The Neuroscience Of Successful Hybrid Leadership

David Rock

6m read

April 20

After a year of uncertainty and massive changes in when, where, and how we work, this is a once-in-a-century opportunity to build a better normal. With 23 years of research and experience at the Neuroleadership Institute, we are now looking at the data and science behind successful leadership in a hybrid work environment. We believe in following the science and data to make decisions for workplaces and workforces, and after a year of hybrid work, we have significant findings as to how leadership can be successful. 

Solve for autonomy, manage for fairness
Employee surveys and data overwhelmingly show that most employees – 72% – are embracing and prefer a hybrid or completely remote work environment. Our survey of approximately 9k people around the globe in Q4 2020 said 17% wanted fully in-office, and 20% fully remote — most want flexibility.  Of those currently working fully remote, only 6% wanted to go back to full-time in the office.

People have very strong feelings about returning to work, and there is a notable gap between the positive response (low positive) for being given choice and the negative response (large negative) for being forced into a work schema that is not an employee’s choice. Ultimately, employees will vote with their feet if they feel that their choice is not respected by their employer.

As we look towards office reopening, most teams are facing the decision of what that workspace looks like. How do you solve the problem of how to reopen offices – or if you should go completely remote? We recommend using data to help inform these decisions.

We are also having to distinguish between myths and data-driven realities of hybrid environments. Some of the most common myths compared to reality to keep in mind (according to research from Gartner) include:

Myth: Employees are less productive outside the office
Reality: Remote workers often go above and beyond, and average 20% higher performance

Myth: We need to monitor and measure what employees are doing
Reality: Employees thrive with high autonomy

Myth: We need in-person contact to sustain our culture
Reality: Culture is about behaviors, not locations

Decades of research show that giving people a sense of control in a difficult situation is one of the best ways of making an overwhelming experience more manageable. In neuroscience terms, this is about increasing people’s sense of autonomy. Experiencing an increase in autonomy is deeply rewarding in the brain. 

Finding the optimal combination of remote and on-site work will vary from company to company, job to job, and person to person. Allowing employees the freedom to decide for themselves increases motivation and is intrinsically rewarding. Wide consultation with your employees is essential for increasing autonomy and fairness. One of the best ways to do this is to have general principles for different functions, and then let teams work out how to execute these. For example, perhaps the finance function needs 50% of the team always in the office, but the team can decide how best to wrangle this across their group.

Finding the sweet spot that allows for maximum employee autonomy while meeting company goals is the best long-term solution for both employees and employers. In fact, I believe that giving people more control over their lives is one of the best things that companies can give their employees after the past year.

There are three ways you can think about giving people increased autonomy. Where they work, when they work, as well as how many hours they work synchronously with their teams. The more flexible you can be with these issues, the more likely people will be intrinsically motivated.

Three Cognitive Challenges for Leaders
Overall, leaders have a different view of organizations and policies, and that extends to their viewpoints about hybrid work environments. We have identified three key areas that need to be addressed in order for leadership teams and individuals to increase their comfort with the new hybrid work reality.

Power and perception: Leaders, like anyone who experiences a sense of greater power in any situation, process the world differently in three ways. Their brain tend to conceptualize people, instead of focusing on individual needs. They also downplay risk, and focus more on overarching strategies and big picture planning. The result can be leaders misreading people’s needs, and not thinking deeply enough about designing the right work practices. Wide and deep consultation with employees can help offset this. 

Eliminate bias: four of the five main types of bias – Expedience, Experience, Distance, and Safety – are likely to affect decision making about hybrid work environments.  Leaders will naturally do things that feel right (“bring everyone back in”) that follows their own experience, and reduces risk, instead of assessing the situation from all angles, and digging into the data. Getting multiple diverse perspectives can help reduce these biases. 

Threats of letting go: as individual employees autonomy increases, a manager may experience a perceived loss of status, certainty and their own autonomy. In particular, rising employee autonomy can make managers feel like they are losing control. While it can be tempting to try to monitor employees activities more closely, and some firms have gone this way, we think this kind fo micromanagement will have big downsides. Instead, use this opportunity to get even clearer about objectives, and what great performance looks like, and free people up to achieve their goals more flexibly. 

Addressing these challenges will help create an engaged and informed leadership team that is fully equipped to embrace a hybrid workforce, and make the most optimal decisions for their organization. 

Unexpected Upsides to Build On
While we tend to focus on the things that we will miss as we shift to a hybrid environment, there are lots of upsides that make this decision the correct one for businesses.

More diverse hiring: with flexibility in location, you can hire the best person for the role, not just the best person who lives within an hour radius of a facility.

More inclusive practices: Autonomy allows for more diverse people to be in our workforce, and practices that are incorporated into collaborative work, like polls and virtual meetings, allow for more voices to be heard.

Less biased decision making: extroverts tend to have an innate advantage in in-person meetings. Virtual meeting technology and practices can enable more peoples voices to be heard.

Greater innovation: while you do lose the “water cooler” type interactions, what you gain with a hybrid environment is much greater, especially if you maintain a focus on meetings being virtual so that they can be iterative and with the right people involved. Also research shows that 10% of people do their best thinking at work, and the ‘sleep on it’ effect is real. Good hybrid work practices should increase the flow of insights people have during the week, which are the source of innovation

More effective learning: Our research shows that shifting from a 3-hour workshop to 3 x 1 hr virtual sessions over three weeks can result in up to a seven times increase in the way people apply the learning. Learning that can be done online, when designed right, is faster, more scalable, cheaper, and significantly more effective at building sustained habits. 

Increased employee well-being: while this year has been incredibly weird and stressful, the data has shown that people are actually more well than they were before.

Building on these three key concepts and the research that we have shown will allow organizations to create the workplace of the future, and empower employees to choose how to work best for themselves.