The new skills every manager needs to lead inclusively in a hybrid world

October 6, 2021 - 12 min read

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Managers are the linchpin to fostering inclusion at the forefront of change

The skills behind inclusive leadership in the new workplace

To lead the change, frontline managers need to be the change

As we re-emerge and enter a post-pandemic era of work, we’re faced with a complex landscape. The workplace has changed more in the last 18 months than it has in the previous decade. COVID-19 dramatically shifted how we collaborate and communicate, and the line between “work” and “life” is fuzzier than ever before. 

Hybrid forms of work are on the rise. Some employees are returning to the office full-time, some are staying remote, and some are straddling the line with either mandatory or elected mixes of in-office and remote days. The result of not having a physical presence in the office full-time means missing out on the connections, influence, and visibility required to experience job satisfaction and to feel the commitment and belonging that drive intent to stay. 

In fact, our research identified a “belonging tax,” a widespread drop in the sense of belonging for employees in a hybrid work arrangement. Underrepresented group members are 1.6X more likely to have low belonging and disproportionately more likely to leave as a result. 

Moreover, the fragmenting needs and demands of underrepresented groups, women, parents, and others in the workforce and the ongoing widespread mental health concerns represent a broadening scope of new concerns for organizations and people leaders.  Geography and the work arrangement itself become another dimension of diversity. Employees also now demand space, support, and trust from their organizations. They want to work with a diverse, inclusive team where they can be their authentic selves.  

In addition, managers often now are the first line of support for mental health. 

In fact, 35% of organizations now rely on managers to communicate with their teams about mental health. In a recent Qualtrics survey, 50% of employees reported feeling comfortable reporting any potential mental health challenges to their manager.

The situation is dynamic. The dimensions to navigate are complex. 

A fresh take on inclusive leadership can help leaders at all levels build bridges between their people and the organization, especially as we enter a new era of hybrid work across the country. Managers are key to driving this change.

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Managers are the linchpin to fostering inclusion at the forefront of change

Communication, collaboration, and people guidance across this diverse hybrid workforce fall on the manager. Managers shape the employee experience. Now more than ever, they have a direct impact on employee satisfaction, productivity, and turnover. 

Managers who are open and inclusive are key to fostering a greater sense of belonging in the workforce. When managers are seen as inclusive, their team members report 3.4X higher job satisfaction, 2.7X higher commitment, and 1.9X higher engagement than average. Individuals with inclusive managers also report a 20% higher perception of support from their organizations. 

The predictive power of a manager's inclusive leadership on an employee feeling a sense of belonging has increased  26% since the start of the pandemic. 

Given remote work arrangements tend to be preferred by certain populations, such as working mothers relative to working fathers, not providing the right support for managers to develop new inclusive leadership skills could harm DEIB efforts, and the organization, for years to come. 

Managers both bear the responsibility and the opportunity to create inclusive teams in this new era.  To support their teams in this new world of work, managers need to re-learn how to lead and manage inclusively and effectively under these conditions. Yet managers tend to be under-supported — economically, emotionally, and in organizational resources — especially middle and frontline management

Organizational investment now needs to focus on helping people managers develop the skills to support the changing and unique needs of various employee populations in a hybrid environment. Organizations can no longer afford to treat inclusive leadership as a specialized skill. Inclusive leadership is an essential skill for every people manager.

The skills behind inclusive leadership in the new workplace

The good news is that inclusive leadership isn’t expected to come naturally to all people managers. With coaching and support, managers can adapt and improve key skills for promoting inclusion and leading effectively in hybrid work environments. Our research shows that while those skills are the same as they were pre-pandemic, their relative importance has changed. More importantly, how a manager deploys these skills might look different now.

What are the skills that support inclusive leadership in a hybrid environment?

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    • Encouraging participation. Inclusion is an invitation, extended day after day.  Encouraging participation is way more than calling on a quiet person in a meeting. It’s staying attuned to obstacles and creating a variety of avenues, from inviting a junior person to a relevant meeting to sharing a presentation for feedback to inviting people to collaborate to opening a slack channel for asynchronous brainstorming.
    • Alignment. Inclusion means having the information to do your best work. Inclusive leaders provide a clear vision but also proactively communicating about priorities and changes. It might mean having team members help develop relevant metrics or helping them see how their own work contributes to a larger objective and mission. The impact of a manager’s skill in creating Alignment on team members’ sense of belonging has increased by 76%.  
    • Social Connection. Interactions drive our sense of being included. Social connection means finding ways and making time, in the flow of work, to let team members see leaders and each other as whole people, not just adjoining parts of a process. The impact of a manager’s skill in Social Connection on team members’ sense of belonging has increased by 17%.
    • Empathy. Feeling understood and appreciated for where we’re coming from deepens our sense of belonging. Empathy starts with approaching others with curiosity and being open to the different experiences of others. Managers model empathy by asking questions and listening in a nonjudgmental way. The impact of a manager’s Empathy skills on team members’ sense of belonging increased by 16%.

Some managers quickly developed these skills with their remote teams when everyone was struggling to adapt to the lockdowns. As we move into a hybrid environment, managers have to readapt. Different work arrangements mean different access to information, communication channels, formal and informal relationship-building opportunities, networking, and social connection. The desire for hybrid work may also reflect that people are at different life stages with different stressors, demands, and even aspirations. Managers need to recognize each employee as a unique individual with changing needs over time.

Managers may be wondering:

    • How do I cultivate camaraderie and empathy when my teammates no longer share similar experiences?
    • What does participation and connection look like if some of my team are in the office and others are at home?
    • How do I maintain alignment on shifting priorities and work practices to protect against hybrid work creating a two-class system where workers in the office have more access, information, and opportunities for growth and advancement?

 

In a hybrid environment with heightened expectations from employees, managers need to be more deliberate in how they consider their impact on team members. They should also pay attention to the impact of team members on other team members. 

Most importantly, managers need to proactively touch base and provide space for tough conversations. This means leaving time during one-on-one meetings for personal conversations or emotional support. The time required to touch base with employees doesn’t compare to the effort required to replace an unhappy or overworked team member.

Managers also need to be thoughtful about equalizing expectations and hold all team members accountable for their objectives — regardless of where they work.

This means offering equivalent levels of growth opportunities and interactions whether team members are remote or working in person.

As companies continue to work from home, the role of the manager has grown considerably. They’re no longer just responsible for work and productivity — they’re also keeping company culture alive and serving as a lifeline to employees as they navigate the challenges of remote work. 

Angela McKenna, Senior Vice President of Talent Experience at Salesforce

All in all, managers should approach hybrid work as an experiment with lots of coaching, feedback, and forgiveness — for both their team members and themselves.

To lead the change, frontline managers need to be the change

As a people manager, it’s one thing to recognize the importance of inclusive leadership … it’s another to feel up to the task. 

While managers need organizational support in developing the skills to support their teams in this new world, they also need organizational support for developing the skills to support their own well-being. It’s hard to be open and inclusive when you’re not experiencing well-being yourself.  

Our data showed that the lowest point for well-being occurred in June 2020 and had stabilized by spring of 2021. 

Despite the rebound, the challenges from the pandemic are still reverberating for frontline managers. They’ve had a slower recovery of well-being relative to both individual contributors and higher-level managers. Many are experiencing burnout or languishing. They need help from their organizations more than ever before.

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Conclusion

As we move toward a post-pandemic world, inclusive leadership across the organization has never been more important. Why? Because a sense of belonging is critical for attracting and retaining talent as well as maximizing the potential of the workforce you have

What it means to lead inclusively is playing out against a backdrop that is fundamentally more complex. People managers are at the forefront of making hybrid work, work, in a more complex environment.

These managers need organizational support to play this key role in fostering well-being, sustaining performance, and cultivating belonging in your teams. For organizations, inclusive leadership is no longer a nice-to-have, it’s essential.

At BetterUp, we’re in a unique position to understand how our BetterUp Members are faring over time — from a leadership and performance perspective and in terms of their well-being and personal growth. In our latest research, Redefining Inclusive Leadership, we explore the unique differences, challenges, and needs of populations impacted by the pandemic, including those in leadership. 

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Published October 6, 2021

Maggie Wooll

Managing Editor

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