Virtual and hybrid working

What leaders have learnt from hybrid and remote working

Melinda Yon 7th April 2022

Did you ever have those days when you wished you didn’t have to go into the office and you could work from home? I’ve had my fair share over my working life. However, never did I anticipate that remote and hybrid working would become my norm for the past two years!

Along with many, my debut in full-time remote work began at the onset of the pandemic led lockdown. Tucked away in my bedroom, the outdoor table and chair were hastily dragged in whilst the rest of the house competed for space and Wi-Fi bandwidth. We all tiptoed around the house to avoid interrupting work calls and presentations and online school programmes.

Like so many things, the pandemic has thrust us into new ways of working and has been a catalyst for transformation. Including how we work.

The truth is, remote, virtual, teleworking or hybrid working is not new for many.  IT companies for example have been working this way for years. Some leaders have had a head start in managing a remote workforce. In fact, Roffey Park Institute published its first report on virtual management, in 2003, which still remains relevant.

More recently, for many leaders, remote and hybrid working has presented new ways to navigate leading, and a new set of challenges. 72% of executives in Singapore said that they will continue to adopt a hybrid workplace model, even after the pandemic. Here’s what leaders have learnt about leading a remote or hybrid team.

Communication

Virtual communication can certainly have its pitfalls:

  • The formality of planning and organising a call or meeting
  • Unreliable technology or connectivity issues
  • Online meeting fatigue
  • Transactional discussions
  • Not being able to read non-verbal communication – body language, voice pitch, and tone cues.

We’re not communicating face-to-face yet we’re still communicating as if we were and it’s easy to miss the nuances. Our report, What Makes an Excellent Virtual Manager, cites Effective Communication as “one of the most important attributes” of virtual management.

More than small talk and informal exchanges, (which I personally miss), effective communication is more about the ability to not only communicate regularly but effectively. It’s both the formal of keeping the team updated, motivated and focused and the informal of reaching out to team members for check-ins. 

In the remote and hybrid working environment, people appreciate clear communication, setting expectations, regular dialogue, transparency, recognition and empathy. Moreover, they also appreciate a leader that listens. Active listening is the key to providing clues to understanding what is really going on and being able to identify the non-verbal cues to understand others. How well are you listening to your team? The Art of Listening is an interesting article that identifies possible listening blockages and lists some tips for finessing our active listening skills.

Empathy

Empathy is a core competency of Emotional Intelligence. It is one of the most important soft skills a leader can possess. In the Asia Pacific, 72% of employees call for leaders to prioritise employee wellbeing.

This past year I’ve noticed more references made to empathy and compassionate leadership than ever and I’ve witnessed its importance first-hand. Interestingly, during our 2022 IWD, Women in Leadership event, the audience was asked to identify what characteristics make a successful leader and empathy had the strongest response.

Through the pandemic, we’ve experienced fatigue, exhaustion, loneliness, frustration, sadness and angst. Furthermore, from behind the computer screen we’ve seen real human moments and a sneak peek into our colleagues’ personal lives. This includes sick children, family members and pets, less formality with casual attire and possibly less styling occasions. We’ve shared stories of separation from family, friends re-locating and job insecurity or loss. How could we not feel empathy in such uncertain times and when our teams are vulnerable?

With the work environment changing and organisations adopting the hybrid working model, leaders have had to be mindful of the inconvenience or burden of teams working in their personal space. They’ve had to be accommodating to their personal situations. Strains on technology and resources, shared devices and multi-generational households have caused issues.

In Roffey Park’s Compassion in the Workplace Model, empathy is one of the five attributes. Consider some of these tips from the report to build empathy.

1. Identify commonalities
  • Try to discover what you have in common with someone else.
  • Identify a list of your own fears and insecurities and difficult things that might have happened to you in your life. Also, the things that you would like people to understand about you and have empathy with. Now recognise that every other person you meet will have their own version of that list.
  • Reflect on the saying: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.”
  • Part of our capacity to be empathic is to be able to take just a tiny piece of our own individual experience and amplify it. This is so that we are able to appreciate where the other person is coming from. “(I think) I know what you mean/what you are feeling.”
2. Practice using empathy in conversation

• Develop some empathic phrases and use them – but make sure they’re ones that feel comfortable for you. Be tentative when reflecting back to someone else what they might be feeling. “I imagine you must/might be feeling……. is that right?”

• If you hear someone is going through/has gone through a tough time, try to imagine how they might be feeling. Then sound them out with phrases such as: “That sounds tough – how are you feeling about it?” or “I would have hated that – but how are you feeling?” or: “I can imagine you might be feeling. Is that right?”

Adaptive

We’ve discovered that we can, and have had to, quickly adapt and evolve to the remote and hybrid working world. Leaders have had to be flexible with their approach. Not only has there been a change in circumstances but we’ve had to change our mindset and our behaviour. This has resulted in the way we work with our teams to manage and cope with change.

It’s been an opportunity to show new skills and capabilities, think outside the box, try new things and be more creative. And with it, adaptive leadership has allowed leaders to embrace change with a different mindset and belief. Leaders have learnt to listen to problems and encourage the collective effort to problem solve and achieve goals.

Trust

 “Trust is the glue of life. It’s the most essential ingredient in effective communication. It’s the founding principle that holds relationships.” Stephen Covey,

Trust is one of the foundations for the success of leading a remote and/or hybrid working team.

In a physical office environment, we have the comfort of visibility, seeing everyone physically around or communicating as often as needed. But virtually there is both a physical and psychological distance, and so trust in the virtual world can require a leap of faith. It’s only natural to wonder if work is actually getting done, if everyone is busy enough, or knows what they are supposed to be doing. Actually, some employees feel the need to give the impression to their leaders that they are at their desks at all times while remote and hybrid working.

In Roffey Park’s 2016 research on Trust, we highlight that “high levels of trust are critical to people’s effectiveness and well-being at work”. When in a physical office environment, there are also far more opportunities to connect with people to build rapport. But in a remote or hybrid working environment there tend to be fewer work friends and emotional connections with colleagues. So, leaders have to work harder to build rapport and trust in the team by planning and making time to connect.

Here are eight other behaviours identified from our research on trust, that leaders can do to build trust:
  1. Be transparent (being open and honest in communication)
  2. Sticking to commitments.
  3. Demonstrating trust.
  4. Being personal.
  5. Being consistent.
  6. Appreciating others.
  7. Listening well.
  8. Demonstrating vulnerability.

With hybrid working here to stay, it is as good a time as any to master these leadership skills. Virtual managers can be differentiated by the way they use their competencies, the micro-skills they possess and the actions they take.