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Driving Performance and Leadership in a Hybrid Workplace

Network Leader
June 22, 2023
minute read

Hybrid work isn’t special (anymore). To get from yesterday’s development to tomorrow’s, programs must organize the new “office” in a way that allows employees to connect, produce, and grow — intentionally.

Network Leader’s recent webinar with Michael Arena, “The Intentionality Factor,” focused on how companies migrating to the next generation of leaders must think and act differently.

Find highlights from the session below, and revisit the recording which includes a full transcript at any time.

Workplaces have changed

A world closed-off, and a subsequent shift to remote and hybrid workplaces, left networks more lean than ever. Simply fewer people were reaching across, and outside of, teams to connect with each other.

Now, collaboration isn’t all that interesting — it’s essential to leaders. The last three years of research on networks is incredibly dynamic, suggesting that our ability to sustain lasting connections to our closest peers was strongest in the early days of COVID, in a virtual setting. Yet in that same period, open networks (beyond the core team) dissipated by 30-40%.

This recent gap begs a few questions:

  • Can we still innovate?
  • Can we maintain our culture?
  • Can we maintain our corporate velocity?

Intentional collaboration

If companies can’t give employees an intentional space to collaborate, then they risk burnout or, worse, turnover. Research shows that collaboration between formal (scheduled meetings, calls) and informal (incidental) connections suffers because 30% of people never work in-office. This puts a hefty price tag on intentionality: scheduling collaboration, ensuring deep engagement, and putting people in places where cross-innovation happens organically.

The granularity of connections

While companies want more granular connections, employees want more flexibility. The optimal marriage of the two occurs in a company’s policies and practices that allow for organic innovation, inclusivity, performance, and collaboration. This is subjective, yet usually is set at the team or department level.

Organizations that deploy these policies, research indicates, experience improved relationships across management alongside a 30% increase in deeper connections when employees rely on planned, rather than serendipitous, encounters.

Act locally

“Think small” is the mantra for building stronger connections within and across teams. Here specificity rules, since companies typically face pushback when declaring something universally across the enterprise. That’s because networks operate “locally,” whether geographically or operationally. Some have proximity advantages, while some have new project requirements. Ultimately, these different modes of operation, when teams are operating in a “heads up” fashion, mean collaboration is critical.

At some point, the team might shift to a “heads down” mode in which individuals shift their focus to specific deliverables. After this happens, bridging both lateral and hierarchical connections becomes vital to the team’s overall success. The key, then, is recruiting direct and indirect influencers who can breathe new life into the initiative.

Networks of the past, and in the future

Most leaders’ networks focus more on their past than their future, and it makes sense. That network got them to where they are. Yet this hyper-focus on the social and cultural mechanisms of late can be a stifling double-edged sword, keeping a leader locked in place.

Just look at today’s juggernaut that is AI. If leaders aren’t actively steering teams to navigate the new waters of AI, and how it can impact their performance, they’re missing the whole boat. AI is evolving at break-neck speed, and it requires leaders to bridge new connections and bring new knowledge home to their teams.

Personal vs. team networks

Rather ironically, most leaders lack awareness of and intention behind personal versus professional development, which makes it particularly challenging to leverage anyone’s network for the benefit of the team. Networks are inherently dynamic and leaders need to realize (and act upon) the constant shifts relating to personal versus professional needs.

Transitions and fast movers

When a leader enters a new network, it usually takes two to three years to get from the outside to that optimal point of collaboration and influence. Underlying culture often dictates the speed to achieve that influence.

Approximately 8-10% of leaders make up the “fast movers” — those who can acclimate to a network in as little as nine months. Fast movers reach this point when they become so valuable, they’re automatically pulled in by the rest of the network. The onus, then, is on fast movers to become indispensable and fulfill their magnetic role at the network’s center.

Becoming too comfortable

Not every leader’s network is dynamic, and when that’s the case disruption is necessary. After all, creativity is born out of necessity.

Imagine this anecdote: There once was a sculptor who began producing fundamentally similar (and arguably uninteresting) pieces. Agitated and seeking reinvention, the sculptor emptied his entire studio, painted it white, melted every metal scrap, and rebuilt the studio.

Leaders, like the sculptor, can never be too comfortable. Constant evaluation and shifting from open and closed networks are essential to prolonged growth.

About Michael Arena

Michael Arena is the Chief Science Officer and co-founder of the Connected Commons, a research consortium that brings together business and academic thought leaders to develop and apply organizational network solutions. He is also a faculty member in Penn’s Masters in Organizational Dynamics program.

Most recently, Arena served as the Vice President of Talent and Development at Amazon Web Services (AWS), where he leveraged network analysis to enable employee growth, organizational culture, and innovation. Prior to joining Amazon, Arena was the Chief Talent Officer for General Motors Corporation, where he was responsible for enterprise talent management, cultural transformation, leadership development, talent acquisition, and people analytics.

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