Are we really just hiding behind hybrid? Many of our executive coaching clients admit to feeling rushed into making a choice or some sort of commitment about returning to a brick-and-mortar work setting soon. Their employers offer fixed choices about where to work: either fully remotely (if eligible) or some kind of hybrid blend of working remotely and at a company site.
Other clients express frustration that their company is delaying the decision, leaving them wondering what will happen and how to plan their lives. They see right through the indecision, and hiding behind hybrid work solutions is causing more angst than resolve.
We’re focusing on the wrong question.
True enough, where we work is important. Perhaps more than ever, people want to feel safe while they’re making a difference for your company. But you absolutely know that psychological and physical safety has been critical to your workforce forever. This is not new. The resources you’re spending on how to get your company “back” are new, and it heightens your attention to it, but the issue has been on everyone’s mind for a long time.
So, I’m wondering why we are putting so much focus on where we work as the panacea to provide our talented leaders and their teams with what they need to do their best work.
We’re not paying attention. Yet again, we’re fixing blame on Covid and the chaos it created and putting a hybrid bandaid on the real issue — We don’t trust our people, and they don’t trust us either. Hiding behind hybrid is leading to more unrest.
I’ve been listening deeply to what your leaders are saying about their experiences, and I’m learning a lot. Consider what I’m sharing here as you’re framing your questions and making decisions about what “back” means so that you — and your Board and shareholders — rise like a Phoenix from the disruption of 2020/21.
Here is one story you need to hear.
Kim is new to her VP role but not new to the company. You promoted her after the mass exodus of established leaders in her division created a leadership void. In the past, you thought she showed promise but was not yet ready for this level of responsibility. However, given the sense of urgency to get things moving forward, you decided to take a risk.
Given the tectonic shift of your leadership bench, you are glad for Kim’s excitement to step up. Like all new leaders, she wants to make a name for herself and prove she is up for the challenge. Most of her direct reports are new to her, also in new roles and trying to make names for themselves, too.
The dilemma they’re all facing is that they have many questions and need a lot of help and direction. Yet, they are not likely to ask for it because it would reveal their vulnerability of not knowing the “right” answer or even the “right” question. Not knowing is a slippery slope to not deserving. Risk tolerance is low, and compliance is high. Better to get direction than to seek collaborative input.
So everyone shows up for back-to-back, on-camera team meetings trying to add value and appear competent while absorbing new information at the speed of sound. Afterward, trying to make sense of it, they’re totally confused about what they need to do or why. With no time to think about it, they head into the next meeting to wash, rinse, and repeat. They finally push away from the computer late in the evening, exhausted. Again.
Tyler works for Kim and is a new Director. His technical skills are remarkable and are the foundation of his success. He has some experience leading a small team with single focus projects and is now leading a more complex team with multiple functions. He feels lost at how to go about it. He often gets frustrated that his people don’t see the world and solutions the way he does, and they take what seems like forever to get things done. His reputation is at stake here, so he’s very intent on delivering what Kim expects of him.
Of HIM, in his mind, not of his team.
So he schedules meetings on top of his team members’ previously existing meetings. He often reschedules his 1:1 support and direction-setting meeting times with them to get things done himself.
What happened today (name your day, it happens regularly)
This morning in a meeting with Kim, you (her boss) threw out an idea about solving a problem. You intended to be helpful and inspire her and her team with a creative new idea. Because she is new, wants to impress you, and has little wisdom about how to respond to your creative idea, she took it as a mandate in disguise.
She immediately organized a 911 meeting with Tyler and redirected his work according to her understanding of your idea. Tyler then hijacked his team’s workflow to prioritize Kim’s interpretation of your idea.
Tyler’s team is in an uproar. They resent the disruption – again. It seems like they have gone from a list of top 10 projects to support the business to a fuzzy list of 40, and they expect it will grow again tomorrow.
When are they supposed to get their “real” work done?
After Kim and Tyler push away from their computers some time tonight, probably, and when their current project deadlines aren’t met, what happens then?
Maria works for Tyler. She has taken no time off this year — it’s been a whirlwind of challenges to find a good option for a vacation. In a recent team meeting, Tyler read the company memo telling people to prioritize their families and take care of themselves. So, taking the company communication seriously, Maria took three days off last week.
When she came back, she felt absolutely penalized by the ways Tyler interacted with her about pending projects. When she asked how to prioritize what was on her plate, he told her she should find a way to get it all done.
Tyler thinks Maria is unmotivated — she should know this is not a time for a vacation with so much at stake. Maria wonders if this is all worth the emotional turmoil and self-doubt. Maybe she’ll find a job without so much drama. Hiding behind hybrid, however, won’t work for long.
So, what’s really going on? Here’s what I think they would tell you if they could.
We need to know you care about us.
We want to do work that has purpose.
We want to know what is going on — or not — and why.
We want autonomy where it makes sense and direction when we need it. Hiding behind hybrid work environments doesn’t provide a real solution, it offers a band-aid.
We want to belong to a sustainable company that supports reasonable leadership.
We need to know you back us up.
We want to be able to plan our work, so we feel successful.
You do that by…
Building community where people feel seen, honored, heard and included.
Preparing your leaders to lead in a world where so much is evolving and unknown, where being boldly vulnerable is honored, and learning is honestly expected.
Courageously sorting through the noise to figure out what your people are working on right now, providing crystal clarity about what is most important, and empowering them to say no to requests that aren’t aligned.
Rewarding compassionate reasonableness.
How would Kim’s story unfold in a responsive, healthy organization? Kim’s story, Take Two…
This morning when Kim came to you seeking advice, you threw out an idea about how to solve a problem. She considered your idea, and, feeling confident and respected, she asked some clarifying questions and together you tested some of the logic. She left your conversation re-energized and excited to talk with Tyler about it.
Kim pinged Tyler to let her know when he had 15 minutes to talk over her idea about solving the specific problem. Because he was aware of the issue, he invited Maria to the quick conversation. In that 15-minute conversation, Kim, Tyler, and Maria sorted through what tasks had the highest impact and were most doable and how to know if they were on the right track.
Maria, confident that the work needed was purposeful and clear, aligned her team, and they began moving forward.
The solution they decided to pursue resembled your original suggestion to Kim only slightly. Still, you care more about getting to the right outcome than being “right,” and you love the feeling of progress. You’re thrilled that your off-the-cuff idea inspired true innovation. Everyone, including you, contributes to the organization in their uniquely situated ways.
Kim’s story happens every day, and we can’t blame it on work-from-home or any of its permutations. It is not a product of remote or hybrid work, but the challenges of this work environment serve to amplify the real problem. We need to reinvent purposeful work, lead courageously, and expect that we will get it done together.
“Hiding behind hybrid as a solution is not a solution.”Karen Pierce
We need to do the work to develop trust and community with our teams that we needed to do before. Now. And we can. This is doable.
Something you can do right now…
Be your own researcher — ask your direct reports these questions to discover how your organization is handling employee experience right now. Stop hiding behind hybrid as a solution.