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‘Hybrid working needs modern leaders’: so what are the new rules for managers of small and medium businesses? | Make work work


In-office, remote, work-from-home, hybrid, hot-desking, shared workspace and asynchronous scheduling. The way that many of us work is now more varied and flexible than ever before.

But leading a dispersed workforce requires new skills, styles and approaches from those that may have proven effective in the past – for example, the skills to help people with their wellbeing and manage their energy levels instead of simply managing their time.

Managers and business owners are also confronted with a host of new questions and dilemmas, for instance:

  • how to establish the right level of authority and tone for a hybrid workplace

  • how best to balance the need to oversee a team’s productivity and efficiency with the need to respect their privacy and preferred styles of working

  • how to foster trust, empathy and understanding.

Part of the problem is that, for many businesses, the shift to radically different working arrangements occurred in the midst of the Covid pandemic. “Most businesses embraced hybrid at a point of crisis,” notes Victoria Lewis-Stephens, co-founder of United Culture, an agency specialising in employee experience, leadership and talent engagement. “Putting sticky plasters over things that weren’t set up for this way of working won’t work – now is the time to get serious about making the shift sustainable.”

Leadership instead of command-and-control

The different approach to management that is now needed involves a greater emphasis on leadership, rather than command and control. “Hybrid working models need modern leaders who lead with compassion and act more like mentors than bosses,” explains Robert Ordever, European MD at workplace culture and employee-recognition expert OC Tanner. “Modern leaders advocate for their teams, helping them to develop and grow, giving them recognition and working hard to ensure they feel part of a close-knit team.”

Nick Hedderman, senior director of the Modern Work Business Group at Microsoft UK, likens these skills to coaching: “We train managers to model flexibility, wellbeing, and self-care; act like a coach, helping employees set priorities, removing roadblocks, and asking questions to help employees find solutions; and care for employees’ unique needs in and outside of work.”

Connect and clarify

One of the key skills modern managers need is the ability to create close-knit teams even though team members are not always physically together. According to Ordever, modern leaders need to be effective “connectors”. “This means that they focus on finding ways to connect their teams to organisational purpose, accomplishment and one another.” This becomes even more relevant to the innumerable small and medium-sized business owners who have recruited remote teams over the past few years.

They also need the skills to manage the tensions that new working arrangements can generate. “Many remote workers feel increased levels of stress about how they work online and how they are monitored,” says Ceri Gillett, a business coach and owner of social enterprise Mubo, which supports female entrepreneurs. “It’s important to set clear guidelines about what you expect from your team and check in regularly to monitor progress.

“Always remember to communicate the why – this helps people keep that big vision in mind and not feel like they are being micromanaged in a task-orientated way.”

Beware ‘productivity paranoia’

According to the latest data from Microsoft’s Work Trend Index, which has tracked the development of hybrid working since the onset of the pandemic, just 12% of leaders have full confidence their team is productive. “This is in stark contrast to the 87% of employees who report they are productive at work – a trend we’re calling out as ‘productivity paranoia’,” explains Hedderman.

He attributes it to the lack of visibility. “Many leaders and managers are missing the old visual cues of what it means to be productive because they can’t ‘see’ who is hard at work on site at a busy business,” he says. “Owners and managers of smaller businesses need to pivot from worrying about whether their people are working enough, to helping them focus on the work that’s most important … Focus your energy on helping them to prioritise the right work to boost productivity.”

Indeed, the Work Trend Index report found that 81% of employees surveyed said it’s important that their managers help them prioritise their workload, but less than a third (31%) said their managers have ever given clear guidance during one-on-ones.

Moreover, productivity paranoia can be self-defeating by impeding people’s work. “As employees feel the pressure to “prove” they’re working, digital overwhelm is soaring – with 48% of employees and 53% of managers reporting that they’re already burned out at work,” observes Hedderman.

Connecting with employees both online and offline regularly will encourage them to bring their best selves to work

The importance of wellbeing

Modern small business owners must also be more alert to employee wellbeing. Not only are they seeing their team in person less often, but working from home blurs the boundaries between work and home, which can also lead to problems such as burnout. In addition, it can also foster feelings of isolation.

While in the past these concerns may have been secondary at best, now many workplace technologies place them front and centre. For instance, Microsoft Viva Insights enables employees to formalise their wellbeing needs, making it possible to keep track of after-hours work, block out focus time, and wind down with mindfulness exercises in a virtual commute.

“It’s really important to develop practices or processes that help you coach and deal with people with empathy,” says Gillett. “You want to make sure that the person you are dealing with feels heard and understood if they have shared something they are going through.

“It’s also important to leave these conversations by clearly outlining any action that will take place as a result.”

Lasting flexibility

Hedderman emphasises that flexibility is here to stay. “Continuing to support and invest in hybrid working may feel like a choice, but the reality is that small and medium-sized businesses still operate in an incredibly tight talent marketplace,” he says. “Flexibility is a feature, not a fad and 2019 leadership practices won’t wash with a digitally connected, distributed workforce.”

As such, nurturing it and sustaining it will be a key factor in business resilience. “We believe that energised, empowered employees are the key to a durable, competitive advantage for every business,” Hedderman adds.

As well as new skills and styles, there are also tools that can help leaders manage new working arrangements by reducing the hurdles that can come with remote or asynchronous working. For instance, Microsoft 365 Business Premium – which combines the company’s productivity apps with cloud-based services, such as email and file storage, device management, and advanced security – includes practical features such as video messages to ensure people can deliver the right tone of what’s being said, the ability to record meeting and produce transcripts for people to review later, planners to provide clarity on tasks, and the ability to send delayed chats and emails.

The continued professional development of remote or office-based staff should also be a priority for small business owners looking to retain staff. As the Work Trend Index report found, 76% of employees say they’d stay longer at a company if they could benefit from learning and development support. When it comes to delivering learning-content to hybrid teams, technology can play an important role. For instance, Microsoft Viva Learning enables employees and managers alike to access, share and learn from resources delivered by in-house providers, or external partners.

Hybrid working is also made easier by Microsoft Outlook, coming with an option to state in an RSVP whether you’ll be attending a meeting in person or virtually, and approval mechanisms for documents that require signatures. It also contains Microsoft Teams, a communication platform offering videoconferencing and workplace chat, including a useful innovation that with the help of smart cameras recognises people in a room and shows their profiles so anyone participating remotely isn’t confronted by a sea of unknown faces.

As well as tools and technology, Microsoft also provides plenty of advice and information to help managers, which is available in its Small Business Resource Centre.

With the right business technology, business leaders and their teams have the tools to make the most of new working arrangements – and this can be as important as management skills and style. As Lewis-Stephens points out: “Hybrid working means you really need to know your people, understand how they want and need you to support them and get the technology and systems in place to make connections seamless.”

Taken together, being able to marshal all these factors is likely to grow increasingly crucial. “Our data shows us that the role of the manager or owner will become even more important than ever before in the hybrid workplace,” says Hedderman. “That manager might just be you if you own and run a small company, but as you grow you will rely on more and more managers to create the culture for your employees.”

For more on getting the right technology and systems for your SMB, check out the Small Business Resource Centre and other articles in this series on how to reduce the stress of being a small business owner

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