Leadership Strategies

Leadership for an Era of Dynamic Hybrid Work

The shift to hybrid work fundamentally challenges traditional leadership strategies. Focus on empathic leadership for success in the future of work.
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2020 has been a watershed year for many reasons. What was the top among them? It was the year we embraced new ways of working.  We went from using digital technology in workplaces defined by industrial era management models to using technology to define truly digital ways of working.  This happened around the globe and at scale. 

At the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, many leaders assumed the transition to remote work would be short lived – something akin to an extended weather emergency keeping people out temporarily.  Once they realized that remote work could be extended long term many worried about employee productivity, cyber security and how to address business operations.  As the months went on, leaders started to rethink their assumptions about remote work.  High tech firms led the way in offering extended or even permanent remote work policies.  IDC’s research showed a rapid and remarkable shift – from viewing remote work as a top inhibitor to productivity to being a top enabler.

As organizations scrambled to ensure remote workers had the technical resources they needed to work productively, and as they contemplated what a safe return to the office would look like, another concern began to surface.  What about managers?  What about HR?  How will organizations ensure that employees are getting the support they need as they shift from working from one location to another?  How will managers, often lacking in experience supporting remote teams, learn to work in new ways? 

It’s one thing to shore up the technical resources employees need to work remotely, or put in place safety protocols for them to go to an office building; it’s another to ensure employees have the leadership they need to work in new ways for the foreseeable future.  The challenge here lies beyond rolling out leadership development training, or offering new policies or programs for collaboration, professional and emotional support.  The shift to remote and hybrid work fundamentally challenges the traditional ways of managing that originated in the industrial era. 

The legacy of telling people how to do their jobs, rather than what their goals are and leaving them to it, is hard to overcome on a personal and organizational level. In times of crisis, this is even more the case as instincts to “lean in” to command and control are even stronger with higher-than-normal degrees of uncertainty about the future for remote work and dynamic “return to work” models. Now, individuals operate primarily from a home office, outside the direct view of supervisors and this type of legacy leadership model falls short.

By contrast, goal-driven, empathic leadership accounts for information overload while empowering individuals to make decisions. This approach is no longer simply “a good idea”, it is a requirement for the transformed workplace. This goal-driven, empathic leadership also opens the boundaries of the enterprise, fostering greater diversity and a higher level of community building/involvement.

So, as remote work becomes increasingly normalized, so too is the idea that there will inevitably be far more of a hybrid work model even after the development and broad distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine.  In an IDC survey from August of 2020, 57% of respondents indicated that they anticipated working primarily from a traditional office in a post vaccine world.  22% indicated they anticipated working primarily from home.  Inevitably these percentages will shift – but the reality of a hybrid model of working is that it is here to stay.

IDC's 2020 Top 4 Work Aras likely to be permanently changed due to COVID-19 pandemic

An IDC poll from October of 2020 makes clear the reality that organizations are gearing up technically to support a much more resilient and hybrid way of working.  The poll found that 38% of business and technology leaders anticipate their work models will be redesigned to support a hybrid workforce that shifts between working onsite and at home.  They are putting in place the network architecture, cloud platforms, automation and security systems to better support this new model.  The question which follows, is whether and how they are putting in place leadership architecture to support much more distributed teams. 

Empathic Leadership for a Hybrid Work Model: Goal Driven, Question Oriented, Inclusive, and Inspiring

Empathic leadership, unlike traditional hierarchical leadership, requires leaders to ask new kinds of questions and accept that the answers can be unexpected.  To enable hybrid distributed teams, leaders need to move away from command and control models and focus on people over process, meeting objectives over tracking actions.  Speaking with many leaders over the course of 2020, IDC has found the most successful have core best practices established that enable them to not only navigate current challenging times, but also lay the foundation for much more resilient cultures that will be essential to support hybrid work of the future.  These leaders:

  • Clearly define the end goal of any project or initiative from the start.  They do so to ensure that their teams are working toward a common goal and have the resources they need to work as autonomously as possible.  
  • Expand the core group of stakeholders.  They look for opportunities to learn from different disciplines, functions and roles, taking advantage of opportunities to work in new and expanded ways across a broad ecosystem in and beyond their own organization. 
  • Clearly express and reinforce goals.  This puts the focus on enabling workers no matter where they literally or metaphorically “sit” to understand outcomes, feel confident in making autonomous decisions, and focus less on singular work output.  
  • Cultivate empathetic leadership at scale.  The best effort to build an agile culture needed to support hybrid work have to be reinforced by transparent and authentic internal and external communications.  This includes being transparent about work policies, requirements and business climate. 

These are not easy changes to make for organizations used to leading and working in conventional ways.  Current times demand organizations invest equally in technology and leadership to support hybrid work.  Both are essential to deliver on the promise of resiliency through and beyond the pandemic. 

How is your organization enabling hybrid work for the future? 

Amy Loomis, Ph.D.

Research Director, Future of Work