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To Succeed in Hybrid Work, Disrupt Yourself

If I were to pick two words to describe the COVID pandemic, the first would be “tragedy,” and the second would be “disruption.” We used to know exactly what “I’m going to work” meant. But starting in early 2020, a staggering amount of America’s work left the head office and moved into the small office, the back patio, or the kitchen table. Now offices are cautiously opening their doors again. But like letting go a flock of pigeons, a lot of that work isn’t necessarily coming back home to roost. According to a recent report from Cisco, 98% of all meetings going forward will involve what we now call “hybrid work”: some employees physically present; others virtually present via the internet. At Disruption Advisors, we believe people are the bottom line. If you are experiencing change, like transitioning to a hybrid work environment, doubling down on your people’s ability to grow and to adapt is the critical ingredient for success.

Freedom in the air Hybridization gives many of us a level of work freedom unknown in U.S. history. But once given, freedom is hard to take back. “Whereas the decision was historically made for us—you work at home or remote—now people are deciding,” says Kraft Heinz CHRO Melissa Werneck. Given the choice between a commute or a couch, many employees will simply opt to work from home. For more than a year employers have scrambled to develop effective virtual office platforms to make work from home (WFH) possible. But bosses also need to think about how to help disparate employees stay engaged, or else they may watch their teams start to fragment. And whether they realize it or not, team members need the morale boost that comes with constructive feedback and quality human interaction. Smart companies know they can fight disruption, with disruption. I’m talking about good disruption: the kind that jolts you out of your meets-expectations rut and leads to new efficiencies. When things go awry it’s easy to shrug and say “because COVID.” But the fact is, every day something happens that we don’t expect. How we deal with disruption has always defined the future of our companies and careers. Personal disruption means rethinking our attitude toward work itself, and then making meaningful changes. It amounts to upskilling: learning to be more flexible; learning to take a step back and say “what’s truly essential for me to accomplish, and how do I get there?” We’ll need to allow more flexibility in our own workstyle (sometimes we’re in the conference room; sometimes in the living room) and more flexibility toward the changing workstyles of our employees. To upskill, flex, and rethink are as much about mindset as they are about acquiring a skill. Over this past year, we studied people’s mindset around disruption and know that those who are able to experience growth in their mindset and roles and test as proficient in stepping back to evaluate the status quo are far more engaged in their work than those who believe upskill, flex, and rethink are simply skills to acquire.

Personal disruption writ large Big picture, hybrid isn’t just offsite work + onsite work. We know from both our research and through coaching leaders, the smart hybrid company demonstrates personal disruption writ large. If the “new normal” makes your office seem in flux, the following are some easy ways to upskill your management approach:

  1. Fight your bias. New biases can creep into our new work from home vs. work from office reality. One bias—visual bias—is becoming a thing. Does an employee have a cubicle or a kitchen in the background? Offsite employees need to know their input is as valuable today as it was pre-COVID. One easy hack is to have a remote worker set up your next hybrid meeting, recommends Erica Dhawan, author of Digital Body Language. “Ask everyone, [regardless of] whether they are off or on site, to include questions in the chat function.” Now we’re all on the same webpage. Another one of Dhawan’s tips: in starting the discussion, let one of the offsite employees pitch the first ball. This sets the tone for the meeting. We’re all on equal footing. We’re all Present.

  2. Be personable, even at a distance. I was on a video call recently, and I was feeling disconnected. Afterward it occurred to me that If the meeting had been in-person I’d have radiated differently—a smile, a handshake, maybe even a Latin American-style kisson the cheek. If that’s ever been your experience, then it’s time to disrupt your online persona. Many video platforms offer fun ways to engage, such as Webex’s gestures and gesture recognition. Mixing up (or blurring out) backgrounds can be a great way to make the virtual meeting world more exciting. Something as simple as giving that little black camera a smile can make others feel present and welcome. Be your best self, even when that self isn’t sitting at the conference table. And don’t forget: there’s still a living, breathing person behind every computer screen.

  3. Bring everyone up to speed. If you’re feeling disconnected, odds are that others in your team feel disconnected too. Sometimes it’s just logistics: people are working different hours now; often in different time zones. Jeff Bakke, Chief Strategy Officer at Wex Health, was already ahead of that curve when COVID struck. “We’ve been working from home for years with people in Fargo, Minneapolis, Omaha, Phoenix. That’s not the challenge. What we are going to need to be mindful of—and this goes to inclusivity—is to make sure the meeting doesn’t start before it starts.” Employees are forced to play catch-up when they join an online discussion, only to hear important topics already underway. “We want to feel that we belong,” agrees Angie Balfour, CHRO of Weave Communication. “Psychologically, it feels as if the ball was being tossed to us [before], and now it isn’t.” Weave has a three-prong approach to keeping everyone abreast. “We manage for that beginning with communications. (1) emails; (2) communication meetings; (3) intranet. And ensure decisions and comms are not just building- or site-centric,” Balfour adds.

  4. Be hybrid yet equal. Building teamwork under pressure requires both good psychology and good technology. Kraft Heinz responded to the crisis by investing heavily in hybrid office technology. One upside of hybrid, Melissa Werneck said, is the democratizing effect—a round table, if you will, where everyone is on the same screen. Angie Balfour echoes that a hybrid meeting doesn’t mean respect goes out the window. Leaders lead by example when it comes to meeting etiquette. Acknowledge those who are present via social technology, and don’t give employees cause to suspect any visual bias, site bias, or project bias. Leaders who own projects are still obligated to delegate work with an even hand. No site or team should have the monopoly on the high-profile projects. Rather, they should make each employee feel as though the company is still keeping their chair warm. Those working from home or from the small office should be given the opportunity to meet key people in situ when needed, and to travel to key sites.

Your best is still your best How we work has been disrupted. How we deal with disruption has not: our best is still our best. The best way—the only way– to manage through disruption is to first disrupt ourselves. As Angela Blanchard, a fellow at Brown University said to me, “The revelatory aspect of disruption is that when things fall apart, we understand how they are built.” Business thought leaders give a lot of airtime to how disruptive companies are built. But innovation ultimately begins on the inside. Your company needs you. It needs you to upskill. It needs you to make hybrid work, work. Because your company can’t disrupt the future unless you do.

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