There’s been a lot written on here and elsewhere about the challenges, opportunities and different approaches to hybrid working, a term I’ve come to increasingly irritated by because I think it’s unhelpful and in itself, nothing new.
Every leader I’ve worked with over the last 35 years has worked in the office, at home and lots of places in between.
But I get it and I’m going to use it in this post because it’s become widely accepted shorthand and my irritation doesn’t run that deep.
We (we being PlanetK2) have consistently taken a performance led view on hybrid working. A little like our view on positive or negative thinking; it’s not that one is bad or the other good – these value judgements are simplistic and lack nuance. It’s whether it’s useful in terms of the performance you’re looking to lay down.
Same with hybrid working – it’s not about doctrine or dogma – that’s just silly. My counsel to leaders is that if being with other sentient beings in the same location is likely to lead to a better performance and a better result, then be clear that you expect team members to do that thing in the same location. If the opposite applies or it’s neutral, then make the appropriate performance driven choice.
It’s not about 2 days a week in the office or every Monday or whatever – it’s about what will lead to a better performance.
Having spent some time with superb young (I’ve got fillings older than some of them) leaders recently, I’m deeply concerned we’re going to let them down badly. And stunt their growth at exactly the time when we need to be developing them – for the sake of both fulfilling their own potential and for those they will need to lead in the future.
Surely we have an obligation to ensure those who will lead our organisations over the next 20 years are superbly ready and against a background of hybrid working, the reduced time in the office is inhibiting their development and maturity as leaders.
1. Brand & Culture
We can no longer rely on our physical locations being a container for culture. So we have to make more effort than ever to ensure culture thrives through other routes, and leaders must take more responsibility to breathe life into values and brand than ever before.
But how are young leaders supposed to get a deep feel and understanding for a collective culture and then lead others through it when they’re not exposed to it in a meaningful way during these vital years of development?
The best feel for an organisational culture is developed when we perform everyday tasks together where we are co-located.
A flexible approach in a hot employment market is understandable, though the unintended consequences are that we’re growing a generation of leaders whose sense of owning a collective culture is barely on their radar. That’s harmful to them and those they will someday lead.
2. Learning from other leaders
Some of the most effective leadership development and learning doesn’t happen on development programmes or coaching courses; it happens when we see other leaders do their stuff. Sometimes that’s stuff we want to add to our recipe and sometimes it’s useful because it confirms that we never want to lead like that, ever.
If our future leaders have limited or zero opportunity to see other leaders lead, to witness and feel the impact of their leadership on others, then their learning and development will be slower, left to chance and bad habits may grow deep roots.
You just don’t get that on your standard Zoom call or remote town halls. That’s like asking young athletes to learn the mindset, attitude and spirit of more experienced athletes by watching You Tube videos of them playing.
3. Long feedback loops
Being in the office means your future leaders get feedback on their performance more frequently. All things being equal, that leads to quicker learning and less dramatic course correction, both of which are accepted features of high performance. The leaders I spoke with are missing out on this priceless resource because they’re around teammates and other leaders less often. You tend not to get better at things that you don’t practise very much.
4. Core social skills
When you mostly work from home, many young leaders also get to be pretty self-centred. No need to adjust your behaviour to take into account the preferences, likes and dislikes of work colleagues around you if, well, there are no work colleagues around you. Practise that for a few more years and how good are our future leaders going to be at adapting and adjust their own desires and preferences at work for the greater good if they’ve barely had to do it in the formative years?
5. Leadership isn’t about transactions
The online interactions young leaders are having are almost entirely transactional. Task driven, get the job done, agree next steps, you know the drill. It’s a triumph of efficiency that is devoid of wider meaning. Is that what we want? A future generation of leaders who assess success by their ability to deliver on a transaction and with limited development and feedback on their work related social skills? That’s just letting them down and storing up leadership problems for the future.
Hybrid working and how to develop leadership skills
1. We should be getting those with leadership potential in the office more as part of their performance and leadership development. Those that do will gain competitive advantage through accelerated development of their future leaders. So get them in regularly and explain why – it’s a compliment, not a burden.
2. Travel costs are a big element for this generation, particularly right now, so make that easy for them – if you were sending them on a course, you’d pay their travel costs, so relax about that. They’re going on a leadership development programme when they come into the office.
3. Having got them in, show a bit of flair. Make being in the office a great and uniquely valuable experience. One young leader I spoke to told me she couldn’t see the point of going into the office because they just do zoom calls at their individual desks, even when most of the people in the meeting are in the fucking office. Why? Apparently, it’s so that people who aren’t in the office and need to be on the call don’t feel like they are missing out. A great example of how an obsession with equality over equity can lead to deep unfairness, stunted development and sub-optimal performance. So please don’t do that.
Finally, it was also very clear to me that these leaders of the future they really love a lot of things about working from home. I shared with them that as a kid, I really loved Frosties – it felt like they hit all my pleasure centres – but that didn’t mean they were the best form of long term nourishment. Cue eye rolls.
You will. Be ready.