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Dec 13, 2023

Panel Recap: Tips for Leading in a Hybrid Workplace

For many companies, it’s clear that the hybrid workplace is here to stay. As the dust settles from rapid pandemic-era changes and firms find their new normal, the mixing of in-office and remote work brings some distinct challenges for managing and motivating teams. Successfully navigating these challenges is crucial for fostering collaboration, keeping teams engaged and supporting employee well-being.

At the Frontiers of Business Conference: Workforce Disrupted, a panel of executives shared best practices for managing remote and hybrid teams and discussed the importance of adaptable leadership in a world with greater workday flexibility and evolving team structures.

Fostering Relationships

Strong relationships between managers and employees are essential in any work environment, but building and maintaining relationships from afar – in the absence of watercooler chats and after-work happy hours – requires special effort. As CEO of Consumer Safety Technology, which had a hybrid workplace even before the pandemic, Kathy Boden Holland has observed that remote work makes it more obvious when leaders are not effectively connecting with their teams.

When the pandemic hit, companies that had operated largely in-person were able to coast for a while, remotely, on the relationships teams had already built. Stephanie Headley, senior vice president of North America Skin Care and Global Olay at Procter & Gamble, said that workplace cohesion became increasingly difficult as teams changed with new hires or new assignments. In response, the company opted for a hybrid model, requiring employees to be in the office 60% of the time to facilitate the coaching, development and connectivity that occurs in person.

Jeneén Felder, director of global emerging talent recruiting at Cisco, pointed out that building trust is essential to maintaining a motivated workforce with high morale. With less of a division between our personal and professional lives and employees increasingly seeking to “bring their whole selves to work,” leaders need to consider relationships in a different way than before. Cisco, which is a fully hybrid company, engages its more than 8,000 global employees through rituals such as weekly team meetings along with strategies for incorporating accountability.

To foster connection, panelists suggested being intentional about finding out how employees feel about what is going on in the business, getting their perspective on work priorities, and identifying what they need to feel supported. To build trust, panelists also emphasized the importance of taking time to talk personally with team members — rather than focusing solely on business items — and being genuine and vulnerable as a leader.

Because Procter & Gamble tends to promote from within the organization, Headley said that taking care of employee needs today is key for developing the company’s future leaders. “We need to make sure that our employee value equation is well balanced with the employee at the center,” she said. “That includes financial well-being, emotional/mental well-being and wellness.”

Retaining Employees

Today’s workers desire flexibility but also need to feel connected to the work they are doing. It can be challenging for leaders to make sure their teams are engaged with the product and business in a hybrid environment. The first year — and especially the first few months — is a key time for building a strong connection with a new employee. This means that the onboarding process can have a major impact on long-term retention.

Procter & Gamble uses several strategies to get employees started on the right foot. First, an in-person onboarding week gives new hires an opportunity to get to know the company and the city while interacting with peers. This provides the employee with a point of connection to something bigger than themselves. Also, during the first 90 days of a new manager-employee relationship, the pair must meet for a full two days, providing the time and space needed to talk about goals and strengths and to get to know each other on a deeper level.

Felder said that at Cisco, leaders make a point of constantly talking to people and using surveys to assess whether they are hitting the mark with employees. “We’re constantly looking for innovative ways to make sure we keep our hand on the pulse of what the employees need and what the business needs as well as be near to what the talent market is looking for,” she said. As part of this attunement to employee needs, the company piloted a four-day workweek for several months. When trying new things like this, Felder said, it is important to define upfront the measures of success, such as employee well-being and business deliverables.

Lessons Learned

While they agreed that strategies for successful leadership in a hybrid workplace are a work in progress, panelists highlighted several lessons learned along the way. Felder said that she learned to be less definitive in setting expectations. With ever-changing circumstances following the first wave of pandemic-induced remote work, she learned that it was important to be flexible with requirements for in-person meetings even though people seemed to want face-to-face interactions. Today, Cisco is focusing on how to combine its people, technology and real estate to provide a solution that works for the company’s employees and business goals.

Stressing the value of frequent and consistent communication, Headley noted that she produces a short internal video blog every Friday. She also said that visiting offices in person can be a good way to informally assess strategy uptake among teams and that meeting with leaders across different levels is important to make sure that everyone’s priorities are aligned and to identify communication gaps.

Boden Holland pointed out that organizations that are willing to take on remote workers can recruit a more diverse, higher-quality group of employees. She stressed, however, that in-person interactions are surprisingly important even for remote teams. While her leadership team was initially resistant to traveling for regular in-person meetings, after experiencing several and moving the meetings from Des Moines, Iowa, to Chicago to reduce travel time, participants requested an increase in frequency from twice a year to quarterly.

As the hybrid workplace evolves, it is crucial for companies to maintain a mindset of experimentation and embrace new ideas, even in the face of potential failure — a principle that proved vital to enduring the challenges posed by the pandemic and one that remains no less important today.

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