Two Warning Signs That Your Leaders Will Struggle to Manage a Hybrid Team

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Sep 15, 2021
This article is part of a series called COVID-19 Coverage.

It’s quite possible that we’ve passed the highwater mark of remote working. With a vaccine mandate around the corner and companies pushing to bring employees back to the office, it’s almost certain that we’re going to see fewer employees fully remote and many more in a hybrid arrangement.

While it seems like managing hybrid teams would be easier than leading fully remote employees, that’s not the case. In fact, leaders express more confidence in their ability to manage remote employees than those who are hybrid.

In a new study from Leadership IQ, “The Leadership Skills Gap,” we asked more than 3,000 leaders to rate their own leadership proficiency. And when it comes to managing hybrid teams, only 28% said that they had advanced skills (can successfully and consistently perform this skill) or expert skills (recognized authority on this topic). By comparison, 33% rated their ability to manage remote teams as advanced or expert.

Why is managing a hybrid team harder than managing a remote one? 

The biggest reason is that leaders have to vary their leadership style day by day and employee by employee. Prior to the pandemic, most leaders were far more adept at managing in-the-office employees than remote ones. This was partly due to their abundance of experience managing in-person workers and partly from the insidious myth that employees just goof off in their pajamas when they’re working from home.

However, the pandemic radically altered how many leaders view remote employees. They saw that employees could be just as, or more, productive working from home. Leaders gained ample experience managing the performance of people they only saw in videoconferences. It took some time, but a number of leaders got quite good at managing their remote teams.

With people coming back to the office some of the time, however, there’s a serious risk that leaders forget the remote management lessons they’ve learned and revert to their old in-person style. And that’s why you need to watch out for these two warning signs.

Warning Sign #1: Managers’ Comfort Is More Important Than Employees’ Needs

Lately, as companies bring people back to the office, far too many managers (and companies) are mandating that employees be in-person on arbitrary and strange days. For example, we know from the study “Employee Burnout In 2021” that Mondays and Fridays are the days employees most desire to work from home. And the least desired days to work remotely (by far) are Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Yet there are many managers who mandate that employees work from home only on Wednesdays and Fridays, or Mondays and Tuesdays, or some other strange and undesirable combination.  

Given what we know about people’s preferences, why would an organization have employees work remotely on the days when they don’t especially care about working remotely? Most of the time, these decisions get made either arbitrarily or to prioritize managers’ needs. 

No company is giving employees a work-from-home day on Tuesday or Wednesday because they think it’s best for their employees; all the available data refutes that notion.

Warning Sign #2: The Same Type of Work Is Performed Remotely and in the Office

I recently saw a company that mandated employees return to the office under the guise of improving collaboration and teamwork; it felt employees work together better when they’re face-to-face. However, the company is keeping its conference rooms closed for lack of social distancing, and people must wear masks. I’m a big fan of social distancing and masking, but how can you bring people back to the office under the guise of fostering collaboration but not allow them to use conference rooms or see each other’s facial expressions?

The net effect of this is that employees are coming into the office to perform the work they could have easily performed at home. There’s an argument to be made that face-to-face interactions could improve collaboration (although it’s far from ironclad). But when employees are coming to an office to perform work easily done from home, it communicates clearly that we only want people in the office because we don’t trust their productivity elsewhere.

The point here is simple: Hybrid work can be wonderful, but managing it will take the same intentionality as managing remote teams. Just because people are coming back into the office a few days a week does not mean we can revert back to our old ways of leading. If we do that, all the management experience we gained during the pandemic will be for naught.

This article is part of a series called COVID-19 Coverage.