11 minute read 1 Oct 2021
Young employees in office

How to be a high-performing leader in a hybrid workplace

By Vicky Marsh

Associate Partner, People Advisory Services, Ernst & Young LLP

Enthusiastic leader who enjoys coaching senior business leaders, social entrepreneurs and junior football teams. Passionate about translating lessons from sports into the business world.

11 minute read 1 Oct 2021
Related topics COVID-19 Workforce

Leaders need to adapt their behaviours to excel in our new hybrid working world.

In brief

  • Our new normal has arrived: hybrid working is here to stay. To thrive, leaders must learn how to adapt and lead their hybrid teams in this new working world.
  • In a hybrid workplace, leaders need to act with equity, lead with empathy, revive informal social learning, build networks, and use hybrid communication.

With the return to the office imminent or for some already started, there are many questions on how businesses will operate moving forward and the challenges this will bring to leaders. The EY Work Reimagined survey, of over 16,000 employees, across 23 sectors and 13 countries paints a clear picture that the reimagined working world is a hybrid one. With 90% of employees wanting flexible working options and 54% considering leaving their current employment if they don’t retain flexible working options, the ability to lead in a hybrid workplace is crucial to survive and thrive beyond COVID-19.1

A study of 3,500 leaders and managers across the UK, found that almost three quarters believed that leadership was lacking throughout the pandemic.
ILM and City & Guilds Group Survey

The COVID-19 pandemic brought fast-paced change to the world of work. Overnight, many switched from being co-located in an office to either hybrid or fully remote.2 The pandemic also accelerated and amplified the need for longstanding leadership and management challenges to be tackled, such as digital transformation, managing remotely, leading through rapid change, fear and uncertainty. However, many leaders have struggled to keep up with challenges left in the wake of the pandemic. 

For example, a study of 3,500 leaders and managers across the UK, found that almost three quarters believed that leadership was lacking throughout the pandemic.3 Specific areas that leaders struggled with were empowering and motivating teams, problem-solving, empathy and emotional intelligence.3 Moreover, the World Economic Forum points to an urgent need for leadership upskilling in digital fluency and change management to remain competitive and agile in this new hybrid working context.

How to effectively lead a hybrid team

The hybrid working world presents leaders with many challenges. It is time to shift from leading in crisis mode and assess what leadership tactics worked well throughout the pandemic. Doing so will enable leaders to develop a more accurate picture of how to effectively lead a hybrid team now and in the future.

Findings from a manager skills survey of 1000 employees5 showed that to be successful and overcome the challenges that the new hybrid workplace presents, those in leadership roles must dial-up their soft skills to maximise their performance and that of their hybrid team. Specifically, the survey found that employees believed their line managers and organisation have struggled to provide adequate support during the pandemic suitable for a hybrid workplace.5

Following an extensive literature review, we explore five insights into hybrid leadership and provide practical tips on how leaders can: lead their hybrid team with empathy, compassion and care, act with flexible working in mind, revive informal and formal learning, hyperfocus on network building, and use hybrid communication to create a working world that enables people to succeed. 

(Chapter breaker)

Chapter 1

Lead hybrid teams with empathy, compassion and care

As we emerge from the pandemic, to effectively lead a hybrid team, leaders will need to actively support their employees’ well-being.

Before the pandemic, there was a paradigm shift towards a more humanistic model of leadership. This encouraged compassion and the need for increased concern towards the well-being of the individuals one leads.6 The pandemic has accelerated this focus on empathy and compassion as employee well-being has taken a significant hit since the onset of the pandemic. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) has reported that well-being rates plummeted during the first lockdown and continued to do so with each subsequent lockdown.

Furthermore, the pandemic significantly increased the risks that people were facing, shifting many suffering from acute stress to chronic stress. The pandemic brought on reduced access to mental health support, social isolation, and sustained fear and uncertainty, which only served to multiply well-being and mental health challenges. Additionally, the experience of chronic stress is the strongest predictive factor of employee burnout.

A survey of 2,000 employees found that


of employees want their managers to engage in an honest and personal conversation about their mental health.

The pandemic has caused clinical professionals to theorise over a new disorder, Post Pandemic Stress disorder (PPSD).8 Although currently not in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health (a standardised and centralised diagnostic tool used by mental health professionals), PPSD like other stress-related disorders can result in people showing trauma reactions. This can happen in the months and years after being exposed to stressful or traumatic events caused by the pandemic.As we shift to a hybrid workplace, employee well-being can no longer be seen as an issue that is centralised to just HR. Leaders must play an active role in supporting their hybrid teams to ease into a post-pandemic world and push employee well-being to the top of the agenda. Thus, leading with empathy, compassion and genuine care for the well-being of hybrid team people is pivotal.

  • Key takeaway for managers

    Plan a virtual coffee call to check in on each of your hybrid team member’s well-being as a first step. Research shows that 57% of employees value direct calls from managers as a form of a mental health check-in, and 41% want their managers to engage in an honest and personal conversation about their mental health.10 Calls such as these also provide you with the opportunity to show some vulnerability as a manager. Through discussing personal stories, shared experiences and challenges, your reports see you as more relatable and compassionate to the challenges they have faced whilst adapting to a hybrid workplace.

  • Key takeaway for senior leaders

    Look at your people as individuals and deliver hyper-care throughout this transition. Use this hybrid workplace to be a visual advocate of well-being and demonstrate how it links to your organisation’s ethos by doing things such as promoting and making use of mental health days and other services such as employee assistance programmes. Research shows that almost half of employees do not know all the well-being and mental health support that their organisation provides.11 Advocating for well-being and aligning it to the core of your organisation enables those around to visualise how it plays a crucial role in achieving your mission and purpose. Doing so also makes it easier for a positive culture to thrive.

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Chapter 2

Act with flexibility and equity in a hybrid workplace

Leaders will need to reduce biases and promote fairness for a balanced hybrid workplace dynamic.

Leading a hybrid team will bring many challenges and leaders need to ensure that their people, regardless of if they are co-located or working remotely, have the support and access to resources that will enable them to perform their best.12 Before the pandemic, there was a stigma around flexible and remote working. Many were concerned about the impact that visibility can have, with career opportunities being disproportionally given to those who were co-located with leaders and those in senior roles (proximity bias). Leading a hybrid team in today’s working world will mean having to dispel these fears and biases, and ensure that these processes are fair to all, irrespective of their location to ensure a balanced work dynamic.13,14

  • Key takeaway for managers

    Interrogate your biases when decision-making. Visibility does not equate to productivity or high performance. For example, take the time to assess people on their skills, and delivery of goals and interests, as opposed to relying on a biased opinion that is generated from the informal networking that happens when people are co-located.

  • Key takeaway for senior leaders

    Use a data-driven approach to create a hybrid workplace road map (an actionable plan of how deal with and thrive through the challenges a hybrid working model presents) tailored to your organisation. When in doubt or if the information is not there, seek out support from experts to ensure your road map considers and supports people from all demographics. By incorporating the unique ideas (data) from your people and getting advice on best practices in a hybrid workplace, you can create a road map that is tailored to the needs of your organisation and can be embedded and adopted into your culture.

(Chapter breaker)

Chapter 3

Revive informal and social learning and upskilling in a hybrid workplace

Leaders will need to support their hybrid teams’ learning, and empower them to leverage their new skills.

With the loss of face-to-face contact, informal and social learning between colleagues has diminished. Studies have shown that despite this fall in informal and social learning, there is an appetite to learn and gain skills and knowledge essential for career development.15, 16 For example, a LinkedIn Learning report found that generation Z and millennials are dedicating 50% more time to learn independently and that the opportunity to be upskilled plays a key factor in turnover intentions, retaining talent pools and capturing fresh talent.17 

As we continue to use hybrid work models, leaders must dedicate time to help their hybrid teams learn and grow, but also to empower them to leverage their new skill set.

  • Key takeaway for managers

    Proactively enable opportunities for learning in day-to-day tasks and protect focused learning time. This can be done by integrating learning into the flow of work. For example, involving people in calls where decisions are made for projects they are working on, as opposed to only involving them when their input is required. Speak with employees about what their goals are and help them craft their role and the tasks they get involved in to be beneficial to their development and organisation’s mission.

  • Key takeaway for senior leaders

    Foster an organisational culture that creates an outstanding learning experience. A manager skills survey survey5 found that one-third of employees did not receive any training to help with their career progression in a hybrid workplace. Moreover, one-fifth of respondents did not find the current training they receive suitable for progression and development in hybrid working world. Formal and informal learning and training must be appropriate for a hybrid workplace. Research suggests that a flexible blended learning approach that can be accessed on-demand or as self-service will be paramount to delivering world class learning experiences for your people.

(Chapter breaker)

Chapter 4

Hybrid workplaces require a hyperfocus on network building

Leaders will need rebuild old networks to make them fit for a hybrid workplace.

The pandemic thrust us into a survival mode, many found themselves working harder and longer days dedicated to delivering KPIs. This meant that anything which did not support the achievement of KPIs was quickly put on the back burner. Virtual social coffee calls quickly lost their novelty, resulting in many professional networks fading. The hybrid workplace presents challenges for new starters (who have joined during the pandemic) with less access to senior individuals within the business. They will need additional support to build connections across the business. As we shift to a hybrid work model, managers and leaders will have to ensure that networks are built with a hybrid model in mind so that teams or individuals aren’t siloed from the rest of the organisation.

  • Key takeaway for managers

    Leverage your networks for your reports. Take the time to ensure that your people are connected with individuals that will be able to support them in their development, and delivering projects. Not only does this provide an opportunity for you to reconnect with your peers but also helps to strengthen your team.

  • Key takeaway for senior leaders

    Adopt and embrace a hybrid work model to welcome the opportunity of a new chapter within your organisation and for everyone to reconnect. You can get your people excited about hybrid working, by hosting hybrid engagement events. The past year has seen the development of great tools for creating hybrid experiential activities aimed at bringing employees together.

(Chapter breaker)

Chapter 5

Use hybrid communication

Leaders will need to establish new communication norms for today’s hybrid workplace.

Effective communication is a challenge that remote working has only exacerbated.18 Almost half of the respondents to a manager skills survey5 believe communication is an essential skill for their line managers, especially as offices reopen. However, hybrid working carries the communication challenges of working remotely and face-to-face. Leaders must shift their communication strategies to embrace a hybrid workplace. Being a great hybrid communicator requires you to clearly and intentionally establish new norms for you and those you interact with.

An essential tool for communicating in a hybrid working world, requires the balance of synchronous and asynchronous communication. Synchronous communication is the real-time communication method that was dominant pre-COVID-19. It is effective for dynamic interactions, active engagement, and fast-paced decision-making. However, the expectation of frequent synchronous communication can disrupt one’s deep work hours. An example of this is the mass virtual call fatigue phenomenon, which was felt throughout the first months of the pandemic.19

Using asynchronous communication, communicating not in real time but flexible to the availability of the receiver, is fundamental to phenomenal communication. It enables everyone to contribute, regardless of whether they are co-located or remote, and the opportunity for hybrid teams to collaborate without being constrained by someone's availability. In contrast asynchronous communication can delay decision-making. Therefore, to have world-class hybrid communication, leaders and managers must establish what needs to be done in real time (synchronously) such as decision-making, and what can be done more flexibly (asynchronously) such as projects that require individual outputs and thinking.

Another beneficial communication tool for a hybrid workplace is using bite-sized information. Effective communicators understand that reducing any information to its key messages is critical to performance and fast-paced delivery.20 In a hybrid workplace where teams are dispersed with less visibility and synchronous communication opportunities, it is essential people leave their interactions with all the information they need and clear actionable tasks. 

Communication should also be aligned to your employee value propositions. The sudden shift to working from home has the potential to make people feel detached from your culture and employer brand. As you shift to a more stable hybrid working model, leaders should use this as an opportunity to reignite employee experience. This can be achieved through reiterating your unique employee value proposition and how it benefits your people.

  • Key takeaway for managers

    Cocreate a communication charter with your team. It is imperative that your people are involved in shaping how the team communicates; for instance, deciding what times or decisions require everyone to come together.

  • Key takeaway for senior leaders

    Ensure an organisation-wide culture of exceptional communication and role model hybrid communication. For example, schedule remote or in-person office hours that give people the opportunity to ask questions or express concerns. Branch out of your comfort zone and start using more asynchronous communication tools. Ask yourself: when was the last time I posted on your company’s chat and how can I leverage this communication channel to boost employee experience?


The pandemic has highlighted that to thrive now, and in the future, leaders must adapt to unprecedented changes in the modern working world. The hybrid workplace model means leaders can leave behind existing bad practices and herald new best practice hybrid habits. Leaders need to stop anticipating what the new normal is; we are here. It is time to utilise our learnings from the pandemic to navigate this new hybrid working world. Leaders should embrace leading a hybrid team, seek to empower and engage their employees and ensure that their organisation advances successfully into a post-pandemic world.

About this article

By Vicky Marsh

Associate Partner, People Advisory Services, Ernst & Young LLP

Enthusiastic leader who enjoys coaching senior business leaders, social entrepreneurs and junior football teams. Passionate about translating lessons from sports into the business world.

Related topics COVID-19 Workforce