Get Ready to Lead the New Hybrid Office

With vaccinations accelerating, more association leaders may soon be managing people both remotely and in person. The shift will demand good communication skills and attention to fairness.

A year since the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. People have different opinions on how bright that light is—maybe we’ll be back to “normal” this summer, maybe next year—but there’s no question something’s flickering. Which means we’re starting to have serious conversations about what the post-pandemic workplace will look like and how we’ll transition into it.

Hybrid offices can potentially damage relationships, impede effective collaboration, and ultimately reduce performance.

The numbers suggest that leaders still have work to do to address their employees’ comfort levels. According to a survey conducted by Keystone Partners last December and released in February, substantial proportions of U.S. workers give their employers low marks for support and transparency: 36 percent say senior management doesn’t “communicate concern for my well-being in both words and actions”; 37 percent haven’t been offered flexible scheduling; and 39 percent say that management lacks a clear plan for moving forward after the pandemic.

That’s concerning in any context. But it’s a bit more so as we enter a transitional period: As jabs are still finding their way into arms, many associations will likely have to consider hybrid office arrangements. And without close attention, that scenario risks exacerbating the concerns raised by the Keystone Partners report.

In their Harvard Business Review article “Making the Hybrid Workplace Fair,” business scholars Mark Mortensen and Martine Haas argue that having employees work both remotely and in the office has the potential to “create power differentials within teams that can damage relationships, impede effective collaboration, and ultimately reduce performance.” (Add to that some of the inequities that can fester in the remote-work environment.)

Any hybrid arrangement, Mortensen and Haas write, requires leaders to monitor not just how people are treated, but how they feel they can express themselves. Leaders need to map out their office’s “hybridity configuration”—knowing who’s working where and when, with special attention paid to remote workers and what resources they need.

And there’s an elephant in the room that needs to be acknowledged—that hybridity has plenty of potential for sowing imbalances. Leaders need to communicate the ways that the environment can make remote workers feel less seen, or unseen. Explicitly recognizing that, Mortensen and Haas write, “will increase the likelihood of employees speaking up and asking for resources when they need them, as well as their confidence that their efforts will be recognized.”

Another question is whether the metrics an organization is measuring are still meaningful in the same way now. KPIs that are rooted in collaboration, for instance, will need to acknowledge that collaboration works differently in a hybrid office environment.

In fact, the pandemic has generally unsettled what makes sense for associations to measure. In Associations Now’s Lead2021 special report, consultant Amanda Kaiser recommends one-on-one interviews with members and attendees: “What we want to do is ask them what they’re most challenged with, what their worries are for the future and what their goals are both in the near term and the long term,” she said.

Those are good questions to ask employees as well. Understanding where they’re struggling is a good practice for after the pandemic—and especially crucial as we make our way to that “after.”

If you’re leading a hybrid office, what do you do to keep lines of communication open and address potential imbalances? Share your experiences in the comments.

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Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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