Managers often complain about hybrid employee procrastination resulting in missing deadlines and task delays, when compared to their in-office colleagues. Research by Microsoft, which surveyed 20,000 people and analyzed trillions of Microsoft 365 productivity signals, finds that 85% of leaders believe the shift to hybrid work has made it challenging to have confidence that employees are being productive.
Video: “How to Address Hybrid Work Procrastination”
Podcast: “How to Address Hybrid Work Procrastination”
As a result, many managers resent having to meet the desires of employees for flexibility in this tight labor market; as companies continue to make job cuts and employers gain greater leverage, they want to force employees back to the office.
Yet the story is more complex than it seems. Usually, it’s not the employee who’s at fault. The problems mainly stem from poor coordination, not procrastination.
And who is responsible for managing coordination? In the end, it’s the manager who needs to set up a coordination system that works for their needs.
Coordination in Office-Centric Work: Natural and Intuitive
Managers know well how to coordinate their teams in the office in a natural and intuitive way through management by walking around. Managers can quickly gain a sense of where each employee is on their various tasks by coming over and chatting briefly. Doing so helps managers address anxiety and provides confidence about task progress.
Likewise, such check-ins enable managers to assess whether the tasks of each employee are aligned with what other team members are doing. Managers can thus quickly address any potential misalignments.
Finally, it’s rare that plans survive contact with the enemy. Work priorities often change quickly, as top-level executives pass down new mandates to middle managers. Knowing where their in-office staff are on various tasks, managers can quickly decide how to reprioritize their activities. Then, they can walk over and communicate to their team members about these new priorities rapidly and effectively.
The Challenge of Coordinating in Hybrid Work
By contrast, managers receive absolutely no training in hybrid work. That’s despite the EY Work Reimagined Employer Survey finding that, according to 79% of employers, their company is actively promoting hybrid work to retain and attract talent.
Due to this lack of guidance and training, many pursue the same strategies they did before: management by walking around. But this approach works much less well in a hybrid workplace.
As a result, Microsoft research finds that many managers of such hybrid employees are missing the old visual cues of what it means to be productive; they can’t “see” who is hard at work by walking down the hall or past the conference room.
They also can’t easily align the tasks of their team members through quick in-person conversations. It’s difficult for traditionally-trained managers to create a cohesive team culture when employees are not physically present with each other.
What about changing priorities? Managers who manage by walking around can easily reach those hybrid employees who happen to be working in the office when priorities change. But they find it much harder to reprioritize the tasks of those who are working remotely.
According to the Microsoft researchers assessing hybrid work, 81% of employees say it’s important that their managers help them prioritize their workload, but less than a third (31%) say their managers have ever given clear guidance during one-on-ones. And a survey by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) of more than 800 supervisors shows that 42% said they sometimes forget about subordinates working remotely when assigning tasks.
As a result of this poor coordination, managers experience the situation as hybrid workers “procrastinating”: meaning they don’t do the tasks that managers want by the time when the managers want it. Yet the responsibility for coordination lies on managers, not employees. Given that, it’s critical for managers to learn the intentional and deliberate skills, systems, and processes associated with coordination in hybrid teams.
Unfortunately, in my experience helping companies figure out hybrid work arrangements, many managers feel reluctant to learn this information and gain such capacities. They fall into the cognitive bias known as functional fixedness. Once the mind learns how to perform a function successfully, such as managing people, this function becomes mentally fixed and difficult to change. Thus, when shifting circumstances render old ways of doing things obsolete, the mind still tries to apply old functions to new contexts, and managers shoehorn office-centric methods of management into hybrid work.
Solving Coordination Problems in Hybrid Work: Intentional and Deliberate
So what should managers do instead, once they do accept – often reluctantly – that old ways won’t work?
One important component of any solution involves a collaborative project management tool to track employee progress on any task, and a clear and consistent system for all team members to use this tool. Each employee should start their day by using this tool to update their progress on each of their tasks, which allows the manager – and fellow team members – to check easily on everyone’s current task status. Doing so replicates, to a significant extent, a manager’s ability to walk up to someone and assess their current task progress. It helps managers gain confidence and reduce anxiety about timely completion. And it empowers managers to ensure alignment, including revising any misaligned tasks.
Setting guidelines and expectations for communication represents another key component of solving the coordination problem. I lost count of the complaints I get from managers about lack of timely communication from hybrid employees. Yet when I ask whether the manager set clear and reasonable expectations in coordination with their team members, I usually hear crickets. A reasonable expectation must account for flexibility – the main benefit of hybrid work. Some people are morning birds and like starting work at 5 AM; others are night owls and wake up a minute before starting their remote work days. To account for both, set accommodating common hours when staff should respond quickly.
For example, set an expectation that from 11 AM to 3 PM, everyone will check for messages in their email and project management software every 30 minutes. If they can’t address a message immediately, they should at least respond with a confirmation and a time by which they’ll respond more fully. Such communication expectations help facilitate quick and easy collaboration and realignment, keeping teams on the same page and reprioritizing quickly as needed, even on projects with tight deadlines.
Finally, managers need to set up regular one-on-one meetings every week with each team member to assess performance and align priorities. Each week, before the scheduled one-on-one meeting, the employee would send a brief report outlining their progress on their tasks for the week, any issues encountered and how they addressed them, along with a self-evaluation. During the one-on-one meeting, the manager and the employee review the report and determine tasks for the coming week, in alignment with existing or revised priorities. The manager also provides coaching on the employee’s problem-solving and reviews and possibly adjusts the self-evaluation, which gets recorded in a continuous performance evaluation system.
Manager perceptions of hybrid employee procrastination comes from coordination problems, which are the responsibility of the manager to fix. Management by walking around is not going to cut it for any manager who wants to be successful in our increasingly hybrid world. They need to learn the skills of managing an increasingly-hybrid workforce. These skills involve deliberate and intentional coordination using tools like project management collaboration software, setting clear and reasonable expectations for communication, and regular one-on-one meetings with team members.
Image credit: Dave Morris/Flickr
Bio: Dr. Gleb Tsipursky helps leaders use hybrid work to improve retention and productivity while cutting costs. He serves as the CEO of the boutique future-of-work consultancy Disaster Avoidance Experts. He is the best-selling author of 7 books, including the global best-sellers Never Go With Your Gut: How Pioneering Leaders Make the Best Decisions and Avoid Business Disasters and The Blindspots Between Us: How to Overcome Unconscious Cognitive Bias and Build Better Relationships. His newest book is Leading Hybrid and Remote Teams: A Manual on Benchmarking to Best Practices for Competitive Advantage. His cutting-edge thought leadership was featured in over 650 articles and 550 interviews in Harvard Business Review, Forbes, Inc. Magazine, USA Today, CBS News, Fox News, Time, Business Insider, Fortune, and elsewhere. His writing was translated into Chinese, Korean, German, Russian, Polish, Spanish, French, and other languages. His expertise comes from over 20 years of consulting, coaching, and speaking and training for Fortune 500 companies from Aflac to Xerox, and over 15 years in academia as a behavioral scientist at UNC-Chapel Hill and Ohio State. A proud Ukrainian American, Dr. Gleb lives in Columbus, Ohio.