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The leadership imperative to the hybrid future

As we journey into a hybrid future of work, what key points do leaders need to focus on? Here are six themes critical to the shape of leadership in the hybrid working model By Shashwat Mitra

When Professor Nancy Koehn of Harvard Business School in her work published on HBR in 2020 said that “Real Leaders Are Forged in Crisis”, no one could deny it. A couple of years since, we now witness a world which has been changed greatly through the crisis. The leaders who have endured this are evolved, but continue to hold their individual views of the future based on their insights, experiences, judgement, perception, and anticipation.

From the vantage of leadership there are multiple priorities to address, and one of those near the top of the list is the understanding of ‘hybrid’ for themselves and for their organisation. This field has been much researched, but the definition and manifestation of the term ‘hybrid’ remains unique for leaders and their employees.

When the world was struck by the coronavirus, companies which offered flexibility (which I am oversimplifying with the term ‘hybrid’) as their unique selling proposition suddenly found that their nice-to-have option had become a necessity. Then, during the many quarters when the world slowed down, the talent market changed drastically, and a whole new talent war opened up. Now the newly mobile talent have started laying out their own definition of ‘hybrid’ as suited to their needs.

Here is the leader’s têteà-tête with the journey towards a ‘hybrid’ future. A cognitive and realistic description of this journey has these six themes:

The trust imperative

The post-pandemic transition to hybrid has one common path of success, which is trust. It is not an option, nor can leaders take

their own time to build it. Organisations which were used to seeing the act of work happening now must get used to seeing the outcome happening, and not the act of it being accomplished. Dysfunctions in teams have to be ironed out, and fast. Leaders must trust themselves first and then trust their teams all the way to the last person.

A trust-based management offers more opportunities of delegation, more opportunity for leaders to empower their teams, more opportunity to build hybrid teams, unlock talent markets which earlier were limited due to location constraints, and so on. This is a silver lining. When trust becomes an imperative, we know that people are more engaged and companies perform better. This is one of the reasons why post pandemic, companies which embraced trust as a leadership imperative in the hybrid work environment have been able to recover faster.

Transformation at the fore

The approach of transitioning was replaced with the intent and inevitable need for transformation. In the hybrid environment, organisations need to transform technology, communication tools, human capital systems, logistics, supply chain, and performance management. Even during the pandemic, spend on digital and technology increased despite cost controls. A McKinsey report, ‘Rethinking strategy for the new digital edge’, highlights that this number was as high as 65% for some respondents. Further, nearly 9 in 10 respondents in their study think that their business model needs to change (or has changed already).

Leadership, in their journey to embrace hybrid, has to embrace transformation at the fore and deprioritise the transitional or transactional approach to business.

Culture manifestation

A leader’s key focus post pandemic, irrespective of the degree to which they have implemented the hybrid model, is to help the last mile employee understand and personalise the culture. Culture needs to manifest in the same light to all in the organisation. If leaders’ focus has earlier been on culture building, the question of how to do that at scale and with agility in the hybrid ecosystem is the real test for leadership maturity.

Furthermore, culture and employee value proposition needs to be reinforced for a hybrid workforce. Doing this without diluting any of the implicit and explicit cultural nuances, must be a leader’s focus while embracing a hybrid work setup.

Communication in depth

With the hybrid or work from home model, boundaries which prevailed earlier at work start to fade. As written electronic communication

wHEN tRuSt BECoMES AN IMPERAtIVE, wE KNow tHAt PEoPLE ARE MoRE ENGAGED AND CoMPANIES PERfoRM BEttER

(emails, chats, sms et. al.) became predominant fatigue has been setting in, and the depth of such communication is lost. How often are leaders, both at their level and at teams’ level, able to hold conversations at depth? In the absence of deep communication, leaders and teams both miss out on offering a psychologically safe environment, where people with whom they work can be vulnerable and feel free to share their thoughts on what they are subjected to.

What’s more, leadership coaching and the depth of conversation is often disturbed by pop-ups, and reminders of the next meeting on screen. It is impossible to hold a discussion without distractions. Yet a leader’s journey towards a successfu hybrid model needs to have spaces, opportunities, and the discipline to be able to hold leadership conversations in depth. Plan B, C, D, E & F

Strikingly, 51% of companies worldwide had no business continuity plan (BCP) to meet the threat of a global emergency (like the pandemic itself) as highlighted by a report from Mercer. This deficit became glaring as the canvas of risk changed and teams had to adapt at scale.

The cost of not being able to cope with crises is not just financial and reputational loss. It includes the anxiety and desperation added to the workforce, to real people.

A leader’s hybrid journey absolutely must go beyond their Plan A. It must include many alternate plans in case the first plan does not work. As organisations mature and establish their hybrid model, they will be better equipped to anticipate, hedge and mitigate variables, and their layers of plans can slowly be reduced. A LEADER’S JouRNEy towARDS A SuCCESSfu HyBRID MoDEL NEEDS to HAVE SPACES, oPPoRtuNItIES, AND tHE DISCIPLINE to BE ABLE to HoLD LEADERSHIP CoNVERSAtIoNS IN DEPtH

Gratitude and empathy

Not all roles, industries, or organisations are hybrid ready. Many people have endured the challenges of the pandemic to help organisations run their business, sometimes at great personal cost. Consider our front-line workers, medical and essential staff, employees working on site, and human dependent roles. Leaders need to be grateful to these people and appreciate all that they do for the organisation.

That sense of gratitude is a virtue that all prudent leaders must practise every day. It cannot be left out as they set the strategy and roadmap for hybrid transition.

I reiterate: “Real Leaders Are Forged in Crisis”, and it is the leader’s character that will determine how well they can ride through those crises.

SHaSHWat Mitra is Head of Human Resources India, KPIT