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29th Apr, 2024

Michele Smith
Michele Smith
Job Title
Managing Director, Client Services

Who will spare a thought for the managers? It might not be the most common refrain you will hear in offices up and down the country, but then again many managers are no longer spending much time working in those bricks and mortar buildings which were central to their working lives for so long. 

In recent years, we have seen a seismic shift in the way we work, with remote and hybrid working becoming increasingly prevalent. This change was supercharged by the coronavirus pandemic, forcing organisations to rapidly reevaluate how and where employment takes place. 

It is a change which comes with pluses and minuses, from the convenience of working from home and avoiding the grind of a daily commute to a loss of community and personal connections. 

One impact of hybrid and remote working methods which is less talked about is the increased pressure, workload, and potentially stress, that is put upon organisational leaders. 

A recent global study by digital communications and technology company, Cisco, found more than half of their leaders said they had extended their working hours to support their teams. 

The report also revealed their leaders are managing twice as many meetings as individual contributors and taking part in two-and-a-half times as many one-on-one virtual discussions. 

Cisco’s Chief People Officer, Kelly Jones, said today’s leaders “are managing significant workloads as they steer their teams through the complexities of a hybrid workplace” putting them at a high risk of burnout.  

But what specific problems does this create for leaders, and how can they make hybrid working a success, both for the workers they are responsible for and for themselves? 

Why it’s hard to manage a hybrid team  

Hybrid working comes with a series of issues for leaders, from a lack of meaningful interaction to the challenges of managing a team from a wellbeing perspective.  

A recent Gallup study highlighted challenges such as lack of access to resources and equipment, a disconnect from company culture, and decreased levels of team collaboration.  

Many managers find it hard enough to look after their teams when they are all in the same place, so how can leaders keep everyone happy when they are divided between work and home – and when there is only one of them to go around.  

Questions abound over whether important information is being shared with all team members at the same time and not via ad-hoc conversations, or how much time is spent supervising people in the office versus remotely.  

Loss of interaction 

One of the biggest issues being encountered by external managers I speak to about hybrid working is the loss of all that small talk which so often knitted together the way people collaborated or how projects grew, as well as oiling the wheels of a collegiate and friendly workplace.  

Additionally, some of those vital meet and greet conversations, and exit chats, that managers had with clients have been lost.  

More and more communication 

Leaders I have spoken to agree that their workload now, compared to pre-Covid and pre-working from home days, has increased. 

That increased time comes down to the need for extra communication and to make sure teams are feeling included. Furthermore, some team members feel a real need to stay in touch with their managers and to get regular feedback, meaning they can be reaching out to them several times a day. 

There has been a creation of more calls, many of which would have been unnecessary or conducted in a group environment previously, to make sure people are happy and engaged.  Largely, it is not even a case of leaders checking in on productivity, but an increase in communication around welfare and engagement. 

Leaders would previously have seen team members in the office, and although they may not have had time to catch up with them in detail every day, a simple hello would help to check that they were happy and comfortable.  

Now, they may not see that same team member for a week, so it would be necessary to add an extra call into the diary. Of course, some managers may also have concerns about productivity, and they are having to check-in regularly to make sure actions are completed. Leaders need to weigh up the benefits of people having the flexibility to work from home versus the amount of time you're spending compensating having to check the welfare and productivity of your teams remotely. 

Many managers have very experienced teams who they trust explicitly, but it is not so easy when they are working with entry-level employees, who perhaps have never worked in an office before. With such people, those conversations around both engagement and productivity become even more prevalent and have to take place more regularly. 

A team seeking attention 

Video conferencing technology has had a huge impact on the way leaders work, a lot of it positive. Being able to connect with anyone quickly, wherever they are in the country or without them having to spend half their day stuck on a motorway, has clear benefits both for the environment and for people’s mental health.  

But how many times do managers found themselves allocating 30 minutes or an hour for a meeting, and then feeling the need to fill that entire time with something?  

Teams has told the world we need to talk for an hour, so we do so.  

Furthermore, out of uncertainty over who exactly needs to be on a call and a desire to make sure everyone feels involved, half the ‘office’ has to be invited on to this overly long call, even though some people will only really need to be on it for five minutes or hear the result of a conversation.  

Leaders are constantly evaluating who must be on a call. Not only that, but they also need to think about the reaction of those people sitting at home who may feel they are missing out by not being on a call. That would never have happened previously.  

Organisations have created or implemented more tools to boost visibility, but in some ways that has backfired and has resulted in much more need on the behalf of team members.  

Previously, leaders would have simply called a colleague, had a five-minute conversation and reached a consensus.  

Now, there is a danger that team members want to take advantage of any opportunity to catch a manager’s eye, to prove that they are present and working hard.  

All of this puts extra pressure on leaders’ time and there is a danger that the general discussion that takes place takes over the actual ‘doing’ that makes any organisation run smoothly. 

Generational differences 

Workplace leaders also have to grapple with how to deal with the different responses various employees have had to remote and hybrid working, as a result how they need to communicate with people who have unique needs.  

Let’s look at just one part of this – the generational variances that can be found in relation to hybrid working.  

At a basic level, this is often seen in terms of how well different people adopt technology and how comfortable they feel communicating either virtually or in-person. This is often generalised in generational terms, with the idea that older workers might struggle more and younger ones are more adept at using conferencing or other new tools.  

Whether this is true or not is debatable, and there is a further generational generalisation which can make leaders lives even more difficult. There is a popular theory that the older generation has a better work ethic, or at least that they are more used to working to and achieving targets, while those in Gen Z or who started working during the Covid years might have never experienced the visibility or expectation of what a normal working day looks like.  

Conversely, though, there is an argument to say that more senior workers are set in their ways of working and find it easier to blame the apparent fickle nature of younger workers rather than to address their own failings.  

Whatever side of the fence you fall on, what is certain is that it leaves leaders with even more to think about when dealing with a multi-generational workforce, who may have different engrained ways of operating and varied levels of technological expertise.  

How can leaders make hybrid working work for their teams – and themselves?  

There is no magic answer to this. It is important to remember how new we all are to this and how long many of us spent working in an office.  

Some ideas which seem to be obvious solutions come with their own caveats. Take the issue around new employees needing to learn the intricacies of a company, its culture and the work they need to do – which may also be new to them. 

One easy answer could be that they work exclusively in the office for the first one or two months of their employment.  

This gives them the opportunity to benefit from an office environment and to embed themselves in an organisation’s ways of working and culture.  

But that comes with its own challenges. If a recruit needs to be in the office, then logically so does their manager or other senior leaders.  

If you consider the conveyor belt of new starters some teams have, that means leaders lose the ability to work flexibly themselves. Your managers effectively lose the right to go hybrid.  

This is just one example of why there aren’t necessarily any simple answers, but that’s not to say there aren’t systems leaders can put in place to make hybrid working more effective – and less pressurised for everyone. 

 To foster an environment where leaders can effectively support their teams, companies must provide them with the tools and resources they need to balance their responsibilities and personal well-being.  

It’s good to talk (sometimes!) 

One of the biggest risks of hybrid working is that key messages are miscommunicated. With less opportunity to build face-to-face relationships, vital context can be lost.  

Leaders need to focus on people-focused cultures, making sure everyone feels valued. Of course, this brings about the previously identified risk of leaders spending increasing amounts of time checking up on people’s well-being, so getting that balance between pastoral care and keeping meeting short and sharp is vital.  

Build a community 

Defining what hybrid means for your organisation or your team, and how that works within your wider company culture, will help employees to understand what is expected of them and how they should be working.  

Leaders who create a culture and community which supports employers within a hybrid system will take some of the need for and pressure of constant communication off themselves.  

Human skills, a core purpose, and personal connections are vital to achieve this, while it is also important to recognise those different preferences that individual workers may have.  

Avoiding micromanaging teams will foster trust and free up manager time. By allowing team members to control their own schedules and workflow, leaders can not only boost job satisfaction levels but free up some of their own time.  

Appreciate new expectations 

The best leaders will recognise that for some hybrid working is the norm. Younger workers may have never known anything else.  

Hybrid working can be a great way for managers to embrace the younger generation, creating a happy and engaged workforce as a result.  

A bright hybrid future – for everyone? 

In conclusion, employers and employees alike are still learning to embrace this bright new hybrid world that it upon us – and that includes managers.  

As leaders continue to navigate their way through the changes brought about by remote and hybrid working, they are likely to suffer from ‘growing pains’. Learning how to communicate with staff members virtually, while not putting themselves under increased pressure or working longer and longer hours, brings plenty of challenges and no easy solutions. 

But hybrid working is here to stay, and there are solutions which mean managers can embrace and benefit from new ways of working. 

As is so often the case, proper communication and a willingness to listen and learn are central to success. Embrace these methods and managers will find employees are not only willing to spare a thought for them, but to work alongside them to achieve business success. 

If you need help accessing and unlocking the talent your organisation needs to grow and succeed in an ever-changing world, contact our experts.

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