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Getting hybrid in good working order

April 2023

I started writing this article at home but am finishing it at work. That’s how things tend to go nowadays. In 2019 BC (Before Covid), I could always be counted on to be in the office. It was expected, obligatory. The idea of working from home was unthinkable. What a difference a pandemic makes.

In the industrial and supply chain sectors, though, the situation is slightly different. That’s because there are many people who have to work in factories, deliver freight and so on. This can create an imbalance with their office-based colleagues who are likely to enjoy greater flexibility.

Working out

Personally, I like mixing it up. It’s great to be able to work from home a few days a week. But at the same time, there is no substitute for the spontaneous chats you get when you’re in the office. And from my conversations with industrial and supply chain leaders, it’s clear that many agree.

They, too, value time together and are having to adapt their managerial style for those colleagues who are able to work from home. There are also persistent concerns that their colleagues are not as productive if they are at home — which in turn leads to challenges about how to respond if someone is not performing remotely.

It's for these type of reasons that many companies in this sector are keen to ensure that their employees are in the office for at least some of the time. For example, the global logistics companies Schenker and DHL are both now deploying a hybrid approach. Schenker now has an agreement with its office-based staff for them to work from home two days a week and DHL offers virtual options for many of its employees, while also making sure they attend in-person meetings and events.

Work in progress

So, what are the leadership skills needed in this new era? How can employees in the industrial and supply chain sectors stay cohesive and motivated across different locations? There are few easy answers to these questions. There are, however, some guidelines for leaders as they seek to adapt to the new rules of the road.

Before even considering the myriad people challenges of leading a hybrid team, a good starting point for any leader is to recognise that the prevalence of remote working has been a stroke of luck for cyber attackers — with supply chain companies particularly at risk. Home networks just aren’t as effective as the office firewall and this leads to a bigger attack surface for intruders to target. Similarly, it’s harder for IT teams to spot suspicious activity when employees are working from multiple locations and using assorted devices and networks.

Effectively countering these problems requires a mix of training and technology. Firstly, staff members — irrespective of their seniority in the company — will need increased training on cyber risks, particularly around potential infiltration methods for phishing, ransomware or malware attacks. At the same time, though, leaders also need to ensure that the equipment used by team members not only ensures they can do their job successfully, but also that they are fully loaded up with very latest software, applications and security safeguards.

With team members scattered across different locations, daily oversight is more difficult than in the office. Although this is a common occurrence for many industrial and supply chain companies, this geographic dispersal means it’s all the more important to deploy transparent and clear communications so that staff feel involved and understand what is expected of them.

As my colleague Darleen Derosa has pointed out, inspiring and motivating hybrid staff is a real challenge and there is certainly no one size fits all solution. Leaders should instead tailor communication methods for different members of the team, find out which approach works best and be accessible at all times.

It’s also important to agree on ways of working and how to structure the day to optimise moments of employee interaction. This doesn’t mean that leaders should be constantly arranging check-ins — endless back-to-back video calls should be avoided at all costs — but rather giving team members the necessary autonomy to get on with their work, while also being available to assist when required.

This approach also extends to life in the office too. For example, sometimes colleagues opt to return to the office on specific days, thereby avoiding any risk of individuals coming in only to end up sitting alone in a dormant workspace.

Starting a new job is rarely easy but it’s even harder when doing so virtually. I remember one friend of mine started work literally the Friday before lockdown began in the UK two days later — not ideal.

It’s far harder to generate that crucial sense of belonging and inclusion when you’re not physically together. This challenge is even more acute for graduates or other colleagues who are starting out in their career and are unfamiliar with the reality of business life.

For them, the office is a crucial hub for socialising, as well as being the place to work alongside their peers and learn from more senior colleagues. Leaders, then, need to make sure that processes are tailored to these changing circumstances in order to help spur an ongoing sense of identity and culture for people to feel they are part of.

A familiar criticism of those who would advocate a mass return to the office is that home working is bad for productivity. Proponents of in-person working, whose number includes some of the best known business leaders on the planet, have been firm in their belief that productivity increases when teams are together in person.

Since the onset of the pandemic there have been various studies about whether home or office working is most effective. Different findings abound but either way, leaders cannot ignore the pressing need to ensure that their team members are effective and productive, wherever they happen to be working. Cloud based digital tools can help, but it’s also down to the leader to make sure that individuals are motivated and inspired to give their all, day in, day out.

In the works

The days of everyone always being in the office five days a week appear to be long gone. But equally, full time remote working also looks to be increasingly rare. Striking a balance between the two approaches and identifying a solution that works well for individuals and the company as a whole is not easy — but it can be done.

Those industrial and supply chain leaders and their peers in other sectors who successfully craft an environment that combines effective hybrid working with valuable in-person interaction will be best placed to reap the rewards.

Want to learn more about how to overcome leadership challenges in the virtual workplace? Check out: Leading at a Distance: Practical Lessons for Virtual Success