Being an effective manager takes an incredible amount of energy and effort. It is inherently tough to occupy the role between executive leaders and those delivering the work, and we’ve all heard the conventional wisdom—people stay or leave because of their managers. No pressure!
When even the most seasoned managers can’t say they’ve encountered today’s scenario before, we wanted to provide some food for thought as your complex, critical role gets even more complicated and increases in importance. Leading employees through a return to the workplace requires a new set of skills for managing a hybrid team that is partly "back" to a physical, on-site workspace and partly remote for the foreseeable future.
There are some initial actions you can take to cultivate these skills. Set aside an hour to follow the four steps below, and you will be well-equipped to manage employee experience and performance across the geographic spread and waves of workplace return:
- Segment your team to prioritize your outreach efforts. Use this table to analyze the current state of your team based on how individual employees are performing and their preference or need for interaction. You don't want to overlook your star players who crave connection, and you also don’t want to frustrate your star players who prefer to be more independent. And those who are not performing need focused attention and support. If you can't answer for one of your employees, ask them! Employees who are currently “Low touch, Low Performance” need to be higher touch until their performance improves.
In targeted outreach efforts, leaders should also be more explicit about role expectations and deadlines. In the remote work scenario, employees can no longer rely on informal hallway conversations to provide updates on progress, creating the need to be more proactive about communicating traction against key milestones.
- Try to equalize and adapt remote and on-site activities. Leaders across functions report that work arrangements are the most challenging aspect of enabling the employee experience (57 percent).1 Cultivating a favorable working environment becomes an even taller order when teams are straddling the worlds of on-site and remote work. Whatever norms and rituals you have established, do your best to create and adapt that experience for both formats. For instance, if you have an office ritual of ringing a bell every time a sale is closed, create a digital alternative by flooding a Teams or Slack channel with a special emoji. Just because you can’t meet in person does not mean the importance of rituals has gone away—in fact, the opposite is true. Also, as some workers are physically in the office and others aren’t, focus on creating shared remote experiences to maintain cohesion and level the playing field across employee groups in varied settings. In addition to creating shared work experiences, leaders need to be more disciplined about building regular touchpoints into the day (e.g., one-on-ones, staff meetings, team huddles) as they can no longer rely on the more informal “catch-up” hallway conversations to ensure employees feel connected.
- Take the pulse, act, and share. Nearly all leaders (95 percent) agree that the workforce has grown in complexity over the past two years2—a trend that’s undoubtedly accelerated in recent months due to COVID-19-related dynamics. To address the added complexity across a hybrid team, you need real-time data about how all your employees are doing in their various states and locations of work delivery—tapping into both quantitative performance outputs as well as qualitative experience outputs. Given the rapid evolution in workplace dynamics, leaders cannot afford to be out of sync with team sentiment—particularly if they intend to stay ahead of productivity fluctuations, burnout, or other pivotal trends. Asking for a regular status check (e.g., a pulse survey, an embedded digital poll, or a round-robin in the team meeting) enables you to diagnose and problem-solve to improve productivity and engagement. You can ask employees one or two simple, open-ended questions such as, “What is or isn’t working?” Their answers will give you more than enough insight to begin shaping solutions. It is not, however, enough to just ask. You must act, and then report back on (1) what was done, (2) what will be done later, or (3) what will not be done and why. Closing the loop on feedback helps solidify rapport and trust, in turn, nurturing engagement and productivity. If employees believe that you ask but consistently do nothing, they stop showing up for the conversation. When this happens, you’re likely to be even more bewildered about how to drive results.
- Stay connected with one-on-ones. The most important question to ask employees is, “What’s something I need to know about how to make your job better right now?” In listening to and coaching members of your team, it's especially essential to exhibit empathy and expand your notion of what is deemed "acceptable" for how and when work gets done, acknowledging the competing work-life demands employees may face. For example, you may recognize that a single parent’s most productive time is in the evening hours. When seeking employee feedback, acknowledge that not everyone responds to pulse surveys, and not everyone can articulate their needs in writing. With the pace of change and chaos surrounding COVID-19, people also may not have had the opportunity to pause and reflect on the things they need. One-on-one conversations are the only way to discover your true employee experience and create an understanding of what’s required for employees to focus, get the work done, learn, and grow. For example, in our research, leaders told us that learning and development (including upskilling and reskilling) is their most significant obstacle to retaining talent (55 percent).3 Uncovering the insights to address these sorts of barriers starts by connecting with employees one-on-one. As a bonus, insights from these conversations can also help you, as a leader, validate or reshape your thinking around strategy and planning for your team.
Experienced managers know that investing a little time in thinking about and understanding their teams can go a long way to driving success. And during an experience that none of us have encountered before, it's an even more critical investment when our default brain and energy levels say, "React!” Admittedly, the thought of pausing to think feels counterintuitive to most of us. However, taking the time for these four simple acts will, in short order, propel your team to the front of your organizational success story.
1,2,3 In March 2020, we surveyed > 200 business leaders from organizations across industries with revenues > $1 billion and that are headquartered in the U.S. or U.K. Survey questions aimed to identify key trends driving change in workforce complexity, level of investment in employee experience (EX), and sources of value in workforce strategy.
Research note: Our research was conducted at the beginning of the U.S. COVID-19 global lockdown period (March 17-25, 2020). While we believe perspectives and attitudes have evolved since the time of our study (e.g., due to financial headwinds and the unforeseen demands of enterprise-wide remote work), the findings offer insight into the universal workforce trends and challenges further amplified by the impacts of the pandemic.