The coronavirus pandemic forced the world to change how workplaces function, forcing people to work from home — willingly and otherwise. However, many have started going back to their offices while others continue remotely.
Hence, a new reality — hybridity. A Harvard Business Review Report says that hybridity promises organisations the benefits of remote working — flexibility, labour cost optimisation, lesser carbon footprint — and the benefits of working from the office, including better coordination, networking, informal brainstorming, creativity, and better collaboration.
But hybridity also creates power differentials within the team. This can then impede effective collaboration and reduce performance. To lead effectively in a hybrid environment, managers must recognise and actively manage the two distinct sources of power that can impede or facilitate hybrid work.
The positioning disparity
HBR emphasised that based on where people are positioned, different employees have different accesses to resources and visibility.
“Employees in the office have ready and quick access to technology and infrastructure to support their work. They tend to have faster and easier access to information, and that information tends to be more current and broad (including informal water-cooler conversations), which provides them with an edge when it comes to the rapid changes of today’s environment. Being in the office also provides access to the emotional and task-based social support provided by peers,” said the report.
In contrast, those who work remotely will find that their weaker infrastructure and tech set up, due to the inability to access certain resources from home, make it difficult to demonstrate their competence.
“Not being present for informal interactions leaves remote workers feeling out of the loop and last to know. Being remote may also lead employees to feel more isolated and lacking the relationships and connections that provide social support,” said the report, adding that being seen by leaders is really important when managers or bosses think of new projects and recognition.
“Even if the boss is working remotely when an employee is based in the office, it increases the likelihood that their actions will be seen by others and reported to the boss indirectly. When working remotely, no one sees the late nights or early mornings or how hard employees are working to deliver on their obligations. Credit for a collective output is likely to be unevenly attributed most to those who are there in the office and more visible,” added the report.
Competency with hybrid working
Another important factor one needs to be aware of is that not everyone is skilled at operating in a hybrid environment. It is a skill in itself and automatically becomes a source of power.
“Hybridity requires employees to be ambidextrous — able to balance between and navigate across both worlds — in a way that fully co-located or fully remote working don’t. Employees who are strong at relationship building, both face-to-face and virtually, have an advantage in hybrid environments, as do those who are willing to ask for, find, and claim the resources they may not have easy access to. Employees with good network and political awareness are able to recognise advantageous positions and situations, and those who establish strong relationships that can transcend the gap between face-to-face and remote working can use informal connections to replace missing information,” added the report.
Hybrid environments mostly reward employees who are adaptable and flexible, and are able to organise and coordinate across an increasingly complex and dynamic environment. It also helps those who provide their own trustworthiness.
“On the other hand, employees who are less effective at building relationships in either in-person or remote environments may find themselves struggling to work with collaborators who do work that way. Those who are less skilled at coordinating work within such a complex system may find they’re constantly out of sync with colleagues and managers,” said the report
Working around challenges
Along with employees being out there and making themselves visible, managers also need to make sure they stay updated about what their employees are doing and facilitate their access to those resources.
“Managers who are co-located with their employees have more information about what and how those employees are doing. Managers who are remote from their employees may feel like they’re operating in the dark. Incomplete information is nothing new, but hybridity’s real threat is to fairness,” added the report.
To be fair, managers will need to design and create interventions that help in the redistribution of power. It becomes important for the manager to shift access, resource and visibility levels. Policies also need to be revised regularly to ensure that they don’t provide an unfair advantage to those who are working on-location.
It also becomes important to track and communicate with employees. “Create an accurate map of your team’s hybridity configuration — who is working where and when. Once you’ve mapped this out, you need to have a conversation with them to surface the challenges they and you face and discuss what you can do to overcome them. Always bear in mind that your employees’ resource access depends on their location, and their visibility depends on their location relative to you,” explained the HBR report.
Hybridity itself is dynamic, as there is a variation across employees, making hybridity a moving target. This means hybridity needs systematic tracking, visualisation, and codifying that help both managers and employees stay aware of its configuration in a workgroup and manage the resulting power dynamics.
It also is important to build a sense of awareness that there is an imbalance of power, create awareness and educate employees on power dynamics and balances to avoid any bias.
“Particularly important is establishing a culture of psychological safety and (individual/collective) trust. This will increase the likelihood of employees speaking up and asking for resources when they need them, as well as their confidence that their efforts will be recognised. With this understanding in mind, it’s important that managers keep an eye out for key intervention moments,” added the report.
Therefore, during performance reviews and evaluations, managers have to remain aware of how hybridity creates an imbalance in terms of access and visibility.
“Reviews present an opportunity for managers and employees to review and discuss imbalances and how to address them going forward,” said the report.
It also added that the hybrid teams start with team members who aren’t on the same length, and it becomes important to discuss power differences and decide how to manage them.
“How can managers bring people into the organisation when not everyone can physically come to the office? How can they put their new remote hires on a comparable footing to those who are brought into a face-to-face office environment? Hybridity’s impacts on group dynamics need to be incorporated into onboarding sessions and discussions in order to ensure new employees recognise the importance of consciously managing hybridity-based sources of power,” said the report.