and there is no official description for what a manager or leader needs to look like in a hybrid environment.”
Part of the issue may simply be that the kind of structural and process planning required to overhaul the leadership itself – with the attendant implications on the entire organisation as a result – takes a long time to get moving, and is frequently reactive rather than forward-thinking. Then, there is the lingering resistance to change: two years of the pandemic has not been enough to really shift people's mindsets, as shown by the urgency with which leaders around the world have been demanding a return to the office.
“There is still an old school mentality among leaders at the top level,” commented SThree's Salakhova. “We need a mindset shift and that requires time.”
On top of these inbuilt challenges, the greatest obstacle to a long-term hybrid-savvy leadership may, right now, simply be that no one is quite certain what such a leadership needs to be. In fact, as Dass pointed out, many organisations are not quite sure what hybrid working in itself should be – and it may be too premature to even ask this question.
“I don't think companies have pivoted yet,” she said. “There hasn't been a shift to the point where people say, let's sort out the structure and the leadership team; there's not really a clear sense that this (hybrid) is what the world of work will be like going forward. And to give the benefit of doubt, I don't think anyone knows the answer yet. But, I think it's in the making.”