Making hybrid arrangements work: how leaders can lift employee motivation and performance

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By Serendis

April 5, 2023

Most leaders today are under enormous pressure. Aside from dealing with the demands of business-as-usual, leaders are having to think strategically, lead change, deal with complexity, and even play the role of empathetic life coach. On top of that, hybrid work is now a permanent feature of corporate Australia’s landscape, creating new – and dare we say, unprecedented – challenges. HR executives are often seen as the go-to experts, with the magic solution to the problem of how leaders should adapt to hybrid working. Indeed, Serendis recently spoke to several HR leaders who’ve been asked to design extensive hybrid work policies and processes, detailing what workers and leaders in their organisation can and can’t do. But policies alone aren’t the solution to the unique challenges posed by the combination of remote and in-office work.

While policy is undoubtedly important, using policy as the primary driver of behavioural change is risky, as it often devalues a leader’s impact on shaping the success of their team. We recommend that HR executives focus their energy on providing guidance for leaders, coaching them to lead effectively in a hybrid environment. Which raises the question: how can leaders make hybrid arrangements successful?

A reason to be in the office – ‘why’, not ‘when’

Regardless of your organisation’s specific WFH arrangements, Nick Bloom, a Professor of Economics at Stanford University and expert on remote work, is clear that employees choosing their own WFH days is much less effective than teams co-ordinating and agreeing on specific days to work in the office. Just as importantly, leaders need to give their people a reason to come into the office on those days – if staff are just doing the same thing as they could do from home, then why bother? We suggest leaders use anchor days to schedule group meetings, where face-to-face interaction facilitates relationship-building, cross-pollination of ideas, and innovation.

We’ve heard some leaders complain that their people just want to stay home, because they find they can get more done away from the distractions and noise of the office. In those cases, we suggest leaders initiate a conversation with relevant team members, exploring the responsibilities of the role beyond simply delivering the work, such as coming into the office to help newer team members develop relationships across the business, or to informally learn from more experienced colleagues.

More broadly though, how can leaders ensure their staff feel engaged, motivated, and perform at their best while combining remote and in-office work? At Serendis, we see several factors as being critical to enhancing staff performance and motivation in a hybrid working environment. That is, employees need to feel:

  1. Connected to their team, their leader and their organisation’s culture.
  2. Valued by their organisation.
  3. A sense of career growth.
  4. A sense of purpose.
  5. High levels of psychological safety.
  1. Feeling connected

One of the findings of Adaptavist’s ‘Reinventing Work Report’, published in September 2022, was that a lack of face-to-face communication has left many people feeling disconnected: almost one-third of workers surveyed felt lonely every day. Here are some simple steps leaders can take to counteract loneliness and disconnection due to hybrid work:

  • Schedule regular (weekly or fortnightly) one-on-one conversations with each of your team members in which you ask:
    • What are your current priorities?
    • What challenges are you facing?
    • How can I help?
  • Schedule in-person team social events, such as team lunches, to stimulate interaction and connection. Ideally, invite other teams to join from time to time, to enhance connections across the business.
  • Set up buddy systems. For example, buddying a new starter with an experienced team member, or someone in a head office city with a team member in another state or country. This can be highly effective in enhancing connection and ensuring workflow is better prioritised and managed.
  • Create a ‘virtual office’. If your team members are rarely in the same physical space at the same time, create a virtual place where they can ‘talk’ and share ideas. This can’t be done via email. Rather, leaders should define a platform of choice (say Teams) and create channels for different conversations. For example, you might have one chat group for work-related information exchanges, and another group for personal exchanges, where team members can post pictures of their pets, share Netflix recommendations, and discuss their weekend plans.
  1. Feeling valued

As most leaders are aware, workplaces today have less spontaneous conversations than in 2019. Those quick chats in the lift, or short exchanges as you walk out of an in-person meeting or potter around the corporate kitchen making tea, are gold when it comes to exchanging work-related information. They’re also opportunities to help people feel more connected and valued.

Many leaders we work with at Serendis are proactively finding ways to recognise their team’s contributions, efforts and achievements, whether informally, such as in meetings, feedback conversations or via Teams channels, or more formally, such as nominating individuals for company-wide awards. Another way to help people feel more valued is for leaders to invite feedback from their direct reports, asking questions such as:

  • What’s one thing I could do to help enhance your performance?
  • What’s one thing I could do to help you feel more included?
  • What’s one thing I could do to help improve our team performance?
  1. Career Growth

Given today’s job market, many organisations are increasingly investing time in “stay” interviews – one-on-one conversations initiated by leaders with current employees about why they like working at their organisation, and what they would change about the business, team, or role if they could. These conversations allow leaders to more deeply understand the critical factors that influence their people’s desire to continue doing great work, or alternatively, to look for another job, giving savvy companies time to address key attrition issues.

For example, one of our clients at Serendis is a global technology company. A key piece of feedback during the company’s stay interviews was that while employees were tapping away on keyboards from their homes in Toronto, Geneva or Sydney, they had little awareness of projects beyond their immediate line of work sight, and zero visibility of upcoming projects in other parts of the business, where they might develop new skills and experiences. In response, the company equipped leaders with the tools to have effective career development and personal growth conversations with their staff.

We recommend leaders schedule bi-monthly discussions with each team member to discuss career development, so they know leaders support and will help craft their career growth. Simple questions to ask in these conversations include:

  • What are your strengths?
  • What can you improve on?
  • What are the next stages of your growth in and beyond this role?
  • What do we need to see from you that will demonstrate growth?
  • How can I support you achieve this growth?
  1. Sense of Purpose

Recent research from McKinsey found that 70 per cent of employees surveyed said their personal sense of purpose is defined by their work. In addition, when employees at any level say that their purpose is fulfilled by their work, the work and life outcomes they report – including the likelihood that they will stay at their current organisation – are anywhere from two to five times higher than those reported by their unfulfilled peers. With workers expecting their jobs to bring a sense of purpose, employers must help meet this need, or be prepared to lose talent. As leaders, here’s how you can increase your team members’ sense of purpose:

  • Regularly, and explicitly articulate:
    • How each team member contributes to the success of the team/the organisation/clients.
    • How you measure success in each role.
    • The end impact of your team on the organisation/your clients/the community.
  1. Psychological Safety

In 2012, Google embarked on ‘Project Aristotle’, studying hundreds of Google’s teams to figure out why some succeeded, and others didn’t. The study found that more than anything else, psychological safety was critical to making a team work; that psychological safety was the biggest predictor of team effectiveness, accounting for a 36 per cent differential in revenue performance. Harvard Business school professor Amy Edmondson defines psychological safety as “a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes, and that the team is safe for inter-personal risk taking.”

Here are some prompts to increase psychological safety in your team:

  • Invite participation.
  • Normalise conflict.
  • Demonstrate humility.
  • Role model vulnerability, for example, by sharing your struggles.
  • Practice deep listening.
  • Be curious.

Of course, it’s impossible for any individual leader to initiate all these actions at once. We suggest starting small: take one of your team members or colleagues, and ask yourself, what can I do this week to increase my level of connection with them and make them feel more valued?

Because, as virtual work expert Tsedal Neeley says, “People have to believe that leaders see them, that they care about their difficulties, that they care about their preferences, that they care about their careers and career development.” As corporate workers continue their commute between remote and in-office work, the presence of strong leadership is perhaps more important than ever.