Why transformational leaders are needed in a hybrid world

Two years into the pandemic, the American workforce is still in a considerable state of flux. Those in essential roles have been showing up for work every day, and we owe them an enormous debt of gratitude. Others have worked remotely for two years, largely productive after an adjustment period but many missing the camaraderie and spontaneous problem solving that occurs in person. As employers begin bringing at least a portion of this group back, there is a very real and important opportunity to ensure that corporate cultures are carefully considered, and even reconstructed so that they can transcend from the in-person world to hybrid or even full-remote environments. 

The still-fully-remote group that telework because of the pandemic represented about 13%1 of the U.S. workforce as of February, down from ~23% in March 2021. Some are ready to come back, and others never will. 

Your culture requires your regular attention. Culture must be purposefully crafted and regularly reinforced and communicated, or even in the best circumstances will quickly unravel. There is no perfect answer on how to successfully do this work. Many corporations have been operating on cultural momentum during this pandemic, largely because no one thought we would be remote for so long. 

What is happening with your own culture? Take steps to make sure you’re purposefully maintaining or adjusting your culture.

During COVID, all but the most culturally purposeful companies likely experienced culture drift and even decay. Leaders should understand what is happening with their culture, and need to take steps to translate their culture and operating model — and how each can manifest in behaviors — from the pre-COVID world to the hybrid world we currently live in.

One way to think about this is a “from-to” framework. There were in-person new-employee orientations where new hires learned about their company’s mission, vision, and values in face-to-face settings. Or the reward and recognition programs whether formal or informal, such as when a senior leader shows up at a site, gathers employees and recognizes and celebrates important behaviors or results. How have these circumstances translated from pre-COVID to full remote or to hybrid settings? 

How are you making sure your employees have the opportunity to “take the trip?” 

When I was CEO of Aetna, we were going through a company turnaround and relearning what it meant to be successful as leaders, as a workforce and as a company. My team and our workforce were very clear about this; I needed everyone to take the trip. That meant we had to work together, often face to face, fixing the company and benefiting from mutual learning.

Today, areas like new product design, which often requires multi-functional collaboration and nuance, may be an example that is preferable in person. Another example is the apprenticeship model you get with in-person settings. A front-line project manager goes to a meeting with the VP. She watches the VP (and everyone else in the room), feels the experience, notices what you need to do, say, and ask, and the range of topics you need to be in command of. She watches what happens before the meeting, during and after. She watches people handle situations and makes mental notes of which approaches work better than others. This kind of formal exposure can give people experience and insights into how to navigate ever-more senior and complex roles. 

Sometimes the value of in-person work can be the informal knowledge sharing that happens when “accidental collisions” occur, at the coffee kiosk, walking in from the parking lot or brainstorming over lunch. These models of gaining knowledge by a kind of osmosis potentially can be adapted to remote work, but I’ve not seen many examples where we have formalized those processes for remote workers.

Some companies are taking new approaches to hybrid work, such as creating hubs that are easily accessible and near customers. These are locations where employees go to collaborate, problem solve, immerse themselves in the culture or work on a specific project together. These spaces can and should highlight and accentuate company culture from top to bottom, maximizing the benefits employees get when they’re onsite. 

Listening to more than words – what is your workforce trying to tell you?

Transformational leaders need to understand how individuals are responding to what is happening. While Zoom or Teams meetings help us see each other, it isn’t possible to “read the room.” So far, there hasn’t been a replacement for the human emotional content that you get in person. And this is key: even WITH the excellent technology and tools we have today, leaders need to determine in what instances is human interaction important so that they can convene the organization around those things? 

Leaders must check in on their workforce regularly. And they must clearly and plainly explain WHY some things are preferable to be done in person vs remotely. Employees really do need the clarity of understanding the why, including what’s in it for them as well as for the company. They also need to see the culture adjust to support and engage them. They may not agree with your decisions, but they will have heard your reasoning from you directly, rather than the message vacuum that often happens when we choose not to communicate. 

I’m a firm believer that culture is what you make of it. Hoping that your culture is hanging in there is not a strategy. Concrete actionable steps need to be taken regularly, consistently, to make sure your culture is thriving, as well as developing as you intended vs. how you have allowed. Remember your culture is not what you say it is. Your culture in reality is what your employees say it is. Your job is to align the two perspectives in the post pandemic world.

1 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, February 2022