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Dave Ulrich on Managing Hybrid Work Teams: 6 Tips for “Management by Checking In”

dave ulrich on managing hybrid workers
Chuck Leddy
Published on

Hybrid work has brought challenges and opportunities. Employees have struggled to separate their home lives from their work lives at a time of Zoom fatigue and widespread employee burnout. Historically-high numbers of employees have left their jobs, often seeking more work flexibility and a better employee experience.

Both managers and their employees often report feeling disconnected from each other and from colleagues. Dave Ulrich, the renowned HR thought leader and author, explains that “the best managers have always instinctively checked in and stayed connected with their employees,” no matter the obstacles. 

With more managers and employees working from home, pre-pandemic relationship-building in the office has become more difficult. “With remote and/or hybrid work,” says Ulrich, “managers do not physically and casually bump into employees” as much, which inhibits the informal relationship-building managers did before.    

Without the ability to walk around and interact with employees face-to-face, many “remote” managers (especially at the beginning of the pandemic) were anxious that employees might be at home doing laundry rather than doing “real” work. But the evidence is in: employee productivity has not dropped over the last two years, despite management anxiety. In fact, according to a study from Stanford University, employees are actually more productive when they can utilize hybrid or remote work. 

Management Styles: Wander Arounds Evolve to Check-Ins  

Ulrich believes that managers need to change how they connect with their teams, just as employees have changed how and where they work. Forty years ago, says Ulrich, management gurus “Tom Peters and Bob Waterman popularized the concept of ‘management by wandering around’ (MBWA) where leaders build relationships through casual conversations throughout a workday.” Ulrich notes that MBWA can still function when employees are in the office, but another managerial approach is needed for hybrid/remote work settings.

Ulrich suggests “management by checking in” (MBCI), an approach that he says allows managers “to enhance informal relationships with employees” through digital channels like Zoom and Slack. MBCI is not a standardized practice, notes Ulrich, but is instead a managerial mindset that prioritizes relationship-building in hybrid work settings.

6 Ways to Practice Management by Checking In

To implement MBCI, Ulrich suggests managers of hybrid teams consider taking some/all of the following 6 actions:

1. “Schedule short, 10–12 minute, weekly videos or phone calls with employees that prohibit any discussion about work and simply explore how employees are doing.” If an employee is feeling burned out, managers can identify the problems and discuss what to do before the employee resigns.

2. “Be transparent in virtual settings by sharing personal stories or experiences, both good and bad, to model connection.” Ulrich believes in creating safe spaces for managers and employees to honestly share difficulties and celebrate successes.

3. “Ensure that positive or upbeat comments are part of technology-enabled connections, such as posts and calls.” Setting a positive tone via digital channels is as important for managers in hybrid work settings as it is for in-office settings.

4. “Express gratitude in every communication.” Ulrich believes managers need to share what employees are doing well, not just criticize. 

5. “Start meetings with a ‘good news’ moment by sharing personal positive experiences.” Again, setting a positive tone from the outset of a meeting can improve two-way communication and strengthen relationships with employees.

6. “Pay attention to the setting where employees work. Ask how their kids or parents are doing,” says Ulrich, “because caring, showing compassion, and being curious foster collaboration and connection.” Managers need to see employees as having multiple dimensions that go beyond work. Employee experience is enhanced when managers recognize that workers are, in fact, human beings.

Manager Check-Ins Improves the Employee Experience

The payoffs for practicing MBCI are clear: stronger working relationships, enhanced employee productivity, as well as more open and honest conversations that address not just work issues, but also “work-life” issues. As Ulrich summarizes it: “even in a digitally distanced and virtual world [of hybrid work], building informal connections with MBCI can improve the overall employee experience.” 

To read more about Dave Ulrich’s views on MBCI, read his LinkedIn post on the topic. 

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