Human first approach: the role of remote work leadership teams in sustained hybrid work environments

By Danielle Villeneuve
March 31, 2021
7 min read

Remote work is definitely here to stay. While some employees are now preparing (and even excited) to return to an office environment with the promise of a COVID-free future in sight, many are vowing to never set foot into an office again. And, an overwhelming majority hope that the future may hold for them some kind of hybrid work environment, where they can split their time between the office and home.

However, this hybrid work arrangement is not without its challenges for an organization’s leadership team. This blog is the second of a two-part series on the topic of the new reality of remote work for those who traditionally work in an office setting. This second installment focuses on the ongoing responsibility of senior leadership teams (think C-Suite, VPs, and directors) who were forced to transform and adapt their traditional office settings and move to remote working conditions almost overnight one year ago.

(Read the first part in the series on how managers can keep remote work burnout free and engaging here.)

So, what actions can remote work leadership teams take to support their people and operations? In this blog, we’ll lay out three key steps that your leadership team should be taking to reflect on actions taken, improve, and establish the foundations to make sustained remote work and hybrid working environments an ongoing success. Read on for more!

Note: the author recognizes these two work options will present unique and different challenges to different organizations, so a focus around the commonalities that are actionable is the focus of this piece.

Step 1: re-view—what did we learn & where do we go?

The swift transition to remote work was a reactionary approach, with most organizations ill-prepared in their existing business continuity plans to address the specificities of the pandemic. To their credit, many organizations creatively patched together solutions to keep employees safe and continue operations as best they could. Others were not so lucky and closed their doors.

The unofficial first-year anniversary of remote work is a timely opportunity to reflect, re-design, and commit to re-commit.

Leadership teams must decide how and where they will choose to operate, utilizing learning from employee experiences and business operations over the past year. Remote work leadership teams should seek feedback from employees through surveys or small group discussions. What do employees want the future of their workplace to look like? What does a workplace even mean? What working arrangements do employees feel are fair and reasonable?

Leadership teams should also make informed decisions by reviewing the recommendations from available literature, media, and research data from within the external environment. You’re already on the right path if you’re reading this blog now!

Step 2: re-design—adopt a human-centered work design

Research findings from Gartner’s Human Resource Group recently highlighted that remote and hybrid work models cannot simply apply a design that was created for an office setting and apply it to a remote environment. Instead, we must focus on being authentic through human-centered work design. The human design will include improved processes and approaches that support employees by leading with empathy and reflecting our understandings of remote and hybrid realities. Here’s what that will look like:

Flexibility & accountability

Leadership teams must embrace the fact that control over how, when, and where employees work has changed. Employees now have the flexibility to make decisions about how they work, when they work, where they work, and how to integrate their personal and professional responsibilities. This means remote work leadership teams will need to meet that flexibility with clear expectations. For example, consider whether you want to track work outputs, deadlines, submission time stamps, and/or customer satisfaction ratings as measures of performance. If you want employees to work fixed times based on the needs of customers, a business-driven rationale should be provided.

Note: the organizations that are seen as rigid or less flexible will risk voluntary turnover and attraction of lower quality candidates, as generalized workplace flexibility grows stronger and transforms from perk to policy.

Communication & wellbeing

Leadership teams should continue to operate with transparency and open, honest communication to foster employee engagement and trust. As the situation continues to change and re-settle into a new rhythm, leadership teams will be looked to for ongoing updates, answers, and encouragement.

Communication should continue to focus on ensuring that employees are taking care of their mental health and overall well-being. Regular communication from leadership about what the company is doing to support and invest in those priorities is key. For example, highlighting available benefits plan support, investing in wellness app access and programs, guest health practitioner speakers, and emotional intelligence training are all great places to start.

Of course, communicating effectively with your remote workers isn’t always easy, and the go-to all-staff email won’t always see much engagement. Consider whether it’s time to look at technology that allows you to reach your employees on different channels (including SMS, Slack, and Microsoft Teams) while only having to set up and send your messages once.

In the past year, many employees have struggled to find work-life balance as they failed to unplug at regular times and even worked longer hours. The fatigue and virtual overload caused from video meetings and being “constantly on” will continue to be factors as the pandemic continues. Encouraging managers to remind employees to go for walks, stretch, or schedule meeting-free days or time pockets throughout the week can all help. Like most things, a combination approach is recommended. Keep the lines of communication open.

Conversations and check-ins around technology training, tools, and equipment support ought to be regular priorities, too. This ensures a more equitable experience for employees. Minimum computer, phone, and device system requirements and specifications should be clearly outlined and reviewed regularly. While many remote environmental factors are outside of your organization’s responsibility, the tools of the job and company-provided training are still within your influence.

Internal Communications

Teamwork & belonging

The shift to long-term remote or hybrid work environments means less in-person, look-you-in-the-eyes time. Likely, the strength and nature of our interpersonal relationships at work will change as a result. As the old saying goes, you don’t truly know what someone is like until you’ve worked alongside them.

While getting to know your existing or new colleagues through a video chat or daily huddles can help, it will be some time until we understand the long-term impacts on our connections. How might we best nurture long-distance work relationships? Hybrid work models start to bridge some of these considerations but are not without their own challenges.

Technology solutions like virtual reality and avatars may help to fill the void in the coming years; leadership teams should continue to prioritize and encourage learning and curiosity about technological trends and benefits.

In the interim, remote work leadership teams can promote cross-functional work teams to promote exposure and support connections across their organization. They can also continue to encourage employees to bring their whole selves to work, and provide support and promote resources around D, E, & I; cross-cultural training; and unconscious bias training. As globalized workforces continue to grow, and with addresses no longer limiting where one can work, organizations are best served to find ways to support cultural practices around diversity, equity, and inclusion to forge and re-enforce an organizational identity based on these shared values and understanding.

Step 3: Re-commit—who we want to be

Just as organizations adapted over the weeks and months of the pandemic, similar adaptability, agility, and alertness will be required to re-commit and refine approaches, processes, and organizational identity. We are still early adopters at the beginning of a new era. As further information and data become available and as we continue to live through this new reality, adjustments will need to be made. Re-committing to learning and being open to change is essential.

Final thoughts the role of remote work leadership teams in sustained hybrid work environments

While the hope might be to set up proven practices for long-term success, the pandemic has taught us to rethink the concept of time and to be adaptable. Our planning horizons have shifted from one, three, and five years plans to much shorter terms, and it may stay that way for a while. That said, implementing the above suggestions should provide a good baseline from which to move forward.

We invite you to share your thoughts, ideas, and comments about how you and your organization are moving forward with us on Twitter. We are in this together!

Interested to see how internal comms software can help you communicate with your remote workers? Book a demo to see IC’s internal communications software in action, or head to our technology page to learn more about what our software can do for you.

By Danielle Villeneuve

Danielle Villeneuve is one of the new faces at IC Thrive and a first-timer into tech. She joined IC Thrive as a customer success manager and has grown into an account executive role for Reach. Danielle brings a BA in communications and more than 10+ years of experience in the service sector within various mid-level management, internal comms, and HR roles. Danielle is currently pursuing an HR Management Certificate to continue to grow her leadership skills. Curious by nature, she loves to ask a lot of questions.