The unintended consequences of hybrid working

As we move towards more hybrid working Rob Cross warns of the possible ramifications for managing talent.

When I first met my wife she was a smoker, a habit she long ago gave up. We worked for the same company but in different teams. In our usual conversations I was constantly surprised by what she knew in terms of the gossip in the business and how frequently she would get picked for new opportunities.

Don’t get me wrong, she was and still is very talented and great at her job, but that opportunity with the senior leaders standing often in the cold outside the office was how they got to know her, and due to our dependency on the recency effect she was often more front of mind than others when opportunities arose. 

As we move toward more hybrid working with a greater mix of people working remotely more frequently, there is a risk of unintended consequences in terms of how we define and manage talent. And this risk is driven by two key factors: relationship decay, and recency effect.

What is relationship decay and how does it happen?

When I was a graduate junior officer in the Air Force, I got a call out of the blue from an air commodore asking if I was interested in joining him on a project. How did he get my number? He’d sat next to an early mentor of mine at a conference and they got talking about a major restructure project he’d been asked to lead, and on which he was looking for a junior officer to help him.

The random ‘bump into’ moment at the coffee machine is now less likely, and so relationships will decay

It was completely by chance that they sat together, and by chance that they had the opportunity to discuss the project that led to my name being put forward.

In the new hybrid working where there are fewer opportunities for such informal interactions, we have to work harder at connecting with others. The random ‘bump into’ moment at the coffee machine is now less likely, and so relationships will decay. It doesn’t mean that people and colleagues think less of each other, it just means that we won’t be as front of mind any more. 

The recency effect

The number one trap executives fall into when running talent reviews is the recency effect. ‘They were great on that last project’, is a term heard more times than it should.

In this context in our new hybrid world, the office-based workers will become the new smokers, viewed as ‘talent’ because they are the ones getting seen. It doesn’t mean that those working at home are any less talented, it just means that they are less front of mind.

New ‘in-groups’ and ‘out-groups’ will be created, establishing and reinforcing unconscious biases about who is talented and who is not.


So what steps can leaders take to ensure they give all talent a fair and equal playing field? 

Here are three recommended steps to managing talent in a hybrid working environment:

  1. Be clear on the identity, purpose and strategy for the business. This includes knowing how the customer and employee experience is aligned, how the business contributes positively in society and what the expectations are for people. Against this it is important to then be clear on understanding the type of skills, capabilities and aptitudes you need today and into the future.
  2. Be clear on how you define talent. Too often leaders rely on the ‘good’ test. ‘Yeah they’re good’, they say when justifying their belief that someone is talented. Within this simple statement of ‘good’ there are often a lot of assumptions and unconscious biases. When discussing talent, use the following talent equation: Talent = Intellect + Capability + Potential + Ambition. Through this definition we recognise that we all have ‘talent’ by giving a more rounded picture of individuals and teams, ensuring that our approach is fully inclusive.
  3. Dig deep to identify talent.  Ensure your review is comprehensive when trying to identify who would be best suited to opportunities. 

As hybrid working becomes more the norm rather than the exception, it is critical to find ways to stimulate those more informal interactions. It is these interactions, much like the smokers of old, that flatten the hierarchy and create connections between human beings. 


About the author

Rob Cross is the founder and CEO of Muru Leadership and the author of The Great Man is Dead.




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