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The one skill every leader of hybrid work needs

A diverse group of leaders having a meeting.

In a post-pandemic world, many organizations are looking to get back to some type of “normalcy” by bringing employees back to the workplace. Following a year and a half of remote work — which had many employees feeling isolated, lonely and stressed — corporate leaders assumed workers would be anxious to return to their workplace. They’ve been surprised to learn this hasn’t been the case!

In March 2021, Microsoft Corp. announced findings from its first annual Work Trend Index, titled “The Next Great Disruption Is Hybrid Work — Are We Ready?” The report outlines findings from a study of more than 31,000 people in 31 countries from global companies. The findings indicate “leaders are out of touch with employees and need a wake-up call.”

The study showed 73 percent of workers surveyed said they want flexible remote work options. Instead of being excited to return to their work, the study also found that more than 40 percent of the global workforce is considering leaving their current employer this year. This surprised many corporate leaders of companies like Apple or Google, where jobs have been highly sought after and receive hundreds of thousands of applicants every year. And 46 percent reported they are planning to move to live elsewhere now that they are working remotely.

The report speaks to the cost and the emotional burden of a daily commute or a dissatisfied lifestyle, along with the value of autonomy. In short, addressing flexible work options will impact who stays, who goes, and who joins a certain company.

One might assume that the obvious solution is a “hybrid” work model, with employees having some flexibility with their work location. After all, it’s the best of both worlds!

Some corporate leaders, however, are cautioning against seeing hybrid work as business as usual. It will require the rethinking of long-held assumptions of the way things should be done. Sid Sijbrandij, CEO of GitLab, says hybrid is the worst of both worlds. He wrote, “Remote employees won’t feel included and will have a more challenging time communicating than their peers who report to the office.” This can create an uneven playing field for workers.

For example, have you ever been in a meeting where some people were present in the room and some were remote? Those in the room have more influence simply because their voices are easier to hear. There is power in being “in the room where it happens.” And as Sijbrandij points out, for most companies, senior leaders will be at headquarters — and no matter what the written policy states, an imbalance in trust and power will arise.

How can organizations address the chaos of the changes ahead while capitalizing on the opportunities? What is the right system for building a successful hybrid work culture? I believe it’s an issue of relationships and people skills. That’s why emotional intelligence will be critical.

There is a growing body of research that reveals emotional intelligence can no longer be considered a soft skill that is nice to have. Instead, they are essential for the success of leaders – especially with the next revolution in the future of hybrid work.

I like the term “human wifi” used by Joshua Freedman, author and founder of the emotional intelligence global network Six Seconds. To stay connected, hybrid workplaces will need to address both the technical and relational challenges of working remotely.

The one emotional intelligence skill that will be critical for good “human wifi” is empathy. Empathy means being able to pick up on other’s feelings and reactions – to connect with people on an emotional level. Freedman declares that empathy will be a leader’s “superpower” when leading a hybrid workforce.

To practice empathy, here are four practical tips for leaders of hybrid work:

1.Resist the urge to “fix” or tell them to do something.

True empathy often means just listening to someone, not giving advice. For many people, it feels like they need to offer some sort of solution – to do something. Have you ever had the experience of telling someone about your problem and the person responds, “Why don’t you just …?” or “If I were you, I would ….” And you think in your mind, “If it was that simple, I would have already done it!” Or, “You’re not me — my situation is totally different!”

As bestselling author Brené Brown says, “Rarely does a response make something better. What makes something better is connection.” Just listening and standing shoulder-to-shoulder with someone is often the best way to show empathy.

2. Ask more questions.

We often make assumptions and judgments about people and situations without understanding the full context. If we can pause our thinking and replace even a small percentage of our judgment statements with questions, we are able to tap into a valuable pattern of empathy. Instead of thinking, “She must be wanting …” or “He’s always so …” try asking questions to be open to different possibilities and not simply assume you know what a person is thinking or experiencing.

3. Verbalize others’ emotions.

Research has found that simply acknowledging people’s emotions (“You seem upset”) leads to increased trust. The increase is especially impactful for verbalizing people’s negative emotions than positive ones, though both showed a correlation. Practicing empathy is as simple as making someone feel seen and heard. Teddy Roosevelt put it very simply, “No one cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.”

4. Connect on a personal level.

If you know colleagues on a personal level, you will better understand what impacts their emotions and be in a better position to see situations from their perspective. With some of your lesser-known colleagues, take the time to connect with them on topics outside of their field of work (e.g., children, sports, current events, traveling).

In a future situation that calls for empathy on your part, draw upon this background information to show your sensitivity to their needs (e.g., “You must really be feeling stressed with a sick child at home and needing to travel for that conference. How can I help?”)

Empathy carries so much power that you should expect to keep learning about it throughout your life. Empathy entails showing others you care and want to have a connection. This impacts not only your company’s bottom line but also the well-being of you and your employees. Our brains are wired for connections – it’s core to our human nature.

Author: Catie Rasmussen, Extension leadership and civic engagement educator

Related topics: Vital Insights Community
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