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Hybrid Work Is Not the Problem but Remote Leaders Who Have Trust Issues

The data is clear, so why do leaders ignore it?

By Gustavo Razzetti

September 29, 2022

Let's talk about the elephant in the virtual room

Is hybrid work really working? It depends on who you ask. Employees think they're more productive than ever – and also enjoying the perks of flexibility. However, leaders are worried that people are not working.

There's always been a disconnect between what leaders think and employees do. But I've never seen something like this. The hybrid work debate is creating a vast divide in the workplace – companies will pay the price for not paying attention.

As the author of a book on hybrid workplace culture, I get numerous requests to weigh in on the topic. Rather than – once again – build the case that "When done well hybrid works and, yes, you can build a strong culture remotely," I'd rather address the elephant in the room. Let's move past the symptom and address the root cause of the hybrid divide.

The Elephant in the Hybrid Workplace

1. We're asking the wrong question: office versus remote?

Hybrid combines the best of both worlds — the convenience of working from home and in-person social interactions. It's not about one over the other, but combining both.

The mistake most people make is trying to choose one over the other. Leaders miss the point by complaining that teams don't want to return to the office. People don't want to return to a costly commute, a toxic culture, or constant interruptions. They don't want to go back to how things used to be. People need a compelling reason to go back to a physical place.

What's the purpose of being together? What will we achieve in person that can't be done remotely?

We're asking the wrong question: rather than "what’s best, office versus remote?" ask, "how can teams better integrate both to do their best work?"

I'm talking about quality, not productivity.

2. The data is clear, so why do leaders ignore it?

Often leaders encourage their teams to be data-driven – to make informed decisions. However, his rule doesn't seem to apply to them. Especially when data contradicts what leaders want.

That makes this debate about forcing people back into the office so stupid.

A recent study by Microsoft captures this stark disconnect. The numbers are heartbreaking: 90% of workers feel MORE productive working from anywhere; 85% of bosses think their workers are LESS productive. The report calls this phenomenon "Productivity Paranoia."

The worst part is that leaders aren't addressing this divide. More than half of employees confidently say that their leaders rarely, if ever, ask their employees about their work experience. Leaders are making up their minds – and making decisions – without considering people's input.

Leaders are not open to insights that will contradict their views. The question, then, is why do leaders resist remote work that much?

3. Leaders are directing a productivity theater

Leaders feel threatened by the future of work. A study by the Centre for Transformative Work Design shows that about 40% of managers have low self-confidence in their ability to manage workers remotely. In my research and experience as a consultant, I have observed a pattern across various organizations: leaders are lost. They realize that the environment is changing. Resisting hybrid is about preserving "the way we always lead here."

Leaders have become more controlling: they want to preserve their role and feel important.

Focusing on productivity (AKA how many hours people "work") is backfiring, creating a culture of unnecessary busyness and burnout. A recently-published study by GitLab and Qatalog shows some terrifying facts: employees add an extra 67 minutes per day to convince their bosses that they're productive. Virtual presenteeism is not the same as actually working. Leaders are directing a "productivity theater" rather than effectively managing their teams.

Productivity theater is when people act as if they're working. They spend time sending useless emails, scheduling unnecessary Zoom calls, or endlessly chatting on Slack. Instead of getting things done, people pretend to be working.

Leaders should focus on the outcome, not input. The quality of the work and business impact matter more than how many hours people put in. By measuring the effort – using spying software or constant check-ins - leaders are getting the worst out of their teams. And employees are quickly learning how to play the part.

4. The sad truth: Leaders don't trust their teams

Employees kept businesses afloat during the pandemic when forced to work from home – even if they weren't prepared. So, what's the point of not trusting them now that they've gained a lot of remote work experience? What's the need to go back?

This takes me to the root cause of why leaders resist hybrid. The elephant in the room is that leaders don't trust their teams. Unfortunately, it's not new. A lack of trust existed long before the pandemic. Now it's become more evident.

As a consultant working with multiple firms, I've experienced this too often. Leaders say they trust people to make the right choice but then turn around decisions because they disagree with them.

A study shows that more than 40% of leaders believe remote workers can't remain motivated over time. In other words, they think motivation is external rather than intrinsic – it depends on managers.

The same study suggests that many managers have a negative view of hybrid work, distrust their people, and are not confident in their own ability to lead teams remotely. The picture is not a rosy one.

Trust has faded in the workplace – 78% of employers are digitally surveilling their staff, according to a recent survey by ExpressVPN. Not only does this practice erode trust, but it also makes people question their company's ethics. 83% of surveyed people believe their employers are not only untrustworthy but also dishonest.

Trust is a two-way street. What leaders model is what they get in return.

5. Things will become worse before they improve

I'm optimistic about the future, but we still have a long road ahead. This tension is not going away anytime soon. The hybrid workplace divide will become worse before it gets better.

What we resist persists. I see two camps.

One group of leaders double down on getting everyone back into the office. On the other hand, there's another group that’s more open-minded about the future of work. Although this group doesn't make the headlines, its size is as significant as the other. I interviewed dozens of leaders for my book that were humble enough to realize they were lost. Rather than trying to show being in control, they ask their teams for help – to figure out the future together.

There's light at the end of the tunnel. As more leaders embrace the opportunities of a hybrid workplace, many others will continue to double down on their ignorance and arrogance.

What Successful Remote Leaders Do Differently

Hybrid work is a complex challenge – figuring it out will require a lot of experimentation and time. Leaders who thrive in change, rather than suffering it, keep their minds open and do things differently.

Here are some first steps to get you started.

Reset your notion about freedom

If you think you're not a micromanager, think twice.

The freedom you gave your team pre-pandemic is no longer enough. Flexibility is the key benefit of a hybrid workplace. People need freedom and trust to choose where they work and, most importantly, when and how. Flexibility of schedule has become priority number one for most employees – actually, the number one reason people would quit their jobs.

To thrive in a hybrid environment, leaders need to trust their employees more than ever before – they need to supercharge their trust battery.

If you want people to behave like 'owners,' let them decide how to do their jobs. Owners thrive because they run their businesses their own way.

Address conflict in the open

The only way to break the hybrid workplace divide is to address it. Getting feedback from your team is a crucial first step. Use data, not your beliefs, to define how your team should work and collaborate.

Share your doubts, fears, and expectations. Many leaders pretend everything is okay but then make decisions based on their own preferences or perceptions. If you don't think that hybrid will work, say it. If you believe your team is not productive working remotely, share this with your team – and explain why.

If your team is pushing for more flexibility or freedom, empathize with them before you jump to conclusions. Don't get stuck in the how (days at the office, hours worked, etc.). Try to understand the what and the why. Shift the conversation from "Will hybrid work?" to "How can we make it work for our team?"

Rethink the office

I'm not talking about redesigning the physical space but rather the role it plays. Many organizations have quickly hired architectural firms to adapt their open floor plans to the new reality of work. The problem is that they aren't first addressing how they want to work.

The same happened a decade ago with the explosion of design thinking and collaborative innovation. Most companies got on the bandwagon and converted their conference rooms into 'innovation studios.' However, filling offices with wall-to-wall whiteboards and post-its didn't move the needle. Not only did innovation not happen,  it added more frustration. Just like ping pong tables that were supposed to promote a playful culture but the fun was never there.

The office is the new offsite. It should become a special place for special occasions and special work. People need to get together to make magic happen, not to handle mundane tasks.  

Be intentional about everything

Culture doesn't happen by chance but by design. The same applies to collaboration, innovation, agility, and any other transformation your company seeks to promote. If you want something to happen, you must be intentional about it.

It's true that, left to its own devices, company culture is organic; it will happen naturally and emerge freely. However, in a hybrid environment, company culture should be treated just as intentionally as designing a new product. It should start and end with the user in mind – the employee.

Very few companies have had the privilege of working remotely for years—and by choice, not forced by a global pandemic. One common thread I observed researching successful remote-first organizations is their obsession with designing culture intentionally, along with a healthy emphasis on clarity and transparency.

As a whole, hybrid is difficult to do right.

You must be intentional about revisiting (almost) everything about your culture. It will require a lot of experimentation and adjustments to avoid creating a two-tier experience: one for remote and one for co-located employees.

Experiment - one-size doesn't fit all

Rather than tackle hybrid work as an issue, consider it a wicked problem – it's unsolvable and has no end solution.

The term wicked means resistant to resolution, rather than evil. Instead of blaming others, it's about finding a solution to a complex problem. Climate change, social injustice, or a pandemic are all examples of wicked problems – the future of work is clearly joining the ranks.  

Wicked problems require virtuous solutions, not band-aids. You need to take care of the system, not just fix individual behaviors. Most importantly, you need to focus on the common good: what’s best for the team, not just the leader. Equally important, don't penalize the many for the mistakes of the few.

The 9 to 5 approach is gone. Rather than looking for a one-size-fits-all solution, be ready to explore, experiment, and design the solution that works best for them. Don't mind if your team makes mistakes, do mind if they repeat them.

If you're looking for help in designing your hybrid work culture, let's chat!

Also, check out my book "Remote, Not Distant" – a roadmap to thrive in the hybrid workplace.

Article by Gustavo Razzetti, CEO of Fearless Culture

Gustavo facilitates courageous conversations that drive culture transformation. He is a sought-after speaker, culture consultant, and best-selling author of the book Remote, Not Distant.

Razzetti is also the creator of the Culture Design Canvas – a visual and practical method for intentionally designing workplace culture. His insights were featured in Psychology Today, The New York Times, Forbes, and BBC.

What do you think?



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