5 Questions on the Minds of Hybrid Managers

BY: Microsoft worklab

As a recent report looking at Microsoft’s more than 150,000 employees showed, managers are the key to keeping teams connected. Now as we navigate hybrid work, organizations everywhere are relying on managers more than ever to help employees feel supported and empowered amid ongoing uncertainty and change.

There’s no doubt it will be challenging. The hybrid work paradox—that people want the flexibility of remote work but also want the inspiration and ease of in-person—indicates that a one-size-fits-all approach to managing in this complex new world isn’t viable. Employees expect and need flexibility in how, when, and where they work.

We asked experts on the future of work to share their perspectives on some of the key questions that managers will face as they help their teams adapt and thrive in the new hybrid reality.

Question 1: Is it okay for remote employees to be on the move during a meeting?

The pandemic has crystallized for leaders and managers that employee wellbeing is critical to innovation and business outcomes. Accordingly, many employees are rethinking their relationship to work and seeking out organizations that foster wellbeing and work-life balance. Research shows that taking breaks throughout the day is likely to contribute to sustainable productivity in a hybrid work world. But what about during meetings? Is it okay for people to fold laundry or sweep the floor in the middle of an all-hands? Can they enjoy a nature walk while they connect with their manager in a one-on-one?

“My team does a lot of walking meetings, and we found it doesn’t stop us from interacting effectively,” says Kamal Janardhan, General Manager, Privacy, Policy and Trust at Microsoft. “It creates a sense of community, and it can help some people feel more creative and energized.”

Dr. Sean Rintel, principal researcher at Microsoft Research UK who is studying the future of work, concurs. “Immobility is a factor in meeting fatigue because remote work removes the need to physically move between meetings,” he says. “Movement during a meeting may improve engagement while also keeping us healthy.”

While every team is different, coaching people through this question may simply be a matter of common sense. Obviously, no manager wants their team to present the Q2 business plan while also doing chores. And strenuous exercise like running on a treadmill may leave someone so winded that they can’t contribute to the conversation. But if they can take a walk—muted and off-camera—during a town hall, it may help them focus and power through the workday. Creating explicit team norms and agreements helps remove ambiguity and empowers people to make the choices that help them find balance and thrive at work.

“Immobility is a factor in meeting fatigue. Movement during a meeting may improve engagement while also keeping us healthy.”

Dr. Sean Rintel, principal researcher at Microsoft Research UK

Question 2: Can managers ask their hybrid teams to work together in the office?

Hiring full-time remote employees became the norm during the pandemic. And as some companies begin a return to the office, managers may be tempted to say, “Let’s all come into the office on Tuesdays so we can collaborate in person.” But what about that remote employee who can’t get to the office regularly? Or the local person whose hybrid schedule doesn’t allow them to be in the office on Tuesdays?

“If someone can’t come in, you should be able to negotiate how goals can be achieved in a hybrid format, which might mean changing old norms,” Rintel says. Focus on best practices for hybrid meetings: ensure that in-person meeting rooms have a centralized audio device; encourage onsite attendees to join the Teams meeting—with the camera on, if possible; and appoint a moderator to facilitate conversation by monitoring the chat for comments and raise-hand emojis, and reminding participants to unmute themselves when it’s their turn to speak.

When managers do ask everyone to gather for onsite meetings, they should be sure to keep the lines of communication open. “Explain why it’s important,” Rintel says. And always be clear that the health and safety of everyone is the top priority. “Employees should be able to bring up issues or questions they may have about in-person gatherings—particularly when health and safety concerns are in play.”

Whether or not a manager decides to ask the team to work together in person, establishing team agreements that clearly outline how the team will work together and support diverse work styles will go a long way in setting clear expectations and reducing complexity. Frequent one-on-ones between the manager and each team member can also help them feel cared for and connected.

Question 3: Some roles require more onsite time than others. How do I ensure this doesn’t wind up looking unfair?

“I see this coming up a lot,” says Alison Green, who writes about workplace ethics and career strategies on her blog and in her book, Ask a Manager: How to Navigate Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work. “You have to be really clear about why some people are in the office and some people aren’t. Managers tend to assume people will just know why. But people don’t always know, and sometimes you need to spell it out.”

Managers can also help by building connections between employees. Rintel recommends they begin by asking themselves, “How do I ensure that the two groups of people are engaging with one another in ways that aren’t just transactional?” The more that managers can empathize with their whole team and enable them to build the kind of connections that help them understand one another’s situation, the more leeway they tend to give each other.

Managers need to find ways to spark the sort of socializing and informal conversations that foster collegial relationships. “Maybe it’s brief trivia games, or just a show-and-tell session at the top of a meeting: What’s the weirdest coffee mug you own?” he says. “It will be different for every organization.”

You have to be really clear about why some people are in the office and some people aren’t. Managers tend to assume people will just know why. But people don’t always know, and sometimes you need to spell it out.”

Alison Green, author

Janardhan sees an opportunity for managers to show people they matter. “My boss and I have both tried this thing where we gave everyone a care package of little gifts, and they were either things that help you work from home, or they were things that are helpful when you’re in the office. It’s a way to signal the new way of working and support it.”

An exchange like this may seem like a small thing amid the big challenges that workers face, but leaders and managers should not underestimate the power of a caring gesture. As Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has said in regard to hybrid work: “care is the new currency.”

Such a connection may also provide an opportunity for employees to open up to managers about challenges, or to share ideas for increasing flexibility at work. Data from Microsoft employee surveys found that 97 percent of workers who’ve had a discussion with their manager about how they work best say their manager supports their desired work style (7 percentage points higher than among employees who have not yet had this conversation).

Question 4: With flexible hours and locations, my team is working across different time zones. What are best practices for when (and when not) to send email?

As companies adopt more flexibility, people may be writing and responding to email outside of traditional work hours. This can create confusion around when people are expected to respond to what—especially if the mail is coming from a manager. “I used to always send emails late at night, and I was on all the time,” Janardhan says. “And then my team showed me a graph where I would send an email at 7 p.m., and suddenly the entire team started working.”

This is a common phenomenon, Green says. “It’s different for managers. You can tell them, ‘Oh, I don’t expect answers until the next business day,’ or ‘I don’t expect you to work these hours.’ But if you’re their manager, people will not always believe it.”

Janardhan has addressed the issue by using email tools to clearly communicate preference. For instance, add a signature to emails that says, “I work flexible hours. Please respond to this only during your working hours.” Another option: use the delay message tool in Outlook so that your message doesn’t appear to the team until agreed-upon working hours resume.

After-hours email activity also offers managers an opportunity to support employees who may be struggling, Rintel says. “As a manager, you might want to check in with an employee who is sending a lot of emails at night and make sure they aren’t having any problems that you could help them with.”

“I’m in favor of letting people do what works for them, and to evaluate each other through outcomes versus forcing them to show up in a particular way.”

Kamal Janardhan, General Manager, Privacy Policy and Trust at Microsoft

Question 5: Some employees always have their cameras off in meetings, and it’s hard to gauge their reactions. Should managers ask them to turn their video on?

Generally speaking, research shows that turning video on in a meeting is really valuable. Even so, “there’s evidence that, for lots of people, having their video on is a problem,” Rintel says. “For example, there are some neurodiverse people who have self-comforting behaviors that help them focus. But being seen to do this makes them feel self-conscious. Those people shouldn’t be forced to have their video on.”

At the same time, people who are deaf or hard of hearing may find it easier to communicate and follow the conversation when teammates have their video on. The key is to try to understand why the video setting may be important to employees rather than insist that they conform to a potentially uncomfortable experience.

Again, establishing norms and expectations—agreed upon by the team—can help reduce uncertainty around camera use. And remember that the key to making hybrid work successful for everyone is flexibility. “I’m in favor of letting people do what works for them,” Janardhan says, “and to evaluate each other through outcomes versus forcing them to show up in a particular way.”

As organizations look to incorporate flexibility into their cultures, policies, and workplace norms, there’s still so much for all of us to learn. Inevitably, we’ll have more questions than answers. But even at this early stage, one thing is clear: in hybrid work, it’s not one size fits all. And it’s incumbent upon managers to set those norms, keep lines of communication open, and approach people and situations on a case-by-case basis. The good news is that these same practices lead to teams in which people feel a greater sense of connection, trust, and the ability to bring their best.

Want to learn more about empowering managers? On episode five of the WorkLab podcast, we’ll hear insights about managing hybrid teams from neuroleadership expert David Rock as well as Joe Whittinghill, Microsoft’s corporate vice president for talent, learning, and insights. Subscribe now.

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