As the pandemic continues to evolve, the fate of the workplace remains uncertain. There are strong arguments on both sides in favor of remote and office-based models; many organizations appear to be planning for a mixture of both: hybrid working.
Yet there is little consensus on how this will work in practice, and how it will be applied to different geographies and sectors. With that in mind, business schools have stepped in to provide some guidance on the best way to proceed. A number of these institutions have created executive education courses on how to lead virtual teams, aimed at senior working professionals who are leading increasingly dispersed workforces.
While there are challenges in this model, there are also opportunities for leaders to capitalize on in the new virtual world of work. “Senior leaders see the benefits of hybrid work,” says Jana Raver, Professor of Organizational Behavior at Smith School of Business, Queen’s University in Canada.
Although it was initially difficult to adapt to virtual work, many employees eventually discovered that they could actually be more productive while living a more balanced life without needing to commute to a workplace every day. Therefore, she believes that hybrid work models are here to stay.
“Few employees are interested in going back to a fully in-person workplace,” she adds.
It is a similar story in other regions of the world; the Smith School attracts a global audience to its executive education course called “Leading Hybrid Teams”. It’s an online course designed to provide the skills, tools and strategies to build trust, sustain high performance and culture under flexible working models.
Do employees really want to return to office life?
One of the main challenges that participants are currently facing is how to overcome employee resistance to returning to the work office, says Raver. Staff have been released from the shackles of the daily commute and its associated hassles, and many have no interest in going back given that they were just as productive – or more productive – working remotely.
To tackle this challenge, employers need to think carefully about why employees should come to the office and communicate that to them. “Put simply, leaders need to answer this question for their employees: What is the purpose of coming into the office?” she says.
Another challenge is creating enough of a sense of shared experience that people are willing to invest in the kind of connection and trust that supports remote collaboration. “It’s a teaming fundamental to have shared experience, shared language, goals and purpose; it requires more intentionality when the team is not physically together each day,” says Heidi Brooks, Senior Lecturer in Organizational Behavior at Yale School of Management in the US.
She adds that leaders also have to address what seems like lots of individual plans because of different work arrangements and worker needs. The best hybrid models may vary by industry and workgroup, says Brooks. “I’ve heard many leaders talk about how effective it has been to have some coordinated days in the office and coordinated blocks without meetings so people can focus on individual productivity, for example.”
In choosing the right work arrangements, there are many factors that leaders must balance, she says. “Collective productivity and organizational gains need to be balanced with meaningful employee engagement, a sense of wellness, and team performance,” Brooks adds.
She believes it may take some exploratory learning to find a functional dynamic balance where individual teams and organizational needs are working together. “The key is to engage a learning approach. For the time being, we may not entirely know all the answers — or even all the questions — as we learn about unknown unknowns.”
With that said, Yale offers a course that helps executives to implement effective team structures and processes that foster collaboration and engagement. The program, called “Leading Global Virtual Teams”, also helps participants to improve their team’s ability to work remotely and across time zones, cultures, and geographies.
Executive education at the intersection of people and technology
The challenges of working remotely is also a focus of the “Leadership in a Technology Driven World Program” course at Imperial College Business School in London. “Organizations will need to be even more adept at supporting diversity, preferences, and ways of working,” says Frans Campher, director of the program.
Another focus is on the intersection of people and technology; the faculty emphasize the need for leaders to return to the basics of connection, empowerment, and developing the culture needed to achieve business outcomes. “In the uncertainty created by the pace of change, we need to develop leaders who know what it takes to deal with the complexity and paradoxical nature of human beings,” says Campher.
Related to that is the challenge of overcoming the innate need to command and control outputs and performance. “Your people want to be led; they do not want to be managed,” he says. “If you treat them like adults they will show up as such, by creating the environment for them to be at their best they will give you maximum discretionary effort. If you try to control them, they will do just enough and discretionary effort will reduce substantially.”
Philip Stiles, Associate Professor in Corporate Governance at Cambridge Judge Business School in the UK, agrees. “Traditionally, some managers frowned on people who were not visible a lot of the time in an office, but that has changed with remote and hybrid working. So managers need to have a laser-like focus on productivity and results rather than form and visibility.”
One of the key takeaways from the Cambridge Judge program “Creating High Performance Teams: The New Realities” include creating high-performance teams and, on a practical basis, how managers can lead a team from a distance. The key to this new world is to motivate team members working in a variety of ways, both old and new, says Stiles.
“Whether people work in an office or remotely, or a combination, the key to making people feel engaged is to ensure that their ideas and input receive a full hearing regardless of the forum or format,” he says.
“This does pose a management challenge, but not an insurmountable one: leaders need to ensure that everyone gets a chance to get their oar in the water whether in person or via conference call, email or other channels.”