Effective Leadership in the Age of Hybrid Work
Effective leadership in an increasingly hybrid world demands that you meet your employee's three core needs. Learn how!
We recently wrote about the importance of leveraging hybrid work models to attract and retain talent in our current employee-friendly job market. But managing a hybrid team—or a predominantly hybrid department, division, or company—is a difficult challenge in its own right and one that will demand significant, long-term shifts to leadership training and style as hybrid work becomes the new norm.
Drawing on the concerns we hear during the search process and recent literature on leadership, today we wanted to offer an overview of the fundamental social tools that leaders must rely on to keep their staff motivated, engaged, and productive in a thriving work environment.
Motivation and Psychological Needs
The core difficulty posed by hybrid teams is physical distance. An executive or director who excels at bringing people together in a conference room can find themselves struggling to achieve the same kind of cohesion and energy when 60% of their staff are working from home. Typically, re-establishing pre-pandemic levels of buy-in will require going back to the basic variables that allow for high engagement. That is, it requires going back to meeting employees’ basic psychological needs.
While motivation scholars have been studying basic needs as far back as Maslow’s landmark (and partially discredited) work in the 1940s, his famous “hierarchy of needs” still informs how we think about the issue. The current dominant approach is derived from Self-Determination Theory, which postulates a trio of basic needs essential to all forms of human flourishing, well-being, and motivated, productive performance.
Those three needs are autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Leading researchers describe these as something like “psychological nutrients.” Without them, performance will decline, motivation will decrease, and engagement will drop. More concretely, teams whose leaders don’t provide for those basic needs are guaranteed to experience churn and burnout. The executives we work with talk about these issues often—when remote or hybrid work breaks down leaders’ ability to support independent achievement and personal connections, the team itself rapidly loses function.
Strategies and Solutions
The good news is that there’s a robust set of solutions available. In broad strokes, what’s required are changes to meeting procedures and arrangements that support the needs just outlined. A helpful list of general practices can be found here, but we’ve compiled our own more targeted set of recommendations.
Autonomy is, roughly, the need to feel ownership of your work. This is less about freedom than feeling voluntarily invested in what you’re doing and having a sense of agency over problem-solving and outcomes. The core challenge of fostering autonomy in a remote work environment is the same as it is in the office—employees need realistic and individualized goals, strong support, and clear responsibilities with high emotional buy-in. However, the hybrid environment adds another layer of complexity because it can be easy for someone outside the office to find themselves cut off from the team both socially and operationally.
The best solution here is to create useful boundaries within which employees can explore their capabilities. Start by working with team members to define new, realistic work schedules that account for new demands on their time. Second, set specific short-term goals so that individual team members have a comfortable scope to self-direct. Third, openly discuss appropriate forms of supervision and support, and responsibility. Finally, it can be helpful to have employees set their benchmarks for work-from-home success.
Competence has two main features: the feeling of control over immediate outcomes (such as a single project, meeting, or task) and the more general experience of mastery. Both are supported by a range of leadership best practices, of which the most basic is providing opportunities for consistent wins. These can come from primary project work, provided it can be broken down into regular (e.g., daily) chances for success. Alternatively, offer individual changes for achievement—independent pieces of research, complex problem-solving, or side projects to support the team itself.
A second critical support for competence is, perhaps obviously, providing positive feedback both privately and publicly. Spend enough time on this for the feedback to be truly individualized, recognizing talent and potential alongside experience and capacity for productivity. Third, and relatedly, work with other elements of the organization to provide clear pathways to personal and professional growth. This can include training, development plans, financial support for additional accreditation, and similar tools.
Perhaps the most precarious psychological need in hybrid work scenarios is relatedness, the baseline feeling of connection to peers and colleagues. Leaders have two essential jobs here: one is to commit meeting times to discuss non-work topics of personal interest. One-on-ones work well for this, as they offer an opportunity to get to know employees more personally. In addition, you’ll need to make sure team members have an active voice in both decision-making and team-building. This might mean working out new ways to hold meetings to account for the idiosyncrasies of hybrid work. Still, it also means soliciting input and opinions from every member of the organization regularly.
The Long Future of Work-From-Home
In the 25th month of the global pandemic, after half a dozen large-scale attempts to return to normal, it is clear that hybrid and remote work are going to remain staples of technically sophisticated jobs for the foreseeable future. Teams can seize substantial competitive advantages by developing high-productivity hybrid models faster than their competitors, and we believe that the psychology of motivation is the right place to start developing those strategies.
Chiara Brega originally wrote this article. Have questions? Get in touch!
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