What does leadership in a hybrid world look like?

Hybrid working remains prominent across most sectors, but how can tech leadership truly optimise this model? John Dore explores.

Hands up: who would want to be part of the leadership team at a modern hybrid working firm?

Being a leader has always been difficult.  While the purpose might be strategic, the reality of the role often means tackling a burgeoning inbox of people issues, technology and process problems, crisis management and disruption aplenty. But those leaders charged with steadying the ship are themselves now being disrupted like never before. Unfortunately, the reality for leaders is that regardless of their best endeavours, their most talented people are already looking to leave, as the ties that bind seem looser and looser every year.

Leading in a ‘hybrid world’ is a whole new ballgame. Since 2020, we have seen a seismic shift to remote, hybrid and flexible working. Managers are now expected to be expert hybrid leaders, connecting dislocated individuals, on different work patterns; some online and remote, some down the corridor, some ever-present, some on flexible terms and some working from a Caribbean island.

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Firms are now not just hybrid in working pattern, but “blended” — composed of different generations with differing outlooks, values and needs, and made up of employees, consultants, gig workers and freelancers. This means that managers now have to navigate a complex 4D chess game of people, place, time and mode, and many are, unsurprisingly, exhausted.

In the past three years, the response of different organisations to these trends has been marked.  Some leaders think autonomy and freedom is the best way to engage talent and engender ideas. Others believe productivity only increases when workers are in the office together.  After the pandemic restrictions were lifted, firms may have hoped for ‘return to the office’ boost to productivity, morale and collaboration.  But employees have stayed away, crying freedom from the commute. Some firms have embarked on an employee benefits ‘arms race’ to make their offices more attractive, but too few employees seem impressed, with attendance remaining stubbornly low. The consequences are considerable, with just last month Facebook owner Meta paying £149m to surrender a lease early on its London office at Regents Place, that it never even occupied.

Calls for office returns

As well as sprucing up the office breakout spaces and serving better coffee, some firms have resorted to “office mandates”, with Meta, Google, Apple and others insisting on some element of regular office attendance, with Google subtly warning that attendance will be included as part of their performance reviews. Even video conferencing platform Zoom — a huge beneficiary of the sudden shift to remote working — has asked its employees to return to the office, calling it a “structured hybrid approach” to work.  In August, the dating app Grindr gave its workers in the US a return-to-office ultimatum: either agree to work “twice a week” in person from October, or lose their jobs.  The BBC reported that almost half of the staff quit.

The outlier — and there always is one — seems to be Twitter (now “X”), where Musk has trashed his predecessor Parag Agarwal’s promise “you can work from home forever, or wherever you feel most productive and creative”, with a wholly different philosophy.  Musk describes himself as a big believer in the “esprit de corps” and effectiveness of being physically in the same location.

In November 2022, after completing the purchase of Twitter, he sent a memo to all staff with the subject line ‘Fork in the Road’.  It is probably one of the most succinct and provocative counter expressions against the modern trend of employee-centric flexibility and workplace well-being. Musk cancelled the free in-house catering and sent his incendiary memo offering “hardcore” hours, compulsory office attendance and a new emphasis on engineering. To a European reader, his approach to HR policy was hilariously blunt and unusual: “If you are sure that you want to be part of the new Twitter, please click yes on the link below.  Anyone who has not done so by 5pm ET tomorrow (Thursday) will receive three months of severance.”  Media reports vary, but Musk’s own communications later suggested that over 5,000, or nearly 70 per cent, of staff left Twitter as a result.  

Musk’s approach is different, and for almost all firms, hybrid is the new normal, but the jury is still out on what this means. Hybrid working is not the panacea some had hoped. The UK Government’s own commission on Productivity seems puzzled that freeing up labour to work from home has produced no discernible uptick in productivity. A 2022 survey of over 500 tech leaders by ‘MassChallenge’ found that tech founders were struggling with the “great resignation” and executives said that a significant number of their top performers have exited. The survey reports an ongoing conundrum: 62 per cent surveyed believe shifting to a more remote model has increased employee productivity, but 37 per cent said they intend to work from the office more over the next year.

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A new approach is needed

Firms want their best people to stick around and give more of themselves. Studies have shown that improved employee collaboration and alignment with a common purpose is key to achieving that.  But what is the best way to make that happen in the way we now wish to work and live our lives?  Some suggest that the emergence of generative AI and new work tools can improve productivity regardless of the workplace setting. But perhaps a different, more human, approach is needed?

The profound loosening of relationships that employees have with their firm and one another, requires a similarly fundamental reimagining of the role of the leader itself.  Ultimately, this will not come through new technology, systems, processes, or HR policy (however well-crafted), but through the actions and behaviours of credible and engaging people managers. Firms need to re-establish a sense of cohesion and that needs people who are exceptional good at doing just that. Businesses can’t just issue ultimatums or mandates; they need a leadership approach that “coheres” employees to feel less remote from one another and the firm.

It’s a radically different mode of leadership – and one I call creating glue. The leaders’ role in the future may be more of a coach than a manager, more mentor than monitor, and more shelter than supervisor. A leader’s principal role will be to harness disparate talents to find value in connection, to be the person who joins the dots and helps make work feel meaningful again.

A lot of the debate about the future of work seems to be about the where and how (online, remote, in-person, or hybrid) with getting the “balance right” exercising the HR policy makers. The much more profound and important factor that makes organisations cohesive is with whom I work, and why.  Getting that right needs leaders who are great at harnessing relationships to create an organisational advantage. In a hybrid world, the single most impactful thing a leader can do is to cultivate some new organisational glue.

John Dore is the author of GLUE: Transforming Leadership in a Hybrid World, published by Routledge on 4th October 2023, priced at £28.99.


The three pillars of hybrid workingResearch from WM Reply has revealed three key pillars that organisations need to consider when maintaining an effective hybrid working model.