Multimodal management: Expectations in the hybrid workforce
Many organisations have adopted hybrid models of work that allow employees to perform their jobs remotely for portions of the work week. These new “Hybrid” practices allow flexibility and have quickly become the new normal in some industries. Recently, I joined a gathering with several emerging managers in California to discuss trends associated with hybrid work-life. Like many industries, the tech, bio-tech, professional services, and other sectors have embraced new flexible work practices.
My interactions quickly uncovered that firms, especially those that rely on young professional talent, are dealing with intuitional management memory gaps – along with two years of management development disruption. What that means in real terms, is that in some organizations 25% of the workforce has no idea what the workplace or people management was like in the pre-pandemic world of work.
As I delve into the emerging research finding, I note that this institutional memory gap takes different forms. For some of these young professionals who graduated from university during the pandemic, the concept of going to the office for physical meetings seems a bit odd. This is a stark contrast to the 20-year veteran leaders who expect employees to flock back into the offices and fill conference room spaces just like 2019. On the other hand, supervisors with five to seven years of experience are caught in the middle trying to blend the best of both worlds and are forced to develop their own approaches to managing multiple modes of working across physical and virtual locations.
This memory gap is coupled with a shift in work mode expectations, which is a phenomenon created in the wake of COVID-19. When a significant phenomenon effects a population that causes behaviour or expectation changes (e.g. World War II, Great Depression, etc.) we call this impact a “Cohort Effect.”
This pandemic induced shift to a multi-modal approach to management is a cohort effect as it has altered the expectations of workforces in many industries. While we recognize this change and see the impact in organisations, it is often unclear how firms might develop managers in a way that addresses the challenges associated with managing people across multiple modes of engagement.
Two things seem clear when diving into the details inside many organisations: 1) the shift to multi-modal management is here to stay; and 2) managers are not always well prepared for people management in this new reality. While research is trying to catch-up with these trends to provide new management insights, there seem to be some early signals of what is required for multi-modal management. Based on qualitative input from workforces across several organisations, four critical multi-modal management skills have emerged:
Ubiquitous Information Exchange
When teams are spread across multiple locations or modalities, leaders can be a challenged to ensure that everyone has the same information, especially when frequent updates or changes are common. Many teams have adopted collaboration sites such as Teams, Slack, or other tools which allow for instant updates and shared documents. While these information exchange and collaboration sites worked well when everyone was in the same virtual mode during the pandemic, the challenge in the hybrid work mode occurs when some people meet in the office and make decisions without posting to share with others. For example, consider Sanjana who leads a team of software developers and requires that all in-person meetings be documented to ensure equal access to information. Such discipline for documented meetings is rare, yet, keeping the ubiquitous flow of information takes strong discipline to make hybrid work teams aligned.
As organizations require workers to come back into the offices for a portion of the work week, questions arise if there is not value associated with having a physical presence in the office. Consider Jonathan who commutes one hour each way to the office and finds that he sits at his desk all day with limited meaningful interaction with others in the office. With situations like this, it is no wonder that employees are challenging the need to return to offices. To address this, some leading firms are reviewing roles and tasks to determine and schedule activities by mode. In other words, if Jonathan comes to the office to engage in an in-person brainstorming session and social interactions with others, then he will likely see the value of the time in the office. While this task-mode reconciliation is not easy, the multi-modal manager will work to align what gets done by mode.
Modal Equality/ Inclusion
With a hybrid workforce, managers have the opportunity to improve equality and foster more inclusion in the organization. Remote working allows people with responsibilities at home to stay engaged in the workforce. Unfortunately, the early evidence shows that there is a high risk of inequity when some employees are working remotely and others are working on-site. Remote workers are more likely to have a slower career progress and less likely to feel a sense of belonging. Successful multi-modal managers ensure equal time with team members across each of the modes of engagement. Consider Helga, a consulting manager who manages a hybrid team of analysts. In addition to various team meetings, she conducts meetings with each individual on the team via Zoom each week in ensure equality – even if they are together in the same office location. Ensuring that every team member has equal access to the manager in each mode can be a challenge, and necessary to build a sense of equity and inclusion across modalities.
Social Capital/ Relationships
One of the common complaints about virtual working during the pandemic was the lack of social interaction, casual discussions, or spontaneous engagements in hallways or cafeterias. When managing the hybrid workforce, it is incumbent on managers to find ways to build relationships and create social capital in the organization. Without building relationships, work activities can become transactional and mechanistic, which can impact well-being and lead to burnout or turnover. Consider Chen, a manager of an industrial hybrid team, who sponsors online and in-person events for her team so they can get to know each other and build relationships. While some may consider these activities as unnecessary, successful multi-modal managers embrace the challenge of building relationships with an understanding that social capital can make a positive impact on well-being, engagement, productivity, and retention.
The new world of work is still unfolding following the global pandemic, yet the cohort effect of hybrid work modalities is here to stay. While new management research is underway to uncover more insights related to hybrid working, the four key areas related to ubiquitous information flow, task-mode reconciliation, equality/inclusion, and social capital/relationships have emerged thus far as management skills needed for today.
As I reflect on my recent interactions with young professionals, I am struck by the ease at which they have adopted the skills of multi-modal managers. As one young tech manager shared, “We don’t have experience managing in the working world that existed prior to COVID-19, we only know our business as it is today – so don’t impose your old-world paradigms of management on our multimodal world.” This striking statement makes me wonder what the future holds as we experience a leadership cohort shift. My hope is that this change to multi-modal leadership opens up a promise for the future as we perhaps bring forward some of the good practices of leadership and use this period of time to reinvent some of the management practices that need to change to make great workplaces for everyone.