Hybrid work is becoming increasingly popular local and global alike. Here, it was mainly due to COVID first and then the fuel crisis. The way of ensuring the proper management with achieving expected results has also shifted from classical MBWA (management by walking around) to what I prefer to call MBCA (management by connecting across). Today’s column sheds light on the nature and features of an effective hybrid work arrangement, with specific emphasis on Sri Lankan organisations.
“People are more productive working at home than people would have expected,” says Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook. Hybrid work typically associates flexibility. It is an approach that allows employees to split their time between working in the office and working from home. According to Envoy magazine, the associated flexibility can vary paving way for several options:
Hybrid at-will: Employees can choose which day(s) to come into the office
Hybrid split-week: The organisation assigns specific days for on-site and remote work by team or function
Hybrid manager-scheduling: Managers choose which day(s) their team comes into the office
Hybrid mix: A combination of all three options
The increasingly famous 3-3-2 work week is an example for the hybrid split-week. It simply means working three days of the week in a physical office space, two at home, and having two off on the weekend. In May of last year, Google CEO Sundar Pichai described how the company would move to what is essentially a 3-2-2 model, resulting in “a workforce where around 60% of Googlers are coming together in the office a few days a week, another 20% are working in new office locations, and 20% are working from home.” Many ICT firms in Sri Lanka have resorted to a similar work pattern offering greater flexibility to employees.
The critical factor in hybrid work arrangement is to ensure quality and productivity. It requires a conscious shift from MBWA to MBCA. Let us discuss further.
From MBWA to MBCA
The classical term ‘Management by Walking Around’ (some say wondering around) goes back to 1960s where Peter Drucker has first used the acronym. It bears similarities to Japanese management methods such as Genchi Genbutsu (meaning ‘go and see’). In America, MBWA was popularised as an important part of ‘The HP Way,’ the open management style pioneered by HP founders Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard as a means of boosting morale within their company.
The MBWA approach gained prominence in the early 1980s when Tom Peters and Robert Waterman wrote in their seminal book, In Search of Excellence, sharing examples from such notable organisations as Hewlett-Packard, GE, PepsiCo, Lucasfilm, 3M and Disney. In its sequel, A Passion for Excellence, Peters said he saw MBWA as the basis for leadership and excellence and called it the ‘technology of the obvious.’
I was inspired by Prof. Dave Ulrich when he wrote in introducing the term ‘Management by Checking In’ (MBCI). It is the way a manager connects across in order to ensure proper checks and balances in place. He observes that “The best managers have always instinctively checked in and stayed connected with their employees, no matter the obstacles.”
Ulrich proposes six ways of ensuring ‘management by checking in’ or ‘management by connecting across.’ (MBCA)
1. “Schedule short, 10-12 minute, weekly videos or phone calls with employees that prohibit any discussion about work and simply explore how employees are doing.” If an employee is feeling burned out, managers can identify the problems and discuss what to do before the employee resigns.
2. “Be transparent in virtual settings by sharing personal stories or experiences, both good and bad, to model connection.” Ulrich highly recommends creating safe spaces for managers and employees to honestly share difficulties and celebrate successes.
3. “Ensure that positive or upbeat comments are part of technology-enabled connections, such as posts and calls.” Setting a positive tone via digital channels is as important for managers in hybrid work settings as it is for in-office settings.
4. “Express gratitude in every communication.” Ulrich believes managers need to share what employees are doing well, not just criticise.
5. “Start meetings with a ‘good news’ moment by sharing personal positive experiences.” Again, setting a positive tone from the outset of a meeting can improve two-way communication and strengthen relationships with employees.
6. “Pay attention to the setting where employees work. Ask how their kids or parents are doing,” says Ulrich, “because caring, showing compassion, and being curious foster collaboration and connection.” Managers need to see employees as having multiple dimensions that go beyond work. Employee experience is enhanced when managers recognise that workers are, in fact, human beings.
Challenges of MBCA
Management by connecting across has its own challenges. It is not yet streamlined as a structured approach with sustained success. I found an article by Jeanne Meister in the Forbes magazine interesting in this context. She highlights five key lessons in overcoming challenges as follows:
1.Propose principles for flexible working: Provide clarity and autonomy
One of the first steps organisations are taking is to create enterprise principles for flexible working. Royal Bank of Canada has done just this with its set of guidelines for workplace flexibility. These enterprise principles for flexible work demonstrate the importance of providing guidance and autonomy, rather than ‘top-down policies’ in how to be successful working in a hybrid model.
2.Re-invent work: Where, When, Why, and How We Work
While the pandemic may have eliminated our commute to work, many of us ended up working longer hours and less efficiently, leading to excessive workloads. In fact, Microsoft Teams data shows between February 2020 and February 2021, time spent on Teams meetings more than doubled, and continues to climb, with workers reporting they respond to Teams chats every five minutes.
This hyper-responsiveness is exacerbating our ability to find work-family harmony, leading to greater distress and employee burnout. Considering the density of our workday, with many back-to-back remote meetings, more companies are starting to ask how we can work differently. Consider VTT Research Centre of Finland’s future of work experiment with their creation of an ‘offline hour’ when all employees are unreachable via online channels to let everyone focus on work without interruptions. Even before the pandemic, Finland has been a world leader in flexible work and as Kirsi Nuotto, the SVP of Human Resources at VTT says, “we continue to conduct experiments in new ways of working.”
In addition to re-inventing how we work, we also need to question the role and purpose of the office. Perhaps the on-site office is more akin to the off-site meetings pre-pandemic, a destination for collaboration, creativity, networking, and learning from each other. Leaders need to make returning to the office worth the commute and remember to design the office for both the people in the room and those not in the room!
3. Provide equitable career development: Unlock potential for all employees
According to Forbes magazine, Hybrid working is bringing proximity bias into focus. This is the phenomenon of favouring in person workers for career development, stretch assignments, and mentoring at the expense of those who work remotely or in a hybrid work model.
The Executive Networks in partnership with MeQuilibrium conducted research among nearly 1,000 HR leaders, business leaders, and full-time workers uncovering the fear remote and hybrid workers have of proximity bias. While 32% of employees prefer a hybrid work environment, 43% view in-person work as the best for career advancement. Perhaps most telling, when we asked business leaders their views on the connection of hybrid working and career advancement, 61% of business leaders say their organisation places more value on in-person work than remote or hybrid work, and 56% of employees agree with this.
For hybrid work to be successful, organisations must clearly the principles for success (as Royal Bank of Canada has done) and then be specific as to the guidelines for hybrid working, such as core collaboration hours and also how to engage in non-core hours. Additionally, leaders need to provide opportunities to develop peer connections remotely and assurances that career development will be equitable for all employees— on-site, remote, and hybrid workers.
4. Model empathic leadership: Soft skills become ‘power skills’
Ten years ago, Google’s Project Oxygen started with a fundamental question: do managers matter? The consensus was that not managers do matter, and the best ones are good coaches. These managers inspire trust, provide regular feedback, and build equitable processes for growth and development. Taken together, these skills may typically be referred to as ‘soft skills,’ but have become the ‘hard skills’ of leadership.
In a recent Harvard Business Review article, The C-Suite Skills That Matter Most, the authors analysed 5,000 job descriptions of C-suite executives and found that the skills that matter most are such soft skills as the ability to listen and communicate well, a facility for working with different types of people and groups, the capacity to be empathic, the ability to infer how others are thinking and feeling, and trust building. These skills are important not only for the CEO, but also for the CIO, CHRO, CMO, CFO, and their teams.
As work norms have been forever changed, developing these ‘soft skills’ are essential to helping all employees feel equally supported in the hybrid workplace. They in fact are no longer soft skills but ‘power skills.’
5. Conduct on-going check-ins: Focus on equity
HR processes at most organisations—such as recruiting on-boarding, performance management, and career development—were not designed for the hybrid workplace. So, each one of these processes needs to be examined while considering hybrid working. As Forbes magazine clearly spells out, with hybrid working becoming a permanent way of working, we must examine all the moments in an employee’s journey with us and re-imagine this for the hybrid model. For example, if a job role can be hybrid, is that now clearly described in the job description? And for employees who do work in a hybrid model, can engagement and retention be attributable to flexible working?
“We like to give people the freedom to work where they want, safe in the knowledge that they have the drive and expertise to perform excellently,” says Sir Richard Branson of Virgin fame. Sri Lankan organisations battered by multiple issues, should consider hybrid work arrangement as an opportunity for better work-family harmony whilst maintain the required quality and productivity. Despite the limitations of its applicability to all industries and all functions, a clear identification of where it will work cost-effectively could be a starting point.
(The writer is the immediate past Director of the Postgraduate Institute of Management. He can be reached through ajant[email protected], [email protected] or www.ajanthadharmasiri.info.)