The Nuances of Communication in a Hybrid World

Recent research from GP Strategies identified communication as one of the critical stumbling blocks of leaders, and one of the factors most directly attributable to leadership success.

Today’s increasingly remote and hybrid workplaces make effective communication skills more important than ever. When time and distance separate employees and their leaders, it can be more challenging to build and maintain trust. Key managerial tasks like delegation and giving feedback are often more complex. Critical conversations related to performance, career development, and engagement tend to look different—if they’re happening at all. And not addressing those potential pitfalls can come at a high cost—from lack of morale to diminished trust to staff turnover.

Thankfully, our research and practice indicate it’s not necessarily that managers need different communication skills to thrive in a hybrid environment, but rather a nuanced application of those skills which takes into account the shifting situational context. Those nuances include leaders demonstrating increased empathy, equity, intentionality, and clarity in their communication.

Empathy

Being a great leader has always required an understanding of self and others. But the events of 2020 brought an increased focus on holistic wellness and unblurring the lines between work and home lives. As a result, leaders need to demonstrate increased empathy, both as they speak and as they listen to their employees. Give grace when allowable and provide time and space for small talk and celebrations, both in and out of the office setting. From acknowledging milestones like work anniversaries and birthdays to checking in on weekend plans, taking time to connect on a human level builds the trust, psychological safety, and connection that are critical for sustained team success.

Questions leaders can ask themselves to check for empathy include:

  • Do I have an understanding of the benefits and drawbacks to each employee’s work setup and situation?
  • Am I balancing the need to get things done with the human needs of my employees?
  • Have I checked in on my team members outside of just their work contributions?

Equity

Having employees working in different physical settings can create inequity on a variety of levels. In leading your team, tap into your inclusive mindset as you strive for equity in opportunity (including stretch assignments and career development opportunities), participation (having visibility and a voice) and the sharing of resources and information. With remote employees, be sure you are creating opportunities to get the same “small talk” benefits as those you see in person more often. As a leader, your work to ensure equity is critical—it sets the framework for the trust and psychological safety needed for relationships and teams to thrive.

Questions leaders can ask themselves to check for equity include:

  • Am I aware of all available technology to assist with creating a level playing field with my team?
  • Do I share the same information with team members, regardless of where they are located?
  • Is there equitable acknowledgment of milestones, accomplishments, and occasions, regardless of where my team is located?
  • When meeting with my team, is there balance between who is speaking/not speaking? Does the physical setup provide advantages to some and not others?

Intentionality

Great communication in the hybrid world requires leaders to apply intention in terms of how, what, and when they communicate. In our virtual communication course, we give leaders four main tips in this area: to open up, be transparent, mind their modality, and multi-task with care. Opening up means taking the time to share more about yourself—who you are, what you value, and your life outside of work. Transparency comes into play when communicating context and rationale, often behind changes or decisions, which can help build more buy-in and support. Being intentional about modality is important because, depending on the message, it may be delivered more effectively in certain methods than others. Finally, being intentionally mindful and focused on the task or conversation at hand can be hugely beneficial in building trusted relationships with your team members.

Questions leaders can ask themselves to check for intentionality include:

  • Have I given thought to how, why, and when I am communicating with my team?
  • Am I utilizing the proper modality for the message being communicated?
  • Do I prioritize synchronous touchpoints with my team whenever I can?
  • Am I tuning out distraction as I interface with my team members?

Clarity

When you don’t have the luxury of seeing your team members every day, clarity is key. As a leader, you can mitigate misunderstandings and maintain morale through being clear in the messages you are delivering, as well as the channels you choose for delivery. It is critically important for leaders of hybrid teams to be clear about individual and team goals and objectives, to link the team’s goals to the larger organizational strategy, and to explicitly state culture and expectations. Checking for understanding of these key elements is an important step for leaders to take so that they can ensure their team is on the same page.

Questions leaders can ask themselves to check for clarity include:

  • Do I have a consistent communication schedule with my team?
  • Does each person understand their specific role on the team?
  • Is there a consistent and accessible source for key foundational documents and information?
  • Have I created an environment where team members can seek clarity if it is not provided?

While it’s true that the shift to hybrid work has created challenges for leaders, when it comes to communication, those challenges are easily addressed. Remember, it’s not necessarily about developing and deploying new communication skills, but rather, the nuanced application of existing skills. If leaders apply empathy, equity, clarity, and intentionality in their communication, they will set the stage for successful working relationships in the hybrid world of work—now and in the future.

About the Authors

Katy Bailey

Katy Bailey is a consultative learning strategist committed to helping develop organizations and their most important assets—their people! A red thread of learning has woven throughout each phase of her career—from public health education with teens, to 10 years in higher education, and, currently, corporate training. Katy holds master’s degrees in Higher Education Administration and Organization Development, as well as a SHRM-CP credential. She has worked with GP Strategies since 2017.